Cancer survivor podiums at Pierre's Hole
Amid the throng of Pierre’s Hole spectators and supporters at Grand Targhee Resort on Saturday were two radiation technicians who had traveled from Idaho Falls with their families to cheer on a local racer.
Lynne Wolfe, a familiar name to many in the community, crossed the Pierre’s Hole 50K finish line as the fourth 50+ woman after a tough battle with a couple of her competitors. And a tough battle with cancer.
Wolfe found a tumor in her breast last November and after a biopsy in December, learned that she had an aggressive cancer that had also spread to her lymph nodes. The results were “pretty frickin severe,” as Wolfe put it.
“I’m not going to lie and say there weren’t some really dark moments, especially in the beginning,” she said. “Those gaps between finding a lump, getting results and crafting a plan of action brought uncertainty, and uncertainty can bring despair. It’s hard for humans to operate within uncertainty. That was the hardest part.”
Friends set up a Meal Train site for Wolfe and all the spaces for meals and rides to treatment filled up immediately.
“I’ve lived here for 35 years,” she said. “I run in a lot of circles and have touched a lot of people’s lives personally and professionally. It was really hard to ask for help at first but I got over that pretty quickly. People have been so amazing, and they say, ‘This is just what we do here.’”
The mastectomy and node removal weren’t too bad, physically speaking. When a PET scan in January turned out clean, revealing that the cancer hadn’t metastasized, Wolfe said it was “a huge and incredible relief.”
Wolfe was perhaps a bit more sarcastic and sharp-tongued than a lot of patients in Rexburg, but she said the crew at the Teton Cancer Institute had her figured out real quick.
“At the Teton Cancer Institute I met the most wonderful, caring, funny, educated, capable people, from the MDs all the way through the technicians,” she said.
After surgery, she and her husband Dan Powers hightailed it down to the St. George area to mountain bike. She never really got the go-ahead from her surgeon, the bearlike Brian Christensen (also a champion pumpkin grower), who removed her drains right before she headed to Hurricane.
“I didn’t ask the surgeon if I could ride because I didn’t want to hear ‘no,’” she said.
Wolfe clearly remembers that first mountain bike ride.
“It felt amazing, it felt like freedom, I felt like myself again, I felt like there’s a way through this,” she said.
Exercise kept her human during the fight against cancer. For the most part, Wolfe didn’t backcountry ski last winter; by the time she felt spry again, she didn’t feel she had the accumulated knowledge to understand the season’s avalanche danger, and carrying a pack was uncomfortable. But she got a fat bike and a puppy, both of which kept her active through chemotherapy.
“Teton Canyon was my power place,” Wolfe said. “There’s well-documented research that says, as uncomfortable as it may make you feel, exercise helps you get through chemo, mentally and physically.”
In February, when registration went live for Pierre’s Hole, she signed up.
“It gave me something to look forward to, something to work towards,” she said. “I initially thought, I’ll at least start the race.”
The side effects from treatment were rough, even “heinous” at times, but the best insight Wolfe received was from Todd Warden, who told her that every step she took brought her that much closer to the end of the road.
Part way through chemo, Wolfe booked a ticket to Arizona to ride with a good friend, as a reward to herself. She felt surprisingly strong that week, and started thinking she might finish the race after all.
After chemo ended, Wolfe didn’t go back to work her usual summer job, guiding with Exum Mountain Guides. She just rode her bike. A lot. A secret goal, not to be shared with anyone, sprouted in her mind: “I might have said, just to myself, that I could get on the podium,” she admitted. “I wanted to show up to the race with what I got.”
At the Pierre’s Hole packet pick-up last Friday afternoon, Wolfe said she got really emotional. When race director Andy Williams checked her in, he told her how deeply glad he was to see her there, ready to line up.
“I said, yep, it’s pretty important for me to be here. We were both sobbing for two minutes,” she remembered.
Wolfe rode her race. She wasn’t as strong as she had been the previous year, when she placed third at Pierre’s Hole, or even as strong as she had been in June; radiation, while less onerous than chemo, contributed to an accumulated fatigue that Wolfe said was really getting to her. But she duked it out with a group of racers and rolled across the finish line only a couple minutes behind the third place woman.
“Don’t ever tell yourself, ‘no, I can’t do this.’ Say, ‘I’ll try, I’ll give it a go,’” she said. “Cancer showed me that we don’t have time to mess around. We should talk about things that matter and do what we need to do.”
Her radiation technicians cheered and waved signs for her, and on Monday back in Idaho Falls, her treatment session was like a party.
After a post-radiation celebration in September, Wolfe will be back at work instructing avalanche courses for Yostmark this winter.
She acknowledged that she is fortunate in many ways. She doesn’t have kids, she and Powers own their house, she has the support of a huge community both locally and around the world, and her insurance company isn’t too bad to deal with. (“Damning with faint praise,” she laughed.) To be fair though, her husband is the one who regularly goes up against Blue Cross.
“It was a real eye-opener,” she said. “It made me really empathize with people who are less fortunate.”
Having breast cancer also made Wolfe understand the importance of breast self-examination.
“Mammograms aren’t the be-all and end-all,” she said. “Do your self-examination. That’s how I found my lump.”
Her Pierre’s Hole experience reminded her of Dayenu, a song sung during Passover. Dayenu translates loosely to “it would have been sufficient.”
“If I had started the race, it would have been sufficient,” she said. “If I had started but not placed, it would have been sufficient. Because of who I am, I rode as hard as I could, and I’m incredibly grateful to be able to make the podium, because I was strong enough. That’s more than sufficient.”