When Dr. Sarah MacDuffie competes in the Tri for a Cure July 31, the two patients she’s doing the triathlon for won’t be there to see her. Both died in the months leading up to the race – of aggressive cancers for which doctors have no good early detection tests.
That makes the 48-year-old family physician even more determined to participate, to raise funds for more effective treatment of cancer and to create awareness of the need for early detection.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said MacDuffie, who grew up in Westbrook and earned her medical degree from the University of New England in Biddeford.
The two people she’ll honor this year by competing in the triathlon are Mardel Tice, 55, of South Berwick, who died of pancreatic cancer May 18; and Jay Studebaker, also 55, of Rye, N.H., who died of lung cancer June 14. Both were her patients for a decade or more, apparently healthy people who had all their routine medical screenings, said MacDuffie, who now lives and practices in Portsmouth, N.H.
“So it was kind of shock to eventually diagnose them both with cancer and have it be stage 4 by the time we diagnosed it,” she said. “The frustrating thing is that with both lung and pancreatic cancer, there’s no great screening test to diagnose them.”
She continued: “These two patients particularly hit home with me because we didn’t have any way of picking this up early. So I asked them, I said: ‘I do this triathlon, a fundraiser for cancer. I’d like to do it in honor of you. Is that OK?’ And they both were completely thrilled by it.”
This is MacDuffie’s second Tri for a Cure. The event is a challenge for the admitted “fair weather exerciser.”
“I’m not somebody who goes out in the rain and the cold. I have a very busy schedule, so I have a hard time making exercise a priority,” MacDuffie said.
But she got the idea of participating after her college roommate was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“I would spend time just hanging out with her and she reminded me I had done a triathlon in college, which was sort of a joke but it was a lot of fun, and it got me thinking that it would be fun to do that again,” MacDuffie said.
She decided: “I’m going to do a triathlon in honor of Mary.”
A patient told her about Tri for a Cure and she signed up.
“When I did it the first year, it was for Mary, who died of ovarian cancer,” MacDuffie said. She also dedicated that race to a Cape Elizabeth friend battling a fourth bout with breast cancer.
Last year, she raised more than $2,000. This year, by late June, MacDuffie had raised $5,100, exceeding her $5,000 fundraising goal.
Participating in the triathlon benefits her own health. “It forces me to exercise and get in shape just to get to the end,” she said.
And, she said, her participation helps her other patients by setting an example.
“It’s an endless battle to try to convince patients to exercise and I like it when they see me out exercising,” MacDuffie said. “But I also say to them: ‘Take something that you believe in, and find a 5K or a walk to train yourself as a motivation.’”
MacDuffie is an experienced swimmer, and she found she also enjoyed the biking part of the triathlon last year because the course was scenic and pretty flat.
But the run was difficult, and she expects it to be hard again this year.
“I don’t like to run that much and I’m not fast to begin with, and it’s at the end,” she said.
But MacDuffie expects a number of factors will help her get through it.
One is her fellow participants, who include cancer survivors. At last year’s event, she recalls, “I was so amazed by the variety of ages and sizes and shapes of women that participated in it. That made me realize that anybody can do it if they are determined. There’s nothing that says you have to be fast.”
Thoughts of her college roommate also will spur her on. She said she remembers how Mary struggled to climb the stairs to get to her second-floor home one last time before she died. “I think to myself, ‘If Mary made it up those stairs, you can make it up that hill.’”
And, MacDuffie laughingly recalled how Tice told her: “If I ever find out you stopped running, I’ll kick your butt.”
As she trains for the race, MacDuffie said, “I feel sappy about Mary, then I hear Mardel yelling at me, and I go, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
Dr. Sarah MacDuffie celebrates with her sons, Clay, front, and
Wiley Hundertmark, after finishing last year’s Tri for a Cure.
MacDuffie is participating again this year to honor two patients
who recently died of fast-moving cancers. MacDuffie is raising
funds for better early detection tools and more effective cancer