Iron woman: Cancer experience turns Mary Simpson from survivor to triathlete

It took cancer to turn Mary Simpson into an athlete -- make that a triathlete.

Simpson, a 54-year-old Newman Lake resident, completed her first triathlon a couple of weekends ago at Lake Chelan. She swam a quarter mile. Biked 12 miles. Ran three miles.

And she came home beaming, with a medal to boot.

"She's never been an athlete, and she's taken it on," says her husband of 32 years, Jim Simpson. "She's done very well. Of course, she's ornery enough; she'll do just about anything she wants anyway."

More of a bookworm than an athlete

Simpson had never been much of an exerciser, she says. More of a bookworm who could spend hours and hours each day practicing the piano. Plus, she says, she just didn't have enough hours in the day.

At one time, she taught 90 piano students at the Holy Names Music Center. She's also spent the last 30 years as a microbiologist at Kootenai Medical Center, where she still works part time. ("I've had three going-away parties," she says.)

Enter cancer

It was the fall of 2002 when Simpson was spending up to four hours a day practicing for a performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

She was scheduled for her regular mammogram. Simpson had gotten used to finding lumps in her breasts over the years; she'd even had biopsies, but they were always benign.

This time was different, though. The biopsy confirmed it. Invasive ductal cell carcinoma. Stage 3B.

"I'm in shock," Simpson remembers thinking when she got the news.

Even with her biologist's background, she says, "You don't realize you turn into a normal consumer of medicine who knows nothing."

A surgeon recommended a swift double mastectomy. She was already scheduled for the surgery when she decided to get a second opinion.

A special MRI revealed that what was thought to be a small lump in her left breast actually was massive, a third the size of her breast. She'd need to start chemotherapy to reduce the tumor's size before undergoing the operation.

"By the sixth treatment, it had really blasted it," Simpson says.

But the treatments blasted her as well. She lost her hair in fistfuls. Her bones ached. She couldn't sleep. But she kept on teaching her dozens of piano students.

Simpson underwent six weeks of radiation before having surgery in April 2003 to remove what remained of the tumor and a couple of cancerous lymph nodes under her arm.

Then she got hammered by a different form of chemotherapy. At one point during treatment, while walking down a path at Gonzaga University, she thought: "I need to enjoy this now because who knows if I will ever get to see another spring."

She finished treatment in January 2004.

Her brother-in-law, with whom she shared an oncologist, died of lung cancer in the midst of her treatment.

The physical toll

The whole experience -- the surgery, the radiation, the chemotherapy, her brother-in-law's death -- had taken an emotional and physical toll on her.

"By that time I was so wiped out," she says.

Walking upstairs tired her. She had lousy balance. She had to balance her arm on her knee so she could play the piano in church.

Rather than dwelling on what she couldn't do, Simpson decided to focus on getting better. She became one of the first patients to join the Cancer Fitness Recovery Program at St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute.

Building strength

When she started, she could only do three minutes on the elliptical machine. She could manage about 15 minutes on the treadmill. She began working one-on-one with a trainer, building her strength, range of motion and balance.

"She just keeps working," says Judy Knuth, the program's manager. "She's very diligent ... She's very upbeat. She's very passionate. She's a great success story."

Exercising, Simpson says, finally put her back in control of her body.

"Most of the things that happen to you after finding out you have cancer are being done to you," she says.

Hooked on exercise

Simpsons's oncologist, Dr. Kawal Dinsa-Chester, first suggested signing up for the triathlon. The doctor planned to do it and so did several staff members from Cancer Care Northwest.

Dinsa-Chester found that her patient approached training for the mini-triathlon the same way she handled her cancer treatment.

"She's just a practical person," she says. "She's very determined to complete what she does."

So, after finishing Bloomsday last spring, Simpson started biking and swimming, too. She exercised nearly seven days a week, sometimes biking in the morning and running in the evening. And she tried not to let her husband know how much she was training.

"He kept on saying, 'You're going to kill yourself,' " Simpson says.

Now that she's gotten her first taste, Simpson says she's hooked on exercise. It makes her feel normal again, she says. She's already eyeing her next triathlon, vowing to improve her swimming technique before she competes again.

And she's ready to battle whatever other challenges come her way, too. She gets check-ups every few months; her next one's in just a couple of days.

"They're pretty hopeful they've got it," she says. "If it comes back, I know I have a great team."


Mary Simpson's story kicks off a new series of articles called Beating the Odds. We're looking for people to profile who have overcome health challenges. Maybe you were diagnosed with a disease and given little chance of survival. Maybe you needed to lose lots of weight and didn't think you could do it. Maybe you gave up cigarettes after a lifetime of smoking. Maybe you suffered a stroke and had to relearn basic tasks. There are many possibilities. You can share your story and possibly be profiled in the Health section by contacting Heather Lalley at (509)459-5089 or at heatherl@spokesman.com. Look for the stories to appear in the IN Life section on the last Tuesday of each month.

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