Coming back STRONGER - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Coming back STRONGER

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Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014 7:30 am

Heather Godina always knew she wanted to complete a triathlon. She had experience in two-thirds of the event heading into her 29th birthday, with a strong background in swimming and two full marathons under her belt, so it wasn’t unimaginable to add a bicycle to the equation.

She wouldn’t get the opportunity to put all three triathlon components together until she entered the early part of her 30s, and that opportunity didn’t arrive until she made it through a year of cancer treatment.

It’s pretty common to see the word “healthy” appear when writing about a person with a cancer diagnosis, but there aren’t a lot of people who fit that description like the 32-year-old Mesa resident did. She was, in fact, training for a marathon in San Diego in 2010 when the inevitable fatigue began to set in. All athletes have those days when the legs wobble cruelly and the body never feels quite right, but Godina said the days when it took more energy to complete a training run than usual began to pile up. She also simply wasn’t enjoying the experience as much as she used to.

She discovered the lump herself by chance a little more than a month after her 29th birthday, and the ensuing doctor appointments and diagnostic procedures resulted in a stage three breast cancer diagnosis. Treatment began shortly thereafter, starting with a double mastectomy in September 2010 that was followed by six months of chemotherapy and seven-and-a-half weeks of radiation treatment in spring 2011.

But the procedures began to take their toll on her; the chemotherapy caused her to gain approximately 25 pounds, and the other side effects of that treatment along with the mastectomy had left her “bald, fat and boobless.”

The phrase sounds a bit defeatist, but it’s best to read it as a motivational line akin to the kitty on the wire saying “hang in there.” She’s not exactly a negative person to begin with – she points out her email address includes the word “cheerful” – and Godina maintained a strong confidence she could make it to through the worst of it.

“I knew I’d be able to get through it because I was a marathon runner and an endurance runner,” she said.

She was done with the more evasive procedures right around her 30th birthday – she’s currently in the middle of a five-year oral medication treatment – and she started to feel good enough to start exercising again in the middle of her chemotherapy treatment. She began to hit up spin classes and visited the gym, and she got back into running on the weekends.

Godina got into good enough shape by the spring of 2011 to try her hand at a triathlon, at least a smaller variation of what she wanted to do and one that was quite apropos for her purposes. So she entered the fifth iteration of the Tri-Scottsdale Foundation’s Tri for the Cure triathlon, which features a 400-yard swim, eight-mile bike ride and two-mile run, and it benefits Susan G. Komen Central and Northern Arizona.

Regular triathlons sometimes intimidate Godina, given the number of people who have professional gear and incredibly expensive bikes. This event, though, was a little different, filled with emotions and an atmosphere with lower level of intensity.

“It’s so friendly, it’s so low competition. The people are what make it friendly,” she said.

Completing the Tri for the Cure event was one domino in a series that continue to fall for Godina; her ability to complete marathons made her believe she could overcome cancer, and her cancer fight convinced her she could finish a triathlon.

It took a little time though to regain the lost strength and become accustomed to the severe running, biking and swimming that make up a triathlon.

“Once I really started to put the three pieces together, everything got easier,” she said.

She’s come out of cancer treatment with far more strength than she had going into it. She made it through her first half triathlon, an Ironman event, in October 2012, and completed the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run that makes up a full triathlon in November 2013.

She even dropped the weight she gained during treatment and then some – she attributed the extra pounds to all of the triathlon training. Her life is also back on track; she’s undergone four reconstructive surgeries to eliminate all three problems in her earlier quote and has her wedding set for May 2015.

Godina has also gone back for more Tri for the Cure events since then, and she plans to participate at the eighth event later this month. This wasn’t the event that motivated her to try a triathlon, but it did make the long-term goal appear far more realistic than it was just a few months before.

“It gave me the shove to do it,” she said.

This year’s event is scheduled for March 23 at Chandler High School, 350 N. Arizona Ave. Visit triforthecureaz.com for more information.

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