Doctor and former patients, both cancer survivors, train for triathlon

Doctor and former patients, both cancer survivors, train for triathlon

Cancer survivor Barbara Irvine swims in the Spokane River in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday, July 21, 2106. The 80-year-old is taking on the swim portion of a triathlon this weekend. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)


Barbara Irvine first suspected she might have cancer while painting a depiction of the Christ the Redeemer statue in her art gallery in Coeur d’Alene. She felt a sharp pain in her abdomen and decided to see a doctor. The pain she felt was ovarian cancer.

“So really, the …

 Race the River Triathlon

Barbara Irvine first suspected she might have cancer while painting a depiction of the Christ the Redeemer statue in her art gallery in Coeur d’Alene. She felt a sharp pain in her abdomen and decided to see a doctor. The pain she felt was ovarian cancer.

“So really, the painting was instrumental in detecting an early diagnosis,” she said. “The exciting part of all of this is how everything fits together, and how one thing leads to another.”

Irvine began treatment at Cancer Care Northwest, where she met Dr. Melanie Bergman. The doctor is known around the clinic as an avid proponent of an active lifestyle, often recommending a healthy dose of exercise to all of her patients recovering from radiation and chemotherapy.

Irvine, now 80, told Bergman about how she used to swim every day, and Bergman shared stories of her cycling trips. Before long, they began talking about participating in a triathlon together – Irvine swimming, while Bergman cycled. Another of Bergman’s former patients, Rachel Johnson, was enlisted to do the running.

Bergman recalls that her initial response was, “Sure.”

Then, she said of Irvine, “she kept bringing it up. And now we’re here.”

Two years later, where the mouth of the Spokane River meets Lake Coeur d’Alene, Irvine slips into her wetsuit and snaps on a swimming cap as she prepares to train for the half-mile swim – her portion of the Race the River Triathlon in Coeur d’Alene.

Bergman stands nearby in full cycling gear, her bike propped up against her hip, and cheers can be heard from the beach.

“I have a mother-in-law who’s 78, and there’s no way she’d be able to do that,” Bergman said. “Can you believe this?”

‘There is life after cancer’

Bergman is a gynecologic oncologist at Cancer Care Northwest. She sees her patients through all stages of cancer, beginning with surgery and ending with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Because she’s there every step of the way, she develops a close bond with patients. Irvine and Johnson describe her as a personable and caring doctor, but also as someone who’s not afraid to show tough love when necessary.

“Sometimes you’re just not having it, and she’s just like, ‘Suck it up, you’re fine,’ ” said Johnson, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011. “And I needed that.”

Johnson received her diagnosis late due to a lack of health insurance after emigrating from Canada. She experienced pain and bleeding, and when doctors found the tumor, she said they could see it plainly with their eyes.

She underwent a radical hysterectomy, which not only removes the uterus but the tissue on the sides and the cervix. She then had four sessions of chemotherapy and radiation scheduled to kill off the remaining cancer cells, and a fifth session scheduled later to ensure it would stay in remission.

All the while, she tried to continue her active lifestyle. Prior to getting cancer, she would run almost every day, and she’d previously participated in a pair of Ironman competitions and even more triathlons.

“It was really frustrating,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get back to my level again. I was happy to be back in my element, yet I wasn’t where I wanted to be. It was just tough.”

Yet, only four months after treatment, she ran 26 miles in the Big Sur Marathon in Monterey, California, and continued to compete in numerous running events. When Bergman asked her to partake in the triathlon with Irvine, she said it was a no-brainer.

“I’m honored to be a part of this,” she said. “If you go online, you hear about all the horrible things, about what cancer does to people, about how they’re never the same. I honestly wish I had someone like me that was able to say, ‘You know what, there is life after cancer. There is hope.’ ”

The Triumphant Trio

The group left the honor of naming the team to Irvine, who chose “The Triumphant Trio.” Race the River breaks down each bracket by the total age of each team, and The Triumphant Trio’s total age is 170 – one of the highest to participate in the race in years.

Bergman said it doesn’t matter where they’re bracketed, because the group isn’t interested in racing competitively.

“We just want to be able to finish,” she said.

Just days before the Sunday race, doubt set in – Irvine wasn’t sure if she could physically finish the half-mile. She’d been training with her 20-year-old granddaughter Tiffany Portue, who teaches swimming classes at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene.

They would do laps around the pool, making sure she could swim a half-mile without stopping. She could, but one side of her body is stronger than the other, so she tends to swim to the right. Her granddaughter elected to swim with her to keep her straight, but she still wasn’t sure. Irvine attributed it to nerves – she didn’t want to let anyone down.

But when she arrived Thursday in her new wetsuit, with Bergman cheering from the sideline, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind.

“It’s taken almost a whole year to feel OK,” she said. “But it’s over and I’m very grateful to be able to do this.”


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