MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — There were days Holly Shoemaker could not even walk out the door.
There were days when she only had energy to walk for 10 minutes.
Although the word “only” is not in her vocabulary, the stage 3 melanoma cancer survivor says to accept what you are given, celebrate small victories and accept your abilities as they come.
The 43-year-old Wetumpka resident is doing just that. She crossed the finish line of Ironman Florida on Nov. 2, completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run just under the 17-hour cutoff time to be considered an Ironman finisher.
“It was a good day,” she said.
And she smiled, broadly.
While in the shower after a run in early 2005, Shoemaker found a mole on her left shoulder blade — she thought it was just a sports pimple from her sports bra — that turned out to be malignant. She was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in February of that year.
She was 34 years old, and in the best shape of her life.
Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, according to cancercare.org. Shoemaker said her fair skin burned a lot as a child and thinks that increased her risk factor.
“I wouldn’t say that the sun exposure alone determines whether you receive melanoma,” she said. “But you can’t blame a 5-year-old for getting a sunburn.”
A few years before Shoemaker’s diagnosis, she worked hard through proper nutrition and exercise to lose weight, losing an entire person in weight, dropping from 310 pounds to about 170 pounds. Being diagnosed at the peak of her health, she said, helped through the treatments, and in the recovery.
“I like to joke that running saved my life,” she said. “And being active.”
At the time, Shoemaker was in the middle of spring training for triathlons and the Marine Corps Marathon, and she was not going to give that up.
Immediately upon her diagnosis, however, she had two surgeries and started what would be a year of chemotherapy.
“I had to give up a lot of my triathlon races in the spring and summer,” she said. “I was just a little angry and belligerent. I didn’t want to give everything up just because I had cancer.”
Shoemaker made a deal with her oncologist: if he let her run/walk the Marine Corps Marathon .
Well, it wasn’t really much of a deal on his end.
“It was all on me. I just wanted to keep continuing what I loved despite having cancer,” she said. “The deal was, as long as my blood work stayed up on my chemo, and for as long as the side effects weren’t too bad, I could continue to train. But if he called ‘stop,’ if he saw the training was doing more harm than good, then I would have to stop.”
As luck had it, her body tolerated the training, and about six months into her year of chemotherapy, she ran/walked the 2005 Marine Corps Marathon.
Finishing felt like a rare “best day ever,” and she decided to take a break to recover. But within a week or two, symptoms from the side effects of chemotherapy, she said, skyrocketed. She ached, her joints hurt and she was having problems with what she describes as “chemo brain” — a term used to describe changes in memory, fluency, and other cognitive abilities that impeded her ability to function as she had pre-chemotherapy.
“I was afraid,” she said. “Tests were run, everything came back negative. Nothing was medically wrong.”
And her doctor asked what was different environmentally: food, sleep, exercise. Exercise.
“On a prescription pad, he wrote run/walk three times a week,” Shoemaker said. “It was obvious, the exercise was having a significant impact on the side effects of my chemo.”
In Shoemaker’s office at her home off Redland Road sits a framed “Purple Heart” certificate. In the frame holds the port that was placed inside of her for two years for chemotherapy treatments.
She has been cancer free for eight years. Ten years, she said, is a magic survivorship number for melanoma survivors. There have been no recurrences, although she has had a few spots removed over the years.
And over the years, there have been numerous races — half marathons, marathons, and even the PPD Beach 2 Battleship Iron Distance Triathlon in North Carolina in November 2009.
Cycling is how she met her husband, Jim. They met online when he placed an ad in regard to cycling: I’m looking for a person who can keep up or give me a reason to slow down.
It worked. He waited for her at the finish line, and they married in 2009.
Triathlons followed Shoemaker’s love for the bike, and then, she began running in individual running races.
“I never got to my goal weight, but got to a point of feeling comfortable with myself,” she said of her training. “And as I started cycling, it hit me. I don’t have to be skinny to be strong. I didn’t have to have the perfect body to be my version of an athlete. I fell in love with cycling and then weight loss became secondary.”
Going into Ironman Florida, Shoemaker suffered through another setback — a posterior tibial tendon injury in her left foot. She had injured herself jump roping at a CrossFit class, and her doctor put her in a cast to prevent her from running or cycling while she healed.
“When I signed up for Ironman, I was two weeks out of a cast,” she said. “I spent most of the year training for Ironman backed off from running. My goal in racing was just to finish.
“Maybe you’re slower, but the finish line doesn’t care. Just so you cross. My goal was to finish the marathon (the last leg of the Ironman race) without any pain.”