- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - When Laura Walker received her cancer diagnosis the day before her 51st birthday last September, the lifelong fitness advocate felt her world tilt on its axis.

The triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis - which two mammograms had missed - meant months of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, paired with uncomfortable side effects and all-too-present fatigue.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Walker said, fighting tears nine months later. “When you get a diagnosis with cancer, it’s like getting hit by a train. The life you had is totally messed up. You lose control.”

Last week, Walker and her husband, Scott, sat in the living room of their Auburn home two days after her last radiation session. A bike rested behind them, propped against the wall. Walker had ridden it nearly 14 miles roundtrip to East Alabama Medical Center for the majority of her 36 radiation treatments, starting in mid-April.

“Seven weeks and two days,” she said. “Not that I’m counting.”

Walker regained control by focusing on fitness and nutrition. Six days after her chemotherapy port was put in and two days before she started treatment, she rode in the East Alabama Cycling Club’s Johnny Ray Century, a 105-mile ride from Opelika to Roanoke and back.

“Which was kind of my way of saying, ‘I’m going to do what I can to stay fit,’” she said. “I’ve always been really fit, so that was the one thing that I could control.”

Walker added only about 20 percent of breast cancer cases are triple negative. The very aggressive form of cancer leaves doctors no options for treatment after chemo and radiation, so she opted for the most intensive treatment available.

“When you’re done, you’re done. There’s nothing else they can do for you,” Walker explained, adding she underwent five months of chemo and a bilateral mastectomy.

During chemo, Walker tried to stay as active as she could, often by walking laps around the house.

At one point during treatment, Scott Walker found his triathlete wife crawling to the door to let their dog, Penny, out.

“Chemo is rough,” Laura Walker said. “Doing things for yourself nutritionally.those are the only things you can control.”

By the time Walker’s first radiation appointment brought her back to EAMC’s Cancer Center, she was ready to restore some normalcy to her active life. After that first appointment, she asked a question to her radiation team.

“As soon as I got through the first day, I said, ‘O.K., how do you guys feel about me coming in all sweaty?’ And they said, ‘We’ll have a towel ready,’” Walker remembered, adding her team would hand her water as she cruised in. “They were really supportive of it. .Everybody just loved it. .That was really motivating, too.

“The Cancer Center, it’s a really good place out there. They’re very knowledgeable; they’re very supportive. They’re the ones that do this all the time and figure out how to keep you going.”

The 13.3-mile ride helped Walker feel like she had her life back. She treated radiation like a water break, EAMC the perfect mid-workout pit stop and biking there “a workout with a little bit of zap in the middle.”

While both Laura and Scott Walker agree biking helped Laura recover from chemo and surgery, Scott Walker admitted he was a little unsure when his wife initially proposed the idea.

“I put my foot down, and you saw what happened with that. She said, ‘I have cancer. I’m doing it,’” he said.

For Laura Walker, the ride to EAMC and back was her opportunity to toy with the what ifs of a cancer diagnosis.

“I used it as a time to obsess over cancer. I would ride and say, ‘What if? What if I die from this? What if what if what if?’ And that was my obsession time for the day, and then I’d be done,” Walker said.

On her second-to-last day of radiation, Walker’s husband and friends from the East Alabama Cycling Club, AORTA and a group of area triathletes rode with her to EAMC.

“One of the things about having cancer is you need to use all your network, family and friends,” she said. “Having that support and having people hold me accountable for my fitness.”

Walker also touted the team at EAMC’s Cancer Center for their support, and her doctors returned the praise.

“She is a doctor’s dream patient,” said Dr. John Cabelka, an EAMC radiation oncologist. “She’s so nice and motivated and living a healthy lifestyle. She really takes care of herself. Unfortunately, even very healthy patients can develop cancer. Obviously, there are cancers of lifestyle such as those associated with smoothing, excessive drinking, sun exposure and obesity. The first hurdle to clear with respect to cure is getting through treatment, which can be dire.”

For people going through cancer treatment, Walker is a passionate advocate for taking control of fitness and nutrition. She also encouraged women with dense breasts to get ultrasounds, as mammograms can sometimes miss cancer indicators.

“Even when you feel like crap, move. Get up,” she said. “Take as much control as you can. Rely on your support network to help you; get people to keep you accountable. Learn as much as you can about nutrition, but don’t get on the Internet. Let your doctors drive the bus.”

Now that Walker is through with treatment, she remains cautious about her diagnosis. Still, she’s staying active with the hope of riding in this year’s Johnny Ray Century.

“It feels weird. Yesterday, I didn’t have to get on my bike and ride to radiation. We biked with our bike group last night, and that felt really good,” she said. “It was just a matter of taking as much control as I could.”

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/

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