Professor Kathy Parker is moving forward after being treated twice for cancer
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in June, and UGA Professor Kathy Parker is finishing a four-mile run. Her breathing is even, her stride is steady and she’s able to carry on a conversation. Occasionally she wipes sweat from her forehead with a bandanna she carries in her hand. There aren’t many runners out this morning. Though the temperature of 72 degrees is reasonable, the 90 percent humidity is not.
But Kathy Parker isn’t your average weekend warrior. Parker has run the Boston Marathon three times, competed at the world championship for duathlon and faced down triathlons including an Ironman. For years she’s been training her body to endure the physical hardships that accompany long-distance exertion and also honing the mental toughness that’s an integral part of such competitions. So this morning’s run is not even close to the toughest challenge she’s endured. Not by a long shot. Her biggest challenge has been facing and defeating cancer not once, but twice.
Kathy Parker has always loved the outdoors.
“When I was a kid, I would be outdoors in the summer virtually all day long,” she says. “I’d leave after breakfast, come back for lunch, and my mom would call me in at bedtime.”
She grew up in central Ohio as the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her brothers were athletic and naturally she tried to keep up, playing basketball and taking up competitive swimming. At Michigan State University she enrolled as a psychology major, but a geography class made her realize that she could make a career out of being outside and studying the environment.
“I’m sure that part of why I do what I do is my tomboy upbringing of being outside all the time,” she says. “That’s one aspect I love about my job.”
Michigan State is also where Parker met her future husband, Al Parker, in a geography class. They graduated in 1975, skipping commencement to get married before heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a Ph.D. program in geography. The two enjoyed outdoor activities like walking and biking and took up the new running craze. They wore Nike waffle trainers and ran three miles a day every day. They got shin splints. After they recovered, they got better shoes and kept running. In 1978 a fictional television movie starring Joanne Woodward—who won an Emmy—chronicled a woman’s quest to run the Boston Marathon. “See How She Runs” planted an idea in Parker’s mind. It made her want to run the Boston Marathon.
Jim Conn was Parker’s oldest brother and a bit of a black sheep in the family. Eight years older, he was the only one of the kids who didn’t get a college degree, but he was a wizard when it came to understanding mechanics and electronics. Parker remembers him dismantling and then reassembling a car engine. Talking about him still brings tears to her eyes.
In 2000 Conn, who lived in Columbus, Ohio, was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. Faced with her brother’s terminal diagnosis, Parker decided to run the Boston Marathon to honor him and to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
“He had always kind of kidded me about all my athletic stuff,” she says. “I wasn’t even sure that it would mean anything to him… but he was really moved.”
Conn lived only a few days beyond the 2001 Boston Marathon. And exactly three days after he died, Parker discovered that she was facing her own cancer.
A couple of months before the marathon, Parker had discovered a grape-sized lump in her groin. A needle biopsy suggested that the lump was benign, so she scheduled surgery for after the race. But the surgery revealed that she had vulvar cancer—news she received while driving to Columbus for her brother’s funeral.
“It was quite a blow, because I don’t think either one of us had really thought it was possible she would have cancer,” Al Parker says. “And of course the timing was horrible. Since she’d just lost her brother, I think her immediate sense was ‘I’m going to die.’”
On the way to Conn’s funeral, the two stopped overnight at a motel.
“We took a walk, and we said to each other, ‘One step at a time.’ And I think even just that turned it around,” he says. “Go out for a stroll in the evening and realize that ordinary daily life is going to go on.”
Eventually Kathy Parker would have four surgeries that removed tissue in her groin down to the pelvic floor. One doctor told her that she’d probably never run again—which she says was “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
“As soon as they would let me, I was walking,” she says. “Even in the hospital I would kind of do laps around the floor that I was on.”
Parker vowed that if she got through the next two years—the time frame during which the cancer was most likely to come back—she would run the Boston Marathon again to celebrate.
In the fall of 2004, the woman who’d been told that she might never run again found herself cycling into Las Vegas next to seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. Parker was riding in the Tour of Hope, a cross-country ride designed to raise awareness of the importance of cancer clinical trials. Almost 1,200 people applied to ride the nearly 3,500 miles from L.A. to D.C., and Parker was one of 20 chosen.
Earlier that year she had run her second Boston Marathon, this time in memory of her brother, and again raising money for the American Cancer Society. Parker had defied expectations by running again after her 2001 surgery, as soon as her oncologist gave her the all clear.
“He wouldn’t let me run for six weeks, but as soon as he did I was out the door,” she says.
But it hadn’t been easy. Parker discovered that the tissue removal during her surgery resulted in muscle imbalances that caused back and hip problems. They showed up not only with running, but also with cycling, which she took up about six months after the surgery.
Over time she discovered that yoga, massage and working with a physical therapist helped to keep things under control. As her body adjusted, she took on a new challenge—triathlons. She also found that there are life lessons associated with an event like cancer.
“It makes you think of things in a broader perspective,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything else in my life that has so quickly and so dramatically just put everything into focus.”
