Carry a load of irony and you get really, really strong.
Unlike most endurance athletes, Kristin McQueen doesn’t really give a crap about time.
When she stands at the start of a marathon or dons a wetsuit for the first leg of an Ironman triathlon, the lust for a new personal record does not dominate her mind.
She cares even less about beating anyone else out there, though she admits it felt pretty awesome to ride up a steep hill at Ironman Wisconsin last year that forced a lot of other triathletes off their bikes.
Before she crosses the finish line – which she’s done an astonishing 56 times in the last 14 years – she might stop a few blocks away just to look up at the sky and take in the sounds of the crowd waiting to welcome her into the finisher’s chute.
More than once, she’s asked herself: “How the hell is this even happening?”
Good question, because in those same years she’s also undergone 22 surgeries and 2 rounds of radiation to fight the thyroid cancer that, when it showed up at age 24, no one could quite believe she had.
Kristin can’t tell you exactly how she manages to run, bike and swim in events that happen weeks or even days after her last procedure. Dozens of physicians she’s seen since 2003 – including, most recently, an expert team at the Mayo Clinic – struggle to understand how she keeps going.
The Mayo docs did confirm that her cancer is well under control. But the powerful cancer treatments that saved Kristin’s life have, in some ways, made it a lot worse.
Let’s call that Irony #1. There’s a ton more. But it’s a fair place to begin.
Please just listen to me.
Kristin was studying medicine herself when she discovered a pea-sized lump on the right side of her throat.
It happened during a palpation lab at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois, where Kristin was working toward her doctorate. At the time she was 8 months from graduating and launching her career as a physical therapist.
“I’d been feeling fatigued for a month or more and had lost my voice a few times. The doctors kept diagnosing me with laryngitis, bronchitis … I knew they were off track. I told them, ‘I never lose my voice!’ But all they could see was this healthy, active young person. They were blind to the fact that it could be something serious.”
When the lump got bigger and harder, she saw yet another doc who told her, “Everyone’s tired in grad school. Take some vitamins.”
“I was due to see my gynecologist, so I showed her the spot and asked her opinion,” Kristin remembers. “She referred me to another physician, who bolted into the examining room 45 minutes late and rushed through the exam without even touching me, then told me I was absolutely fine.”
Frustrated and angry in the wake of that visit, she called her mom, Diane, in tears. “I said, ‘Who’s your doctor, Mom? I need to see someone who will actually listen to me.’”
A few days later, Diane’s primary care physician examined Kristin. He wrote several diseases on a Post-It note. “Now, don’t go Googling all of these,” he told her. “But it is possible that you have some form of cancer.”
Waiting in The Gap.
Most people who’ve heard the “c” word in a physician’s office don’t remember a single word the doc said after that, but Kristin’s memory is clear.
“I took the Post-It note from him and thought, how crazy is this? Of COURSE I’m Googling this stuff when I get the chance.”
He gave her the phone number of a surgeon and told her to make an appointment right away. She dialed from the car, but the office wasn’t open yet. It was too early to go to class, so she wandered into The Gap.
She remembers picking out a few things, “just waiting for the surgeon’s staff to answer the phone. A pair of khaki shorts. A blue t-shirt. A sleeveless hoodie, because I’m always cold.”
She was wearing that outfit on June 27, 2003 when she and her parents sat in a consulting room at Edward Hospital, watching the surgeon fumble with the truth.
In reporting on the biopsy he’d done days before, he began by saying, ‘The cells are coming from the thyroid.”
Then he paused. The question hung in the air.
“My mom finally asked: ‘So … are you saying my daughter has thyroid cancer?’”
At first he didn’t answer directly, but Diane McQueen pressed him hard. “He finally said yes,” Kristin remembers, “but the way it came out was just so weird. I mean, I knew. I’d already found another lump myself, farther down. But this guy, for all his knowledge and skill, just couldn’t be straight with us.”
She was, however, totally straight with him. “I’m in grad school and I’m training for the Chicago Marathon. How soon can we do this surgery?”
He said the marathon should be the last thing on her mind. “I told him it wasn’t. He said I could take that up with my thyroid doc.”
The irony bag.
In August, an endocrinologist removed half of Kristin’s thyroid gland, along with half of the affected lymph nodes. “My doc felt it was best to remove the rest of the nodes four months later to make it easier on me,” Kristin says.
She rested, then resumed training, and on October 12 she ran the Chicago Marathon wearing a singlet for the American Cancer Society with the words SUCK IT, CANCER spelled out in white tape on her back.
On her singlet she wore a white ribbon in memory of Louella Anderson, a friend who had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. Alongside it was another ribbon for her uncle Dick, who had died of cancer on one floor of a local hospital while his wife gave birth to their son two floors away. Still more ribbons honored friends and family dealing with the disease, including breast cancer survivor Susan Lautenbach.
This was Kristin’s second endurance event. She’d run in 2002 in memory of Louella, raising $2,400 for ACS and receiving a duffel bag as a thank-you gift.
“My sister Jenny calls it the ‘irony bag.’ I’ve taken it with me on almost all my cancer surgeries and medical adventures.
“A well-made bag, really – it’s seen me through a lot.”
There’s a slow, rolling laugh that shows up with these memories. It’s warm, yet honest. There’s no attempt to conceal the pain she’s been through or make light of the effort it’s taken to keep moving forward.
We’ve been talking for three hours straight. When I came here, I wanted to know what everyone else wonders: How does she do it?
But now a new question begins to form in my mind. When life hands you this much heavy stuff, do you really have a choice but to try and carry it?
In our next post: Meet the a**hole who won’t let Kristin live even one day without pain but is powerless to stop her from registering for the next race.
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