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Iron Will

Breast cancer can’t stop EIU grad Stephanie Felber from finishing eighth Ironman Triathlon
Jay Grabiec photo

Stephanie Felber came back to Eastern to twirl her baton for this year’s Homecoming, something she did during her time here. Just a year ago, though, she was in a hospital bed battling cancer.

“A year ago, I didn't think I would be twirling as much,” she joked.

Even as she battled breast cancer, Felber, an ’85 alumna, still found a way to stay positive.

In March 2012, when she found a lump in her breast during the time she was training for what would have been her eighth Ironman Triathlon, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 run, she rolled over her application to the next year. Now, Felber had a new goal: to compete in the 2013 Ironman, no matter what.

And she did. On May 18, the one-year anniversary of her surgery to remove the cancerous cells in her breast, Felber completed the Ironman in Houston.

Diagnosis

When Felber first found the lump, she thought it might have just been a cyst that would require minimum downtime. After multiple tests, though, she founded out she tested positive for the BRCA gene, which meant her case was much more serious and aggressive than originally thought.

She knew she had to then put her 2012 Ironman plans on hold and approached her fight against breast cancer as her new Ironman.

That doesn’t mean she gave up on training all together. After each chemotherapy treatment, she completed various races, and whether it was a 5K or a half marathon, she gave it her all.

That’s the type of person Felber is, though. Even if it meant she had to spend more time resting on her couch than training, she still trained; even if she had to walk the entirety of the course, she would complete it. She knew she would have slower running times while going through chemo, but she never got defeated by it.

“It’s a little setback, but it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, not a freight train.”

Staying optimistic

Felber doesn’t discredit her struggle, but instead had an almost unbelievably optimistic attitude the entire time throughout. Even though the signs of chemotherapy were obvious, like losing her hair and eyelashes, she used the mind-over-matter technique to keep pushing forward. Comparing cancer to being “similar to the flu,” she didn’t let it interfere with her everyday life.

Aside from her training, she continued to work at Marshall & Poe, a business consulting firm in Elkhart, Ind.. She also continued to teach baton training three nights a week in Arlington Heights and Hoffman Estates, although sometimes she had to stop practice so she could rest.

When she did train, she worked within her limits, which meant no more six hour bike rides and if she could only run for 20 minute increments, so be it.

When it came for the Ironman race then, she knew she could not give up. After she completed the swimming and biking portion of the race, she started the running section and saw other racers dropping out on the sidelines.

“I thought, ‘That is not the option today,’” she said.

It was a struggle to finish this Ironman, now her eighth since her first one in 2003, as she tried to think past the suffocating Houston humidity and how her “body wasn’t used to getting beat up like that.”

She knew she had a support system in her friends cheering her on -- even if it meant they had to watch her cross the finish line through an online stream.

When she did finish, Felber broke down into tears.

“It just proves how strong we are and how strong the mind is,” she said.

What’s next

Now cancer-free, Felber’s next checkup will be in February. Given where she is today, she said she was able to do it because of the attitude she had throughout her battle.

“It may seem bleak at first, but there’s so much out there (to overcome cancer),” she said. “You’ll get through this.”

Now, Felber’s 50th birthday is rapidly approaching, which is an age milestone that sometimes gives people hangups. Not Felber, though.

“I’m very excited to be turning 50,” she said. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it.”

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