Seriously...Fxck Cancer: Swarm Collective Member Cathy Martinsen's Battle with the "Big C"

Posted by casey weaver on

We met Cathy Martinsen last year while sampling at Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz, and completely unknowing that she was about to embark on the biggest fight and the most significant event of her life just days later - her fight with breast cancer.  Despite that, she delayed her treatment so she could complete the race, a goal event for her last year, and has maintained her training during her fight.  Continue reading below to learn more about Cathy's fight with cancer, and you'll understand immediately why she is such a great ambassador for our brand and member of the Swarm Collective.

And yes, she did have her oncologist review Primo Smoothie...and it got a big thumbs up!


Can you talk about how you found the sport of triathlon?

I have been doing triathlons for the past 13 years. It all started when I did a Tri for Fun in Pleasanton (based on a friend's recommendation) and was immediately hooked. I liked combining two of my favorite activities (cycling and running) and wanted to get over my fear of drowning. The following year, I joined Team in Training and completed my first Olympic distance race at Wildflower (for my 38th birthday) and then the King's Trail Triathlon in Maui the following month. I loved training with the people--they were super nice--and setting goals for myself. From that point on, I just kept on training and racing in triathlons. I mainly kept it to the sprint and Olympic distances because it was what I could manage with my work as a school teacher and my two boys (they are 19 and 17 now). I even got them to race in many events with me (sprint races on their own or Olympic races as part of a relay, and my 9-year-old even swam from Alcatraz with me). I had intended on completing a half Ironman before I turned 40, but two weeks before the race, I tore my left hamstring at the ischial tuberosity (the insertion point). I was done for the season, and then I let that goal go by the wayside. But then last year, I decided to reinstate that goal and did my first half Ironman. I loved it! It feels awesome to accomplish something you set out to do (and getting over my fear of drowning was a big deal, too).

You've been on a bit of a personal journey, can you talk about your diagnosis, what that process was like for you, and where you are with things today?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2017. My OB/GYN felt a lump during my breast exam, but I have had a history of lumps and wasn't too concerned. So the next day, I went in for my annual mammogram, thinking it was just part of my regular routine. But I remember the technician changed her demeanor with each image she took. She kept saying, "Are you all right, Hun?" and "We're almost through here." I wondered why she was so concerned with how I was feeling. In hindsight, I think she could detect the cancerous tumor, but obviously, she isn't allowed to say anything. That afternoon, right after I returned home, I received a phone call from Kaiser stating they wanted to follow up with an ultrasound. That was the first time it occurred to me that the possibility of breast cancer was real. And I had to wait for the entire weekend before going in for the ultrasound on Monday. More realization sunk in as the technician and then the radiologist spent about 45 minutes examining several questionable lumps in my right breast. Then we had the consultation with the doctor. They wanted to biopsy four separate lumps. Again, I had to wait an entire week (it's true, the waiting is the hardest part). I kept up my training, if only to keep my mind off of the what-ifs and tried not to worry. I went in for the ultrasound-guided biopsy feeling pretty comfortable, or at least I thought I was. The technology is amazing, and I could see the radiologist collecting the samples from the tumors and placing the tiny markers on the lumps. One of the lumps turned out to be fluid, so that was a relief. Then it was another waiting game, but fortunately, it was only a couple of days. And even though I had suspicions, I was not prepared to hear the news. No one wants to hear those dreaded words, "You have breast cancer." I was scared and sad. And I had to put on a happy face because we were on vacation in Reno with my younger son and his friend. 

But once I came to grips with the reality of the situation and we had the consult with the panel of doctors, I then made an effort to see how I could continue with my "regularly scheduled events". One of the first questions I (tearily) asked my team of doctors was, "Can I finish my triathlon season?" I had my big goal of my first half Ironman, and I didn't want to give it up. The doctors were super supportive and said that I could start the Tamoxifen (it's the pill chemotherapy that blocks the estrogen since it was ER-positive) and put off the surgery until after my races. So for six weeks, I continued my training and racing (while taking Tamoxifen) and got my PR at the Oakland Triathlon (yay!) and completed my first Half Ironman on September 10 at Santa Cruz 70.3. 

