Michele Wilkinson doesn’t allow breast cancer to slow her down
Run a half-marathon two days before a five-hour bilateral mastectomy, receive energy-sapping chemotherapy for 12 months and complete eight running events in the last six months of that therapy, including three half-marathons, a sprint triathlon, a half-Ironman and the Chicago Marathon, and you are Michele Wilkinson.
Wilkinson, 41, of Milton is in remission after an almost two-year battle with breast cancer. She chose to stand up and fight through exercise.
Wilkinson is entered in the Wisconsin Ironman in Madison on Sept. 12 with her husband, Brendon. It’s a celebration for the hard and inspirational path that Wilkinson has traveled.
The journey to the Ironman starting line began Sept. 22, 2008, at 10:16 a.m. when Wilkinson was told she had breast cancer.
The awful news stuck in Wilkinson’s throat like a rusty razor. She spit out a few desperate expletives in disbelief, and then asked, “Why me?”
“My whole life, I’ve been an active athlete,” Wilkinson said. “I did everything right. I exercise. I have no family history (of cancer). I’ve never been a smoker.
“I was in shock. I didn’t know what to think. From that moment, and every day after, I needed to figure out what to do to beat it.’’
Wilkinson had five hours of surgery Oct. 21, 2008. Her chemo treatments began Nov. 21 and continued once every three weeks for 12 months.
“It was a long year,” said Wilkinson, who has two children, Jack, 11, and Parker, 8.
Down but not out, Wilkinson went on the attack. She went back to work as a physical fitness instructor at the Janesville Athletic Club.
“I toughed it out through my treatments,” Wilkinson said. “Sometimes, I led class from a chair.’’
The return to a routine was good medicine.
“It was good for me to see people and do something,” Wilkinson said. “I could have stayed in bed, but that’s just not in me.’’
While Wilkinson was grabbing cancer by the throat and shaking it as hard as she could, some thought her aggressive approach would do more harm than good. But she had a fan.
“My oncologist told me, ‘You’re doing great and keep going.’’’ Wilkinson said. “He said he’d never seen a patient like me.’’
Six months after her first chemo treatment, Wilkinson finished the Madison Half-Marathon on May 24, 2009. She made it through seven more races before the end of October, a month before her last chemo treatment.
Wilkinson’s attitude and determination inspired training partners Lesley Hammer, Laura Hauser, Lisa McCue, Sherri Buescher and Tonya Schmidt.
“None of us have gone through anything she has gone through,” McCue said. “She inspires us and makes us laugh. Her attitude makes you feel great.’’
Sometimes, Wilkinson’s training was painful for her friends, too.
“There were days she would show up, and we knew it wasn’t a good day for her,” McCue said. “You had to adjust to how she was feeling.’’
These days, Wilkinson feels good. She has completed six events since May, including last July’s Ironman 70.3 Racine—a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run—in 6 hours, 50 minutes in 90-degree weather.
Wilkinson has raised $13,000 of a $15,000 pledge to Susan G. Koman for the Cure Madison affiliate. She will continue fund-raising for the group that fights breast cancer through Thursday, Sept. 9. Donations can be made on the internet through Januscharitychallenge.com.
Word has spread about the woman who runs wearing a pink cape.
“I have had a lot of people who have told people about me,” Wilkinson said. “I try to give advice, but I can only speak from personal experience. If I can put someone else at ease, then it’s a good thing.’’
Wilkinson has gone from cancer patient to cancer survivor to Ironman Wisconsin competitor. She will carry hope and inspiration into the Ironman Wisconsin.
“I want to finish strong, happy and with a smile on my face,” Wilkinson said.