Pushing the Limits

Two-time breast cancer survivor planning her next race

Sharon Spalding likes to joke that she "gets paid to play." As the athletic director and cross country coach at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Spalding has spent a lifetime running, biking and being active in every way — and having a blast.

Combined with her history of early motherhood, breastfeeding and diligent preventive care, Spalding's breast cancer diagnosis in 2008, at age 49, seemed to make no sense. A second diagnosis in 2012, in the opposite breast, caught Spalding further off guard. But her dogged determination not to let cancer get in the way of her vigorous lifestyle has put an audacious spin on a spate of daunting health challenges.

"The first time I was diagnosed, I was in the best shape of my life and had just run a marathon," recalls Spalding, now 54 and the mother of two grown sons. "I'm not a person who lives cautiously, and I really think being able to exercise kept me feeling more like myself. The second diagnosis caught me by surprise, but I wasn't going to spend time dwelling on why I got this again . . . you can't control your stressors, but you can definitely control how you respond."

Solid Support From Family, Care Team

Spalding's first bout with breast cancer didn't significantly slow her pace, which includes not only coaching and teaching, but attending various other sports matches as well. The small, non-aggressive malignancy did, however, require a battery of treatments: first a lumpectomy, then 12 weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. "I did get tired and lost a lot of fitness," she explains, "but I started biking again in preparation for the next cross-country season and put it behind me."

The second diagnosis – this time in her left breast – proved more taxing. Not only was this tumor larger, but a gene test on its cells indicated it had a high chance of recurrence. Spalding and her doctors determined that a double mastectomy was the most prudent course. "Even though the right breast looked OK, it was decided that my equipment was a little faulty so I should start over," she quips. "I made an appointment with a plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction and decided to go that route."

The months following that surgery, last November, brought multiple cycles of chemotherapy as well as a hospitalization. Though Spalding's head often felt "foggy" and strong chemo drugs sapped her energy, she was acutely aware of the unwavering support of her husband, Phil, along with her care team at Augusta Health Cancer Center.

"They're just so great there — you feel they're doing everything just for you even though they have all of these patients to deal with," Spalding says. "I just think that all the physicians, nurses, radiologists, oncologists, technicians — even the receptionists — at Augusta Health will do whatever is needed to get you feeling better."

Exercise Crucial to Recovery

During both cancer bouts, exercise played such a pivotal role in Spalding's recovery that she spent her most recent sabbatical at Augusta Health Cancer Center counseling breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy about the benefits of regular physical activity. A certified cancer exercise trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine, Spalding is transitioning her role from volunteer to employee as a fitness instructor at Augusta Health Fitness. She's also planning her next race, the Extravaganza race to support the Bridge Fund.

We know that exercise, especially for breast cancer patients, can reduce recurrence, but the hospital is also trying to create a program for all cancer patients to get them to be more active," she says. "What I try to tell people is just do something. Start where you are and keep building on that."

Submit your story

Research examines how exercise can combat fatigue

Two-time breast cancer survivor Sharon Spalding is lending her extensive knowledge of movement and physiology to ongoing research at the Augusta Health Cancer Center about the impact of diet and exercise on radiation-induced fatigue. Along with staff members and about 30 patient participants, the research team is hoping to develop a "fatigue scale" that rates fatigue symptoms during radiation and determine how much physical activity is optimal to boost patients' energy levels without contributing to greater lethargy. Once results are in, the research team hopes to use the fatigue scale in another research trial incorporating walking and tai chi.