Four days later, I had my lumpectomy. That was pretty easy, actually, and I recovered very quickly. The tumor was only 2 cm, with clear margins, and the five lymph nodes were are all negative, which was great. They gave me a Stage 1A diagnosis. I was stoked. But then I learned I was HER2-positive. "Is that a good thing?" I asked my doctor. Not so much, actually. HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and come back. That meant I had to undergo chemotherapy. That was a huge shocker for me, and I was completely unprepared for the news. I was expecting a lumpectomy and radiation...that's it. Going back into surgery for a port insertion was not on my radar. But I went with it, as that was the best course of action to keep the cancer from returning. And the port was the worst for me. The big lump in my chest and visible line into my jugular was a constant discomfort and reminder of what I was going through. And then I had to deal with 12 weeks of Taxol/Herceptin treatments. I handled it pretty well with minimal side-effects. I didn't even lose all of my hair (though it thinned dramatically and I lost most of my eyebrows and eyelashes). Once chemo was done, I got the port removed as soon as possible. That helped to make me feel more like myself. And then I went through four weeks of radiation therapy, going every weekday after work. Again, I handled that fairly well, though it was time-consuming and exhausting. I completed that yesterday and am now in the homestretch. I've kept a positive attitude through it all, though there were some days that were harder than others. I still have to have the Herceptin infusions every 3 weeks (my last one will be October 17) and will take Tamoxifen for the next 5 years, but as far as I'm concerned, the hard stuff is done, and I can move on with life.

How has racing and training triathlon been beneficial for you through this entire process?

One of the first concerns I had when I received the breast cancer news was how it would impact the end of my racing season. I had my eyes set on a PR at the Oakland Triathlon (I've been doing that one since its inception), and I was also planning on completing my first Half Ironman at Santa Cruz. I had been training during all of my summer vacation and didn't want to let my goals slip away. Training for those races while knowing that I had the impending breast cancer lumpectomy was actually pretty empowering. It was my way of saying "FU to cancer." I wear my Fxck Cancer tri top or hat during my events and that pumps me up. Each workout reminds me that I am stronger than cancer, and I CAN do it.

In fact, though I didn't officially take time off of work, I did take off the Fridays for my chemo treatments. But I did that mainly so that I could get in my workout before going in for my infusion. And there were times when I couldn't get in my workout prior to treatment, so I would come home and go for a 10K run afterward. I'm sure it was the steroid they gave me (to help counter the chemo), but I don't care...I felt like I was supercharged and that gave me the right attitude to take on a good workout. Overall, the training has helped to keep me motivated to keep on fighting, and this season's races will continue to prove that I am stronger than this disease. 

What are your goals for 2018 in both triathlon and life?

2018 is going to be a big year for me. Of course, beating cancer is my biggest goal, and I fully intend on making that happen. I finished my chemo treatments on January 5, and I got through my 20 rounds of radiation on March 1. I'll complete my final Herceptin infusion on October 17. Then, just by happenstance, I will be turning 50 this year (on May 7). After the year I've been through, that will be a big, deserved celebration of a half-century of good living. Then my racing season begins. 

I have been maintaining my fitness throughout my treatments, but now I'm ready to really pick up my training. Once the school year ends, I will be doing the California International Triathlon on June 24. Then I'll be doing Santa Rosa 70.3 on July 28th and Santa Cruz 70.3 on September 9. The final major milestone for me this year will be completing my first Ironman on November 18, as I take on IMAZ. I'm a little nervous as I've never done this distance before, but I'm excited to prove to myself that I can do it. I also have my younger son, who will be graduating from high school in June. I hope to successfully see him off to college in the fall. Then my partner, Todd, and I will officially be empty-nesters. I'm looking forward to this next stage in my life and all it has to offer.

How has dealing with cancer changed your approach to training and racing...and how has racing and training for Ironman affected how you approach your cancer treatment?

First and foremost, I recognize that tomorrow is not guaranteed. So I have been living each day to its fullest, with no regrets. That includes doing a lot of training, whether it be bike rides with friends, long runs, or leisurely swims. I want to move my body while I can. In fact, exercise is the best thing I can do for myself as I'm fighting cancer, so I intend on doing all I can to make that happen. I am of the mindset that you should never give up hope and never give up the fight. I did not want cancer to take over my life. I kept on working and kept on going with my daily routine. Cancer was just another "to-do" for me. I did not want to allow it to take over more of my life/mind/heart than I had to. Sure, there were times when I was just too tired to get out for my workout (particularly with radiation; that kicked my butt more than I had expected). I listened to my body and napped when I needed to. But I also know that I feel a lot better when I get some exercise, so even if it was a walk or a short run, I tried to make myself do that so that I would feel better, mentally as well as physically. 

