Friends, fitness and a positive outlook help defiant kickboxer keep cancer on the ropes
Like millions of young women before her, Catherine McCormack was astonished to learn she had aggressive Stage 4 breast cancer.
The mother of two boys was in peak athletic condition; a nationally ranked track athlete, she had recently prequalified for the Pan American Games and kickboxed several times a week.
She was in such prime shape that her doctor initially thought the lump in McCormack's breast was a function of Mondor's disease — an inflammation of the veins that can sometimes occur in athletes due to breast tissue injury.
An emergency biopsy revealed something far more sinister.
"When [doctors] first found the tumour in early December, it was a 5.2 by 2 inches. By the 31st it was 9 by 10 [inches]," McCormack recalls. "We started chemo the next week."
With one in nine Canadian women expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime, it is the country's most common cancer found in women. It's also one of the deadliest: one in 29 women will eventually succumb to their symptoms. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, approximately 14 Canadian women die from breast cancer every day.
Although it is commonly — and erroneously associated with older generations, breast cancer in women under 40 can be more deadly; research shows many young women ignore the early signs until it's too late, thinking they're too young and too healthy to contract it, while the density of their breast tissue can make it difficult to detect.
Despite her excellent physical health, however, this was not McCormack's first encounter with a debilitating illness. In 2002, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord, often leaving patients with limited-to-no control over their mobility.
McCormack refused to yield to her symptoms, continuing to train competitively. "I battled MS from day one," she says. "I followed the motto 'I have MS but MS doesn't have me.'"
In fact, McCormack attributes her success in mitigating the disease's effects over time to her positive attitude and physical strength, something she planned to repeat in her new battle with breast cancer.
"I had beaten MS through sport; I've been asymptomatic for about six years, and I no longer have to take painful daily injections. A lot of that I contribute to sport, to having a great blood flow, to being strong and just willing myself to rely on the strength aspect in my body," she says.
Studies show that physical exercise can minimize the side effects of cancer and, in some cases, stave off a recurrence. While her doctors encouraged her to stay moderately active, McCormack was advised to take her competition goals off the table and get plenty of rest.
Initially, she listened. But not for long. "I guess I was a bit defiant, as I was with MS, and I continued to train all the way through," she says.
Each Friday after chemotherapy, McCormack would gather a group of girlfriends — many of whom also had a relative or friend affected by cancer - and in the spirit of Pink Fridays (http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/fundraising-events/events/pink-fridays), they would kickbox together in support of her recovery.
"If they didn't feel like it, a lot of them would get guilted into it: 'Catherine's doing it and she just had chemo,' she says with a laugh.
Buoyed by the emotional support of her friends, McCormack managed to keep a healthy attitude, and perhaps more impressively, a healthy body. Even her trainer, who was initially reluctant to continue, became inspired by what he saw.
"I won my first gold in a 3000 m sprint after my third chemo, and he said, 'OK, I think we can do this.' So we did. I competed at altitude for the first time in Calgary three weeks after my eighth and final chemo. I placed fourth and I wasn't too far off the podium."
Her strategy appears to be working. Last Monday, surrounded by family and her Pink Friday crew, McCormack completed her final radiation treatment. "I have one more surgery ahead and we can put this behind us to the next chapter. I have beaten this. I feel great," she says.
Meanwhile, McCormack is applying the same energy and drive that saw her through two major illnesses in order to contribute to a new cause. In the spirit of the popular Boobyball, McCormack's Kickbox For the Cure is her annual event to "kick cancer to the curb" by raising funds for breast cancer research.
As with all patients, doctors will monitor McCormack carefully over the next five years, although the possibility of a recurrence doesn't seem to faze her.
"I lived with the mobility gremlin on my shoulder with MS. You can't wake up every morning and say, 'Are my limbs going to fail me now?' because that's not living. So I plan on having the mortality gremlin on my shoulder as well, and treating it with the same defiance. My life is too rich, too full. I have too much going on."