Young, strong and determined, athlete put disease in its place

Young, strong and determined, athlete put disease in its place

Rebecca Gutwin is a breast cancer survivor and an accomplished triathlete. She’s 25. Her experience is a quarterlife lesson to be shared.

Becca and I lived across the hall from each other our freshman year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. We both signed up for the crew team and were among 50 or so walk-ons. We were two of the 11 that made it to the end of year-long season.

Rowing was the most physically demanding and fulfilling experience of my life. It was also the ultimate team sport: you pull each other out of bed for 5 a.m. practice, you carry the boat from the boathouse to the water on your shoulders and you rely on those seven other women (plus a coxswain) to keep the boat balanced while moving in perfect unison.

Everything changed in early October 2002, when Becca discovered a lump. She saw a specialist at home in Vermont in January and had a complete biopsy. She was awake for the procedure. She saw the doctor pull out a lumpy, bloody tumor the size of a ping-pong ball.

Her mother answered the phone a few days later and Becca overheard the words, “So you’re saying it’s cancer.” It was clear to her now that what was removed was not as benign cyst.

She was diagnosed with an aggressively malignant phyllodes tumor, a very rare type of tumor that can form in any connective tissue in the body. Phyllodes tumors account for less than 1 percent of all breast cancer. When it metastasizes, there is a very low survival rate. There is no history of cancer in her family.

She met with a few specialists who recommended a total mastectomy at 18. If followed, the reconstruction would have split her pec, interfering with rowing. Instead, she chose a lumpectomy combined with radiation.

In her first semester she was involved in two America Reads (literacy tutoring) sessions, a fifth class and morning and evening crew practices. The only free time she had for her 61?2-week radiation treatment was lunch. “Staying busy meant staying distracted,” she says.

On our spring break trip to Georgia (a week of training in Atlanta at the Olympic facility), teammates noticed the tattoos on her skin used to line up the radiation machine.

“Everyone seemed to think I didn’t want to talk about what I was going through,” she says, “when in reality, it made things a lot less scary to actually talk about them.”

She was told it might be easier to drop rowing.

“People did understand that rowing was my lifeline,” she says. “When I got in the boat and it was just me, the team, any my oar, I could pull so hard that it didn’t leave any room in my head for survival rates or radiation treatments or ‘What if?’ questions.”

Becca maintained a 4.0 grade point average throughout the semester.

After graduation, with her green and white oar retired, Becca began looking for something to fill the rowing void. At first it was running for fun and a few 5Ks, but after a few months she began training for triathlons in fall 2006. Her first was Mooseman in New Hampshire in the spring of 2007.

“I love being able to train on my own and really get into a zone, but I also love days when I can train with partners to get some company and extra challenge. I do miss rowing, but the variety in triathlon training almost makes up for it,” she says.

Motivation for Becca comes from her close relationship with family and friends. She works with her mother and often trains with her dad. There is also motivation that comes from within: For Becca, she’s trying to put up her best time and stay in tune with her body throughout the race, pushing herself through the pain, to see how fast as she can go.

“As soon as I get out on the race course and start posting times I’ve never seen before, I remember pretty quickly what all the training was for,” she says.

She’s feeling great today. Her cancer never metastasized and she hasn’t had any recurrence of the tumor.

Becca has planned six events for 2010 around New England: participating in four triathlons. (two are Olympic-style: 0.9 mile swim, 28 mile bike, 6.2 mile run) and two are half-iron style: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run.) She also will run two half marathons.

She hopes to do an Ironman triathlon one day.

“I really like challenging myself and coming out stronger than I thought I was,” she says.

Julie Marchese and Abby Bliss, save a spot for Becca in 2011.

Becca Gutwin competed in the 2007 Shipbulders Triathlon in Bath. It was an Olympic distance event.Becca was the first place survivor at the 2007 Race for the Cure in Manchester, Vt.Becca practices on the canal in Geneva, N.Y., in 2006.Survivors gather for the opening ceremonies of the 2009 Tri for a Cure

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