"Race walking is all about taking care of yourself," says the 68-year-old Pine Lake resident. "And so is my attitude about the multiple myeloma. It's the same for both -- the journey of life. Now it's a longer, slower race. But I know that I'll start and I will finish. It's not about time or how fast, but that I finish."
Connie, who started race walking when she was 60, did so initially to lose weight. Now, with the cancer diagnosis more than a year ago, it's about that determined attitude to stay as healthy and fit as possible, and to encourage others to get off the couch and out the door.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow, the soft, spongy material inside bone where blood cells are made. Plasma cells make the antibodies that fight infections. In people with the cancer the plasma cells grow out of control and form tumors in solid bone.
It's an uncommon cancer, and each of us has a lifetime risk of less than 1%, according to the American Cancer Society. The five-year survival rate is about 40%, although it is higher in younger people and those, like Connie, who are in good shape.
One day more than eight years ago, Connie, who is 5-feet, 4-inches tall, got on a scale and noted her weight at 194 pounds. At that point, she vowed never to see the scale show her weight at 200 or more.
She got off that couch and started walking. It was difficult initially, but got easier quickly as she shed pounds and started to regain the great shape that she had been in as a high school and college athlete who dabbled in a variety of sports.
She also began encouraging young girls to race walk and in one fun walk a few years ago, she and the girl she was coaching got into a sprint near the end. "I told her, 'You want an old lady to beat you?' and she took off and won," Connie said.
On the drive home, Connie noticed a mild discomfort in her chest, but quickly dismissed it as a sore muscle, a not uncommon side effect of any activity.
Over the next months, however, the discomfort persisted. Sometimes at night, if she rolled over, it was a sharp pain.
"I thought I broke a rib," she said. What followed were trips to the doctor's office, X-rays, heart tests -- none of which revealed any problem. She continued race walking.
In the fall of 2010 she developed bronchitis and when she coughed or sneezed, "the pain was a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10," she said. She sought treatment at Agility Physical Therapy and Sports Performance in Kalamazoo where Janis Montei, a clinical orthopedic sports therapist, noticed that the ribs on Connie's left side were an inch higher than the right. After two treatments, Janis said that in all the years she had been treating athletes, she had never encountered a similar case.
Janis recommended that Connie be seen by Dr. Thomas A. Goodwin, a board-certified sports medicine specialist with Borgess Sports Medicine, part of the Borgess Bone & Joint Institute. Dr. Goodwin is also the medical director for the Kalamazoo Marathon.
Connie secured a referral from her family physician and when Dr. Goodwin touched her sternum he told Connie: "Your sternum goes out where it shouldn't be," she said. "He said that I had a deformed sternum. I still thought it was an athletic injury."
Dr. Goodwin ordered a CT scan. "When I came to see him he had tears in his eyes and had difficulty making eye contact with me," she said. "He was so sweet. He told me that I had a pathological fracture in my sternum and that I had cancer."
Dr. Goodwin referred Connie to Dr. Howard Cooper, then at the West Michigan Cancer Center, where tests revealed the multiple myeloma.
Since the diagnosis in early 2011, Connie has been taking a chemotherapy capsule 21 days each month and is given an infusion of a bone-building medication every four months at the Cancer Center. Her physicians recommended that she keep moving, just what the competitive race walker wanted to hear.
"The side effects of the pill are all over the map, but mostly digestive," she said. She also has spells of "chemo brain," which affects short- and long-term memory.
But it hardly slows her down. She recently qualified to compete in the National Senior Olympics next summer.
As she ponders the connection between race walking and the cancer treatment, she sees the medication and occasional infusions as aid stations on her journey in life.
"So many people, when they get a cancer diagnosis, quit," she said. "Cancer starts taking on a life of its own -- if you let it. Cancer is part of my life but I will not let it be my life. I need to take care of my body and my life and I'm not going to let the cancer beat me.
"And if I die on the race track, it's not a bad place to go."
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