Girl on Fire

Marion Hughes

Marion Hughes

Why am I here?

Marion Hughes

I have asked myself that question before each of my eleven Ironman (IM) triathlon races. Something about the stress forces us to re-evaluate our intentions. For me though, it wasn’t until 2013 during IM Wisconsin where I was pressed to provide a thoughtful response. During this race I was cycling downhill, which led into a 90 degree left hand turn. My Garmin indicated that I was doing about 18 mph. Now, I had done this turn in numerous training rides before. But this was race day. I had bikers in front of me and beside me, and I was moving. However, as I navigated this turn, my back wheel started to slip from underneath of me. I corrected but the bike didn’t respond. I looked down and saw that my handlebars were perpendicular to the bike frame. I murmured, “Oh, no.” And that was the last thing I remember. I woke up an hour later as EMTs were placing me into an ambulance. I had a concussion and a broken clavicle. When the EMT noticed that I was coming to, he started to bark out questions.

“What is your name?”

“Where do you live?”

“What is your DOB?”

And, my answers were immediate and accurate. Then he asked me the question that has haunted me for years since this incident. He asked me, “Why are you here?” I paused. I was in a neck brace, staring up at the ambulance gray ceiling, thinking. There were no visual cues to help me answer that question. I couldn’t turn my head. I couldn’t see that I had biking shoes on. I couldn’t see that I was wearing my IM race bracelet. All I could see was the ambulance’s gray ceiling and I had no answer to the EMT’s question. I laid there in silence. It wasn’t until several years later that I was able to finally answer that question.

And this is where my story begins.

In 2017, the culmination of all my hard work and possibility of qualifying for the IM Triathlon World Championships was coming true for me. I was healthy and physically fit. As I was putting on a jog bra to do my last 18 mile run before my race day, I saw it. I had lost 22 pounds leading up to this race. So it hadn’t been visible to me until now, at this very exact point in my training, racing, and my life. As large as a quarter, just under the breast nipple, there was a lump. I knew it was something I needed to explore, but I had a race in two weeks. So I foolishly decided not do anything until after that race. I ended up placing sixth in my age group 50 – 54 at that IM finish. I was on a high. Believing that winning my age group and clinching that long awaited championship slot was well within my reach. So not doing anything about the lump turned into not doing anything at all. As I regained some weight in the off season, the lump disappeared. Out of sight, and now out of my mind. However, February 2018 rolled around when I needed to have my annual mammogram. At that visit the technician delayed my departure. The radiologist wanted to speak with me. I apparently had an area of suspicion and the radiologist recommended a biopsy. I explained that I just completed an IM triathlon and I was in fantastic shape. But the radiologist was persistent. So I reluctantly scheduled the biopsy. On March 21, 2018, I received the phone call informing me of the unthinkable diagnosis…I had breast cancer.

How could this happen? I was the healthiest person everyone knew. I did all the proper things to maintain good health. I had no prior breast cancer in my family history. I didn’t even have any major surgeries or illnesses throughout life. Yet, here I was at age 52 with breast cancer. I remember standing in the breast surgeon’s office after she explained to me that I would need a mastectomy. All I could think of was, “What is life worth living for now?” However, those around me said that my IMs prepared me for battling cancer, and unbeknownst to me I was about to find out how. I underwent a left breast mastectomy, reconstruction, and recovery, which took me away from IM training and racing. I was devastated. Yet, I didn’t want to be sad. I needed to be happy. My IM training had taught me to focus on what I could control. I felt the only aspect of my life now that I had control over was how I wanted to feel about this, and I didn’t want to cry anymore. So, I took a humorous approach to my situation. I threw the best damn post mastectomy party ever. We played breast-themed games and ate breast-themed food all in honor of those who supported me.

I began the new year with my training plan, building my base, getting stronger, thinking about which race to do, and I even restarted dating…when the unimaginable happened. Despite taking anti-cancer medication, during a routine examination of my remaining right breast, the radiologist found cancer markers. My options included a couple of lumpectomies or a prophylactic mastectomy. In the previous year, cancer had taken me away from what I loved most – training and racing. And, I didn’t want to be in a similar situation down the road with the remaining vulnerable breast tissue. So I made the very difficult decision and opted for a prophylactic mastectomy. This surgery, and again breast reconstruction, and recovery would sadly require yet another year away from IM training and racing.

This time around there were many nights where I cried in frustration for the fear of ever regaining my health and of ever feeling happy again. I questioned my existence and purpose. “Why is this happening to me…again?” However, despite cancer robbing me of both my breasts, strength, and endurance, I stood unbroken. Insurmountable, because my years of IM training and racing created and developed what I call my IM mind: a mind disciplined and focused, a mind capable of embracing the mental anguish and physical pain that I faced, a mind of a fierce fighter. Steadfast, my IM mind persevered, consuming the sorrow and hopelessness. With my IM mind I was able to turn those emotions into fuel and I became a Girl on Fire, raging, yet patiently waiting for my time to rise again. This time, I no longer sought humor.  I got angry…I got real angry. I worked out hard up until the day before my surgery. I wasn’t going to let cancer take my life from me. I even returned to dating within 2 weeks of my mastectomy. Yeah, I would show up to a date with just one boob. My IM mind prevented me from ever accepting defeat and surrendering to cancer.

In the end, the implants replacing my diseased breasts and the tattoos covering my scars are not the true accomplishments here. It’s what you don’t see. The reason I survived my breast cancer experience, the real reason I am here today, and the answer to the EMT’s question back in 2013 is my IM mind. As I laid in that ambulance, looking up at that gray ceiling, I wasn’t there because of the gravel I hit when I was making the turn.  I wasn’t there because of my inability to properly correct my slipping bike. I was there because of the years of IM training that developed a mind that dispelled all fear. I was there because of a mind that continually reached for more, refusing to accept complacency. I was there because of a mind that always reminded me “anything is possible.”

Today I am cancer free. In 2020, I returned to training. Early detection was instrumental in my survival so I have partnered with Prevent Cancer Foundation to globally increase awareness and inspire support for their vision – a world where cancer is preventable, detectable and beatable for all. As I learned, it’s not enough to just be physically active and leading a healthy lifestyle. Screening tests help detect and manage those conditions, which are out of our control. Please be proactive and get your yearly screenings with the same fervor as you take care of your body for working out, training, and racing.

While I am a two-time breast cancer survivor and an advocate for early detection, I refer to myself in the truest and purest form – an IM. My IM mind has been my strength and has seen me through my life’s darkest challenges. Like the lotus flower, I have emerged from beneath the muddy waters to unfurl my strength and all my beauty. My passion for IM triathlon may have been overshadowed by my health issues, but it was never extinguished. On September 26, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I competed in my first IM triathlon race after battling breast cancer. I placed third in my age group; my highest standing to date in a full distance triathlon. I am rebuilding myself physically, brick by brick building a foundation, which will get me to the World’s Championship. Whether facing strenuous training, a grueling IM race, or the horror of having breast cancer, undeniably, I am a Girl on Fire and a force to be reckoned with. But unequivocally, first and foremost, I am an IM.

To set an example for early detection and celebrate survivorship, I will attempt my 12th IM triathlon on October 22, 2023 in Sacramento, CA. In honor of October Breast Cancer Awareness Month, please join me and consider a donation to Prevent Cancer Foundation.