And when it came to athletics and pushing herself, Parker found she didn’t want to say no. The Tour of Hope was going to be a grueling event, but Parker had a special reason for wanting to participate. When she was being treated for vulvar cancer, one thing that helped keep her spirits up was a book her husband gave her—It’s Not About the Bike, Armstrong’s chronicle of his battle with testicular cancer.
“When I was diagnosed the first time, his book made an enormous difference to me because I’d just lost Jim. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she says. “I read it in the hospital, and I thought, ‘Yea, ok, Lance beat tremendous odds. I can beat this.’”
The Tour of Hope riders were divided into four teams, with each member taking a four-to-five-hour shift on the bike every 18 hours. On Parker’s first leg of the journey, Armstrong rode the last 40 miles with them as they reached Las Vegas at nightfall.
“I just happened to be right at the front with Lance as we rode up the sidewalk to this casino where he and a couple of our team members were going to speak. It was pretty amazing. Having an opportunity to ride side by side with Lance on the road and chat with him—that was pretty incredible for all of us.”
At each stop during the Tour there were rallies at cancer centers, where the teams shared their experiences and heard stories from locals. Such exchanges helped fuel the riders, who were enduring a physical experience more grueling than anything they’d ever done. As Armstrong told them, the 18-hour clock meant they were riding great distances on less sleep than riders in the Tour de France.
“I remember there was a woman out there at 1 in the morning just along the roadside. She thanked us and said that she appreciated our doing it because she couldn’t. She had a sister who was fighting cancer,” Parker says. “That’s the kind of thing that would give us the strength to make it.”
Parker also shared her experience with the two classes on physical geography that she was teaching that fall. Before she left, she created a virtual tour that mapped the physical and cultural features she would encounter during her ride so that the students could get a sense of what she was seeing. A tech person uploaded her daily logs while she was gone.
And when she got back, she found that the Tour opened up lines of communication. Two of her students had families that had been affected by cancer, and Parker was able to refer them to organizations for support.
“It was neat to be able to reach out to kids in my classes in a way beyond just the physical geography that I was teaching them about.”
Kathy Parker continued to challenge herself by competing in triathlons, eventually completing an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run). She discovered that she excelled in duathlon (cycling and running), and in 2008 she qualified to compete at the world championship. But another cancer diagnosis—this time breast cancer—ended those plans.
When she got the news, Parker was still in touch with her Tour of Hope teammates. She shared her diagnosis on their listserv and to her surprise got a response from Eric Winer, a doctor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Tour of Hope team member from 2003. Though they’d never met in person, Winer reviewed her treatment plan and told her about a clinical trial he was conducting at Dana-Farber. The regimen at DF would be less toxic, and it also gave Parker a chance to give back.
“The message of the Tour of Hope was driven home to me personally when I was diagnosed the second time,” she says. “The kind of breast cancer that I had—the drug that is typically used for it has been used for early-stage versions of this cancer now for about four years. Before it was used, the prognosis for that kind of cancer was not really very good. It was one of the deadlier forms of breast cancer. And this drug—herceptin—has made an incredible difference. And we only know that because of women participating in clinical trials.”
She had four lumpectomies, then flew weekly to Boston at her own expense for chemotherapy. Despite the treatment and constant travel she continued to teach, using pre-recorded presentations and web-based discussions to keep in contact with her students.
“I feel like it was an opportunity for them to learn not just about physical geography but that here’s a person who’s dealing with cancer treatment who’s still living life. It’s not a death sentence,” she says. “I think to someone that age who may not have had much exposure to cancer yet that’s an important lesson to learn.”
After chemotherapy she continued with medications every three weeks for a full year. She has regular checkups but is cancer free.
In October, Athens hosted its first ever half marathon. It would seem like a natural fit for Kathy Parker, but she decided not to run it. She’s still running and cycling, but not as much as she used to. It’s an experiment to see what will happen when she doesn’t drive herself to physical extremes. “I think doing races and being able to compete and do ok, it was like, ‘Take that, cancer! You’re not going to get me. Or if you are, it’s not going to be without a fight,’” she says.
“I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t need to prove that anymore, so I’m hoping to be a little more laid back about things.”
But Parker is not slowing down when it comes to sharing her experiences in the hope that she can help others. Early in October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—she spoke to UGA pharmacy students in a Chemotherapy of Cancer class. She talked openly about her experiences and answered questions ranging from the side effects of chemo to how often she performed breast self exams to the personal costs she incurred with the clinical trial.
The next week she returned to Boston for a follow-up with the breast cancer clinical trial. Parker also stays in touch with a former student who’s being treated for pancreatic cancer. And she has taped an interview on therapeutic yoga, a video project that grew out of a yoga class for breast cancer survivors that she has found particularly helpful.
“Cancer’s a disease about which people can easily have a lot of fear. It’s a scary disease. When you hear you’ve been diagnosed with it, it’s frankly terrifying,” she says. “If I can make it any less terrifying for anyone else, then it’s effort that’s well spent for me. I don’t really mind talking about it, because I’ve been helped by others doing the same thing.”