Utah based Jen Hanks is known as ‘The Dandelion’ amongst her friends. Why? Because whatever you do to a dandelion; pull it up, cut it down or grind it into the ground it’ll just keep coming back. That level of resilience has enabled Jen to defeat cancer not once, but twice. It might also have something to do with how she rides her beloved bicycle.
It becomes evident, very quickly, that you can’t talk cancer with Jen Hanks without talking mountain biking. She first tried the mountain bike whilst looking to replace competitive horse-riding. Those early taster sessions rapidly morphed into a full-fledged passion and in 2005 she entered the world of elite mountain biking. “There’s two parts to it,” she says. “I definitely love the component of training and pushing my body and seeing progress but there’s also something else, for a lack of a better word – freedom”.
There’s also something else, for a lack of a better word – freedom
With cancer, the definition of freedom can shrink: quickly and painfully. You can no longer continue to push yourself to the same limits, especially physically, if you are an elite athlete. This wasn’t lost on Jen, “First of all, the diagnosis came as a total surprise to me, but it took a couple of weeks for the biopsy results to confirm it was actually cancer. During that time, I was still training and riding my bike, so I still got to experience that ‘freedom’. Obviously, a huge part of my time was then consumed by treatment but I still made it a big priority to go out there and bike”.
Jen smiles as she reminds me that the health of a cancer patient does not wither overnight. But so much changes, so much of what was taken for granted is taken away. Riding her bike was her backbone, a support physically and mentally: “I’ll tell you what, you go around your day and even if you feel okay, you still look like a cancer patient. I did not like feeling like a cancer patient. But when I would go and ride my bike, I would put on my bike clothes, I would put my helmet on and I would just look like me. So it was nice to get on the trail and still feel like normal me”.
During her chemo infusions Jen kept a record of how she would feel each day during the three week period and she found it to be a cycle that repeated itself. “The first few days you feel really lousy. You don’t feel like going out biking and honestly, I made it okay with myself to just rest those days and move as much as I could, which sometimes was only going around the block for a walk. I just mentally shifted in my brain and made it okay to do just a little bit lesser on those days. But it was frustrating not knowing if I would return to the level of the athlete I was”.
Most of us would just want to return to our own version of ‘health’. For Jen this meant the ability to compete at the highest level. The inability to control an outcome creates anxiety and frustration in everyone but Cancer for the elite athlete brings its own burden of self-blame. Jen had been living an active and healthy lifestyle and as she wrote in her blog, all the things one was supposed to do to prevent cancer she was already doing. Then she got diagnosed. “At first it was really, really hard. I did not understand why or how this happened. But over time I realized that no matter how healthy you are, you can reduce your risk of developing cancer but you can’t a hundred percent prevent it. Sometimes it just happens and I have accepted I will never know why. That being said, I want to address those who say, ‘well if you can’t completely prevent your risk of cancer, why even bother living a healthy lifestyle? I just should go indulge myself all the time’”.
Resting is important, but moving is equally important
“I think you should definitely not blame yourself but what worked for me was that I gave myself a few days to rest and then on day three I would be like ‘alright, you’re getting yourself out of the door’. You don’t feel like it because chemo does something to you where you lose all motivation to move. But I drew on being an athlete where if your coach tells you to do a specific interval or workout, even if you don’t feel like it, you still have to go out and do it. I think you should be kind to yourself, but I told myself ‘ride your bike for at least an hour, if you feel awful after that, you can go home it’s fine’. There is a misconception about cancer or any illness, that if you have it you must only rest. Resting is important, but moving is equally important, as well as nutrition. I almost feel like oncologists should prescribe exercise along with the treatment and there’s a lot of good research that shows it reduces your risk of reoccurrence too. Going into treatment so healthy and strong definitely helped me tolerate it better”.
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When I asked about her blog, Jen admits that she did the one thing people advise against doing: googling her diagnosis. In her research she sought to understand her pathology reports and find anyone in a similar situation as her. Queue more frustration – “Athletes with breast cancer, athletes who have returned to being elite athletes after undergoing treatment and I couldn’t find anything. I did not know what the outcome would be but I decided to chronicle my experience. It was very motivating because I realized my blog was reaching people and suddenly I had this network of people supporting, cheering me and contacting me. I obviously don’t tell them what to do but I shared my experience and what worked for me and it’s inspiring to me to be able to help other people”.
It would be great to think the story stopped there. Jen fully recovered, went back into competition and lived a happy healthy life. It’s all true except the very last bit. Cancer doesn’t take into account ‘fair’. Cancer does whatever cancer wants to do,
“You just don’t think it’s going to come back,” Jen says of her reoccurrence. “I found both my cancers myself. The second time was scarier and harder, because even though I was being monitored, nothing showed up but I felt my lymph nodes changing. So no matter what your age is, just be familiar with how your body feels, and you may not feel sick – I did not feel sick, I felt amazing but there was breast cancer growing”.
Here a lesson to learn and apply: it’s vital that each and everyone of us regularly self-checks. It can feel awkward and embarrassing but it can also save your life. Get to know your body better folks.
So no matter what your age is, just be familiar with how your body feels
While Jen was familiar with the medical route, being diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time meant she had to go through ‘restaging:’ checks to see if cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Jen explains, “This is especially scary, because once breast cancer spreads to those other organs (your bones, liver, lungs, brain) there is no cure for it and that is just the reality of breast cancer”.
Research for Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) is one that is close to Jen’s heart, as she discloses that from all the money raised, only 2% goes into research for MBC, a stage to which 30% of early survivors are prone to. Believing that finding a cure for MBC is possible in our lifetime, she also urges to #ThinkBeforeYouPink – do your research about how and where to donate in the best way.
In Jen’s case, the good news was that she earned her daffodil moniker by fighting back and beating cancer a second time, “I was so over undergoing cancer treatment that I would not rest like you would expect a cancer patient to. Once again I rode my bike to every single chemo treatment and even participated in a local bike race”.
The the cancer was considered treatable and so she did what she could to control the situation; consulted three oncologists, came up with a treatment plan and pursued that plan with tenacity – all of which made her feel empowered, in the spirit of wanting to beat it again. “I would go out and ride my bike and although it made me a little tired, it made my soul happy. I decided, I’m going to live my life and do what I want to do”. That’s another lesson we could all learn from.
The dandelion is back in full bloom and riding hard. In 2018 she achieved third place in Croatia’s Mitas 4 Islands race. Her pure love for international stage races means that Jen anticipates more biking, a rigorous training programme and plenty of competition in the years to come.
Don’t bet against her winning big some-time soon.