Editor's Note (Nicole Nichols): I've had the pleasure of competing against Laurah Turner in multiple local races (and by "competing" I mean "watching her leave me in the dust"). I always found her athletic achievements admirable, her sheer speed enviable, and her personality contagious. Recently, I learned Laurah, an amazingly talented endurance athlete who appears to be the epitome of health and fitness, is a two-time breast cancer survivor—and she's only 29. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I asked Laurah to share her inspiring story of how breast cancer changed her and inspired both her career and her fitness goals.
I grew up a type A personally. I tended toward routine, was obnoxiously punctual and saw the entire world through Excel spreadsheets and lists. In fact, I was so married to my routines that I even developed the quickest and most efficient way to prepare the perfect pot of coffee. Every morning, I woke up and immediately dove for my coffee pot. I employed a specific set of procedures which resulted in the first bold, sweet, creamy sip of caffeinated heaven rushing over my palate within 3 minutes and 40 seconds, and never deviated from this ritual.
July 25, 2004 was no different than any other morning, but somehow during my distribution of six leveled scoops of Folgers into the coffee filter, my fingertips found themselves palpating a large lump on my right breast instead of steadying the canister of grounds as they usually would. Was it that? I didn’t have this lump yesterday. Suddenly a wave of panic engulfed my body. Had the lump been there yesterday? A week ago?
I could not answer my own question with any confidence. The only physical changes I ever paid attention to were the irritating acne that I developed once a month or the extra three pounds the scale told me I gained during the winter. I was only 22 years old. Did I really just feel what I thought I had felt?
I had just graduated from the University of Indianapolis and was three weeks from beginning a graduate degree. My parent’s health insurance coverage stopped when I had graduated two months earlier, but that was not unexpected for 22-year-olds. Being young and healthy, I did not consider the three-month coverage gap between graduation and graduate school a big deal. I reasoned I would just have to drive a little more careful and take my vitamins.
But no amount of vitamins or cautious driving would have stopped the lump in my breast from developing. Left with no other option, I went to a local free health clinic looking for help. I was given a physical breast examination and told the lump was probably related to menstruation and to come back in a few months if the lump had not gone away. After all, they insisted, I was too young to get breast cancer.
I decided to get a second opinion. A week and a half later, I had been diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, received a partial mastectomy and began drug treatments. I expected that I would finish my treatment and jump right back into my type-A, 22-year-old lifestyle. The experience, however, left me changed in more ways than I expected.
I realized that life could no longer only be about perfect coffee, or lists and order; instead, I needed to embrace every possible experience that life had to offer. I completed my master's degree in human biology and began a PhD program; I began training for and competing in high endurance athletic competitions such as Ironman races and marathons, and became deeply involved in breast cancer advocacy and fundraising. I felt so lucky to be alive and I wanted to challenge myself to reach new goals, but also to give back. I felt like I had conquered the world at only 26 years old.
When I walked in to the hospital for my routine breast ultrasound in November 2008, I felt confident, and accomplished with everything I had done in the last four years. My breast cancer had recurred, leaving me feeling shattered, confused—and scared. My insurance would not cover the treatment of this recurrence. I was fortunate to enroll in a clinical trial for partial radiation therapy, which I received twice a day for five days in early December. While undergoing radiation, I was still training for my first full Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run). My doctors and nurses were amazed at the positive response and were quick to credit my athletic training and healthy diet (rich in iron and potassium to help with radiation recovery) as integral to my success. Together, the new radiation therapy and my healthy lifestyle had me back on my feet, and racing in just a few short weeks.
Breast cancer changed me. I now view life not a thing that needs to be conquered, but as an opportunity do something great. I re-focused my dissertation to explore the relationships between diet, exercise and breast cancer risk in young women. My research has helped identify gaps in current breast cancer knowledge. Traditionally, research has focused on treatment and diagnosis, not prevention, and outreach programs tend to target postmenopausal women and ignore young women who may be at risk. It is my hope that my experience with breast cancer will help other women at risk for breast cancer by identifying interactions between lifestyle factors, estrogen levels and breast cancer risk during all stages of a woman’s reproductive life.
I still see remnants of my Type-A personality every now and then, but now at 29, the necessity for perfection has been replaced with the joy of knowing that beating cancer twice has given me an opportunity to make a difference in the world, whether that difference is through my own survival, my racing, or helping other women become more aware of how they can protect themselves.
Laurah Turner is a 29 year-old, competitive runner and tri-athlete, two-time breast cancer survivor, and biological anthropologist. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 at the age of 22, and again in 2008 at the age of 26. After her experience with cancer, Laurah pursued her life with a new zeal. She entered into the world of endurance athleticism and is now an avid IRONMAN triathlete, and marathoner. Laurah currently places high in many regional and local races and hopes to qualify for the IRONMAN world championships.
Laurah’s experience with breast cancer inspired her to get involved in both cancer research and advocacy. Laurah has a master's degree in human biology and a master's and doctorate degree in biological anthropology. Her current research at Northern Kentucky University explores relationships between diet, exercise and breast cancer risk in young women with the aim of promoting a healthy, active lifestyle. Additionally, Laurah advocates for young women with breast cancer through her work with the National Breast Cancer Coalition, The Young Survivor Coalition, American Association for Cancer Research, and Women’s Health Initiative.
As an athlete and scientist, Laurah whole-heartedly believes in inspiring an active lifestyle by encouraging athletes of all ability levels. Laurah believes her greatest successes are not always in her athletic or academic achievements, but in her personality, love for life and depth of participation in the world of endurance sports.
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