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Gillian Roberts: Triathlete, newlywed, and chemotherapy recipient

Gillian Roberts is looking forward to get back into triathlete training after three more rounds of chemotherapy. Bill Phillips photo

Training to be a triathlete can prepare you for difficult, physical challenges. But it can also prepare you for other difficulties in life.

“Triathlon has taught me to be really tough,” says Gillian Roberts. “It’s taught me to push through uncomfortable things. Triathlon has taught me to enjoy the moments I can enjoy and just love what I’m doing.”

And she needs to be tough.

Early last year doctors discovered she had a large tumour on one of her ovaries. It was benign, but it still needed to be taken out. With just a week left in the school year, the Grade 4 teacher had the tumour removed and spent the next few months recovering from major abdominal surgery.

“I returned back to my life, was ready to get back to training and being me again,” she says. “And then this year that all went downhill again. They discovered I had another tumour on my other ovary that wasn’t taken out. In the process of surgery for that one, they discovered it was cancerous.”

The cancer had spread so, in addition to removing her remaining ovary, surgeons removed her uterus, her cervix, and her appendix.

“I had to (recover from surgery) all over again after I felt like I had just completed that journey,” she said. “It wasn’t quite over yet.”

She is going through chemotherapy at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North here in Prince George and is halfway through her six rounds of treatment.

“It’s been quite an interesting journey for me so far,” she said. “But it’s one that I, in the end, I know I’ll be thankful for because I know it will bring me out better in the end.”

While she had her surgery in Vancouver by an oncologist who specializes in gynecology, all her subsequent treatments, including bloodwork and chemotherapy, are here in Prince George at the B.C. Cancer Centre for the North.

“It makes it so much easier,” she says of being to receive treatment here in Prince George. “I can’t imagine having to go to Vancouver once a month … It would affect me, it would affect my family, it would be financially challenging and logistically challenging.”

Now, she can get her treatment during the day and go home at night.

“Everyone there is so awesome,” she says. “It’s a real testament to how wonderful they are there. When I go to treatment there, I’m there for seven hours. When I come out of that day, I’m feeling happy and positive and like I’ve had an awesome day, and then I remember; ‘I just had chemotherapy.’”

Not exactly what one might expect after a chemotherapy treatment.

She has three more treatments, which occur every 28 days, to go so she’s hopeful that by Christmas she will be done treatment.

“But cancer really doesn’t play by the rules,” she says. “(Being done treatment) is the plan, but nobody really knows the plan. It’s hard to, in my mind, keep that set in stone. I don’t want to get attached to that date because it could change.”

Being a triathlete obviously helped because before she was diagnosed she was in peak physical condition. But the sport helps her mentally as well.

“Some of those skills come into play when you go through cancer treatments because there are some really hard days,” she says. “There are some challenging times. There are some really dark moments. When I can push through those and get to where I can enjoy myself, those skills are useful.”

She is has competed in several Ironman competitions throughout Canada and the U.S., is a regular participant at the BMO half-marathon in Vancouver, and attends as many local running events as she can.

Training, of course, is on hold while she is undergoing treatment, but she tries to remain active.

“Being active is so much different than training,” she says. “I try to do what I can. I don’t really have the stamina to do the things the way I want to do them, or as often.”

But short runs and bike rides are part of her routine as she goes through chemo, depending on how she feels. As much as she misses training, she misses her work as a Grade 4 teacher as well.

 “I miss my job,” she says. “I miss my co-workers, I miss my students … That was hard, to walk away at the end of the year.”

Originally from Ontario, she has been in Prince George five years. That makes it tough for her family to be here for her, although her mother has been out to help three times this year.

One of those trips was for Gillian’s wedding.

“If we didn’t have her help every once in a while, it would be up to Tory, my husband, to do everything all of the time,” she said. “For him to have all of the chores on his plate, it’s a lot. There are some days when I can help with stuff, but there are some days when I just can’t … It is hard to do this when your family is so far away. Tory’s been amazing because, obviously, it’s been very hard on him as well. We always seem to make it work.”

A great Christmas present for Gillian, Tory, and her students would be for her to be back in the classroom in January.

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