Triathlete, cancer survivor pushes exercise for patients

Sunday, February 8, 2009
Nick King ~ Columbia Tribune
Sara Breier, left, and Angie Turner run Jan. 29 along Forum Boulevard on a six-mile workout in Columbia, Mo. Breier, a cancer survivor, is a triathlete and a University of Missouri assistant professor of clinical nursing who believes exercise helped her survive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- There weren't many days during Sarah Breier's eight-month treatment 5 1/2 years ago for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma when she did not exercise.

Breier would haul herself out of bed in the morning, trudge outdoors and run three miles. Evenings she headed off to the pool for two kilometers of lap swimming. For this world-class triathlete, it wasn't always pleasant, but she credits this regimen with helping to save her life.

"It's made me stronger. Getting through cancer was harder than any triathlon I've ever done," she said. "You just realize how fragile you are, and you realize how capable you are of fighting something. It toughens you up mentally and physically."

But there were plenty of low points along the way. For example, there was the week she spent in isolation at the hospital in a septic state, hooked to a machine to harvest her stem cells in case she needed them for a bone-marrow transplant.

"That practically killed me," she said. "But part of you has these daydreams where you think, 'Damn it. I'm going to beat this cancer, and if I'm still alive at 40, I'm going to do another Ironman."'

For a while, the prospect of working her body back into shape for a triathlon seemed impossible.

"It was pathetic," said Breier, 41, a mother of two and native of Tasmania, Australia. "I had made three Australia national teams" in her youth, "and all of a sudden, I'm this washed-up cancer mom and just barely making it in my age group."

But Breier, an assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Missouri, has made it.

Breier said she has a larger mission. She now wants to make sure other cancer patients can take a similar road to recovery. She and other members of the Multisport Club have begun raising money to help buy equipment for a rehab center at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

Exercise tools, according to the latest research, can help people recover from a life-threatening illness.

In November, Breier placed eighth in her age group at the Ford Ironman Arizona World Championships in Tempe, Ariz.

Breier even shaved one hour of time off her previous best before the cancer treatment. In the 1990s, she finished the race in 12 hours, seven minutes. But last year, she finished in 11 hours, nine minutes.

"Now, she's unstoppable," said Mackenzie Rickman, president of the Columbia Multisport Club.

A study by the University of Missouri's Sinclair School of Nursing found that when people go through chemotherapy and radiation treatment, exercise cuts down side effects such as weight gain or loss, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Cancer patients also report having less fatigue and less pain if they exercise, said Vicki Conn, an associate dean of research who directed the study.

"One of the things it does is that it affects mood," Conn said at the time of the study.

Cancer patients often do not want to exercise at the community gym, Breier said. That's why they need a place inside Ellis Fischel where they already are going for treatment.

"When you're going through treatment, you don't want to go to a gym," Brier said. "You've lost your hair; you're probably bloated up on steroids. You feel very self-conscious. And it's not a good idea to go to a stinky, sweaty cesspool of germs."

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