Can you talk about how you use Primo Smoothie and why?

 I first tried the Field Work Primo Smoothie at Santa Cruz 70.3. I've tried a lot of protein shakes in the past but have never been able to stomach the chalky, yuck taste, or perhaps they were too sweet, therefore defeating the purpose of a nutritional shake. The Primo Smoothie was delicious, so it passed my picky taste test. And the ingredients are all really beneficial. I appreciate the "clean" protein, all the vitamins and minerals, anti-inflammatories, etc. I brought my canister in to share with my oncologist; she looked it over and gave it her approval. That was another winning aspect. I use the product every day. I don't like to eat a huge breakfast in the morning, but the Primo Smoothie takes care of all my needs and keeps me going for hours.

My typical shake is made up of a cup of almond milk, some fresh/frozen berries, a banana, flax seed, a big handful of juicing greens, and two scoops of mix. It's also great as a post-workout recovery beverage (and I'll experiment with a few recipes to make it extra yummy). I love that my delicious smoothie is taking care of my body and my nutritional needs. And it's easy and fast to make.

You've got other outdoor hobbies / ambitions outside of triathlon...any big adventures planned soon?  What is one adventure in particular that stands out to you?

I am all about living life to the fullest. I am a big fan of live music, and I get out to as many concerts as I can (some even involve travel...and I still manage to get in my runs/spins while away on holiday). And I also absolutely love backpacking. There's nothing like getting away from it all (cell phones, technology, social media, etc.). This August, we are going on a 5-day, 50-mile Yosemite High Camp backpacking adventure. It's a change of pace from the triathlon racing season (yes, I will leave my heart rate monitor behind) and brings me back to the simple pleasures and love of nature that I so treasure. Each day, we will camp at a different's perfect and I look forward to it! 

You are also part of the Fxck Cancer tri team...can you talk about who they are and what they do?

I found the Fxck Cancer tri team at Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz last September. I saw the founder, Jayson Williams, wearing a Fxck Cancer hat, and so was I. He commented on my hat, and I did the same. I got to talking to him about the triathlon team and said, "Sign me up!" It was especially poignant for me as it was just four days prior to my lumpectomy. And though I've had to endure chemo and radiation and continuing treatments, I feel very confident that my cancer is, in fact, gone. There are so many others who are not as fortunate.

The Fxck Cancer tri team is all about motivating people with cancer to keep on fighting and living life, which is right up my alley. They provide support with their Dying2Live program which creates positive and enriching life changing experiences for cancer fighters. All the team members are amazing in their dedication to raise money support those with cancer, and we are united in our fight against the disease. I feel fortunate to be a part of this incredible group of caring athletes.

Do you have any advice for those of us who may know someone who is fighting cancer in terms of how we might be able to best support them, or at least better understand what they are going through?

It seems like everyone is affected by cancer in some way...most people either know someone who has/had it or has/had it themselves. There's a whole gamut of emotions that go along with it, and you can never predict how someone might handle it. I would say to offer help in terms of anything that will make life easier for the person with cancer. That means bringing a meal to them, providing child care, or driving them to a treatment. I had such a wonderful support system...parents of my students and fellow colleagues brought me meals on my treatment days, and that was a huge help.

Anything else you'd like to share - the floor is yours

Cancer sucks, let's face it. But there are many challenges in life. The important thing is to not give up hope. No matter what it is, you've got to keep trying. Life is good, and you get out of it what you put into it. I know it's cliche, but I stand by it: love the life you live and live the life you love. It's easy to do if you've found your passion. I've also realized that what you do has an impact on others. As a school teacher, my fourth- and fifth-grade students have been witness to my cancer journey. They have been my biggest cheerleaders and supporters in my fight, and I recognize that I am a role-model for them. I'm a huge Golden State Warriors fan, and my students made a big sign for me saying that I am their 'Warrior'. They also call me 'Wonder Woman'. It feels good to know that what I do makes a positive impression on others. Everyone has that potential; it's up to you to make it happen.





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