Karen Smyers to delay cancer treatment until Olympic trials

In a nationwide media teleconference on Jan. 20, two-time world champion Karen Smyers announced that she will postpone treatment for thyroid cancer in order to compete in the ITU World Cup on April 16 in Sydney, the first of two Olympic triathlon qualifiers.

If she doesn't qualify for the U.S. team in April, she will further postpone the treatment until after the second Olympic qualifier in May in Dallas.

The May trials will have 25 competitors, compared to eight in April. April's winner will join the top two finishers from the May qualifier, to compose the three-member U.S. team.

The resilient 1995 Hawaii Ironman champion and 1999 runner-up knows first-hand the human body's amazing capacity to heal.

Since 1997, she's been hit by a truck, broke a collar bone, severed a hamstring and given birth through cesarean section.

In December, Smyers, 38, had surgery to remove a cancerous thyroid gland and two cancerous lymph nodes, but she still needs to undergo treatment. Doctors told her the biopsy was unable to get at the cancer completely and will need radioactive iodine treatment to eliminate it. Thyroid cancer is considered 95 percent curable.

"It's a lot easier to maintain fitness than it is to gain fitness," Smyers said. "That's why I was a little worried to do (treatment) before the trials. Having a month of spotty training was a little scary."

The surgeon who removed the cancerous tumors recommended that Smyers begin treatment six weeks after the surgery. She originally accepted that plan, but after consulting with her endocrinologist, she was told that postponing treatment would make her body more receptive to it.

"I did call two other endocrinologists to confirm that they would recommend the same thing, and they did," Smyers said. "The endocrinologists are the ones in charge of my care, not the surgeon. So I have to believe that they know what's best for me."

Smyers said the doctors havent removed all doubt that postponing treatment is the right thing to do, but that the consensus is reassuring.

"I'm not going to put my health at risk just to compete in the Olympics," she said. "Not when I have a family depending on me."

She added that news of the retirement of fellow Olympic triathlon contender Greg Welch due to a heart condition came as a shock, since her ailment struck around the same time.

She added that if continuing to compete was a life-threatening issue, she could retire and say she's had a great career.

Smyers found out about her cancer in September when she visited the doctor for treatment of bronchitis. During the examination, she complained of swollen glands. Doctors discovered a cancerous thyroid gland and two cancerous lymph nodes.

"That shook me up a bit," she said. "I immediately went home with my husband and got on the Internet. Thank God for the Internet. We found that it is a quite curable cancer if treated properly."

Since the cancer was in its earliest stages and is slow-growing, doctors told Smyers they believe they caught it early, and that there was no rush and that surgery could be held off until the end of the triathlon season.

"At that point I was in hard-core Ironman training and decided I could easily put this away until after Ironman and deal with it then," she said. "The first few days of training were a little bit tough. I was thinking, 'What's the point of training for the Ironman when I have cancer?'"

In October, the five-time USA Triathlon female Athlete of the Year went on to finish second in Kona, behind Lori Bowden.

"I had a great race," Smyers said. "That convinced me that I couldn't possibly have cancer it must have been a mistake. I was surprised when I went for the biopsy and found that I did indeed have cancer."

Smyers has drawn inspiration from other athletes who have faced illnesses.

"Certainly hearing about people surviving and even thriving after having something like this has had a big impact on me," she said. "Lance Armstrong went through way more than what I hope to go through. This should be a piece of cake compared to the chemotherapy and things he was getting."

Canadian rower Emma Robinson wrote to Smyers and told her of her whirlwind six months. In January 1999, Robinson was diagnosed with the same type of thyroid cancer. In February, she had surgery and in March received radioactive iodine treatment. Robinson was well enough to compete at the world-team trials in April, won the world championships in June and set a world record in July.

Smyers hopes the next part of her story will play out the same.

"I thought, 'This is a person I want as my role model,'" Smyers said. "She made me believe that this is something that I can tackle and conquer."

Robinson told Smyers that after the treatments, there may be good days and bad days, and that she should just do what she's able to, in terms of training.

"That's sort of the way I am anyway," Smyers said. "I know so many athletes that have to get in so many miles a week or they feel they're out of shape. I've always been the type that trains day by day and lets my body tell me what it can handle."


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