Breast Cancer: A Triathlete's Toughest Battle

A mother and seven-time All-American triathlete shares how her faith gave her the strength to keep competing, even as she underwent treatment for breast cancer.

Posted in , May 18, 2016

Just Three Words author Karen Newman

EDITOR’S NOTE: At age 46 tri-athlete Karen Newman of Team USA was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. Against all odds, she conquered a long-time eating disorder, underwent chemotherapy, and continued competing in triathlons across the country. In her book, Just Three Words, she tells her tale of hope and inspiration. In this excerpt, Newman competes in Vancouver, Canada,  just four days after a treatment.

When the doctors advised me against racing at the 2008 Triathlon Age Group World Championships in Vancouver, BC, my stubborn streak was ignited. The warrior inside me just couldn’t be contained. And as the weeks passed, my will to compete only heightened as my body began to break down. Everything was riding on it. I’d promised my boys I would do this, and I innately sensed it would be a metaphor for my life: if I could finish this race, I could beat cancer too.

Race day was upon us, and it was freezing. We walked down to the lobby and were delighted to see red, white, and blue fill the lobby as Team USA athletes gathered to begin the trek to transition and ultimately the start of the race. When we stepped out of the team hotel, we were immersed in a sea of athletes from all over the world. I could immediately feel the electricity in the air. It was exciting and intimidating all in the same breath. When we made our way to the start of the race, I was happy that I had made it this far.


As we stood on the shore suited in our wetsuits, caps, and goggles, looking out at the buoys that seemed so far away, the wind picked up and with it, the waves. My teeth began to chatter as we waited; the cold had set in to my very bones. I couldn’t wait to get going before another round of nausea kicked in, or I froze to death on the sidelines. I could see my breath floating and curling away. Already I couldn’t feel my hands. I rubbed myself, jumped up and down, and couldn’t believe that I was about to willingly dive into bitter cold water.

Three, two, one, and the horn blew. I ran, dove in, and was completely shocked by the cold. My lungs seized up as I nearly hydroplaned across the water, scrambling to keep as much of my body out of it as possible. Karen, you had better swim as fast as you can or you will freeze to death. Within seconds, my arms could barely move, but somehow I forced my frozen shoulders around and around. It was sheer will and determination that kept me moving....

Transition was a disaster. As I stumbled on frozen toes toward my bike, I attempted to unzip my wetsuit, but my fingers would not cooperate. I could not feel them, could not make them do the tasks that required fine motor skills: unzipping, pulling on shoes, clipping a helmet. My frustration level rose as I watched competitor after competitor leave me in the dust.


I thought the water was cold, but it was nothing compared to the deathly cold I felt on the bike. It was moving from side to side as my body shook uncontrollably, and I was scared I would lose control and wipe out. I began to cry. My eyes were already wet from the wind, but these were real tears of sadness. For the first time, I thought I was not going to make it. My body was just too weak and I couldn’t eat anything because I knew I would throw it up.

All my dreams, all the promises, all the determination and sacrifice to get here, and now my body was simply breaking down. I had never quit anything in my life, but I knew hypothermia had set in. The flood of tears poured down my cheeks, making it even harder to see. I was now holding on to my bike for dear life as the front wheel rocked wildly with the shakes of my body. I knew I couldn’t continue like this. Something had to change.

At last I said a desperate prayer. I prayed not just for me but for my children and for everyone battling a disease. I wanted to show the world that this challenge could be overcome, and now I feared that it couldn’t. I feared that I would fail, like I had failed in so many endeavors in my life. This time was about giving the world hope, helping everyone see that dreams really can come true. I lifted my hands for a brief second and asked Jesus to please take control of my bike and help me finish.

Miraculously, that is exactly what happened. I instantly felt a new steadiness, and warmth engulfed me. My shaking subsided enough so that I could move forward without rocking out of control. My mind was immediately injected with a shot of hope and determination, and I began to pedal faster. Get to the finish, you can do it! Every inch of the way, Jesus helped me.

It was the hardest ride of my life, and also wonderfully mind-blowing because of my answered prayer. When I pulled into transition, I nearly fell to the ground with exhaustion. After a few seconds to recover, I noticed all the bikes were already racked, indicating that everyone else was on the run. This was a new sight for me; usually I was one of the first to rack my bike and take off running. I reminded myself once again, that today was not about winning. Today I was here, racing for all those battling a disease, for all those with an impossible dream, and to prove to my boys that their mother was going to live. Truly, that was all that really mattered.

Taken from Just Three Words by Karen Newman. Copyright © 2016 by Karen Newman. Used by permission of Beaufort

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