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When Teri Griege was diagnosed with colon cancer three weeks after completing an Ironman in 2009, her own doctors privately thought the worst. Her frame was strong and muscular; inside her disease was advanced and had spread to the liver. Statistically, she had a 5-to-10-percent chance of living another five years.
But Griege, with her short-cropped blonde hair and welcoming smile, must have been forged with some kind of steel. There is no wavering, whether it's the 14th lonely hour padding slowly on an Ironman course, or the fourth-quarter of a winner-take-all fight against cancer.
"I'll quit when it's the end, when there is nothing more that they can do for me, or when there is a cure and a miracle," Griege said.
She adopted a new philosophy -- cram as many experiences as possible into the time she had left. For starters, it meant continuing to train for another half Ironman in September 2010 through surgery, an infection that sent her back to the hospital and endless rounds of chemotherapy. It meant competing in the 2011 Ironman World Championships in Kona. It means speaking engagements across the country to tell her story and planning to run the London Marathon with her husband, Dave. And it means ongoing maintenance chemotherapy every two to three weeks to seek out metastatic cells that will always threaten to take root.
Teri Griege is simply trying to beat the odds a little bit every day.
Part of the reason Dave fell for Teri when they were high school juniors in St. Louis was her competitiveness. They were both athletes, although her options were more limited than his.
"At the time, sports weren't nearly as prevalent for girls as they are now," Griege said. "We didn't have soccer. Our choices were tennis, basketball and field hockey."
She played all three.
They married in 1987 and had two kids -- Kyle, now 23, and Kati 19. Things became frantic for the parents when they both had careers and the children were young, but Teri found time to run to stay in shape. Once the kids were more self-sufficient, her niece, Christi Liebe, suggested they train together when Liebe entered the 2002 Chicago Marathon. Griege figured she'd enter the race, as well.
I think if it doesn't change [your thinking], you'd probably have big problems. You have to come to terms with it. It's the one thing you can depend on, that makes you think not everything is changing.” -- Teri Griege on her diagnosis
"I just always wanted to push my body to the limit," she said.
It was just the start. By 2008, Griege finished fifth in her age group at the Louisville Ironman, just seconds from qualifying for the world championship in Kona. It dawned on her she had just missed reaching a dream she didn't even know she had.
Dr. Ruben Aymerich was part of Griege's training group, and they would bike together. He was a gastroenterologist, and one day in 2009 she described some symptoms to him. Routine ones, like fatigue; unpleasant ones, like seeing blood when she went to the bathroom. She had always thought it might be due to the long training rides, but he told her to make an appointment.
That's when a routine colonoscopy revealed she had a very large tumor. A CT scan that same day revealed two tumors in her liver -- stage IV, metastatic. Aymerich said it was the first time he had ever had to deliver such bad news to a patient who was also a friend.
"I remember everything about that day, the circumstances, the room, the CT scan," Aymerich said. "It was pretty clear it was big and advanced. It was incredibly hard to go out there and say, 'I'm about to change your life.'"
Teri and Dave spent that day going from one doctor's office to have the scan to then waiting for the results while her insides churned. "It felt like a snow globe on steroids," Teri said.
The panic of her situation took hold one night when she could not get the stark menace of the five-year survival rates out of her head, the focus and concentration from her years as an athlete allowed her some discipline. She had to force herself to think differently about it. So it was back to the bike, pool and track, back to train through pre-surgical chemo and after her incisions healed.
"I think if it doesn't change, you'd probably have big problems," Griege said. "You have to come to terms with it. It's the one thing you can depend on, that makes you think not everything is changing."
Griege didn't get the disease people want to talk about. After the breathlessness of diagnosis, and telling her children, Kyle and Kati, that she still hopes to see them get married, there was also the feeling that talking about her condition required a lot of euphemisms.
Now, 3 ½ years after her diagnosis, Griege can say it out loud: colon cancer.
"Somebody's got to talk about this," Griege said. "Somebody has to have the guts to stand up and say, 'I had bleeding.'"
She made it through a half Ironman a year after her diagnosis and lobbied for one of the entry slots in Kona set aside for those with exceptional stories, stories like hers.
Before Griege packed her bags, there was a discussion between her doctors and family about just how much the race could compromise her immune system. Remember, an Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride followed by a full 26.2-mile marathon. Aymerich and his colleagues had to balance that against how the training was helping her health and focus. Teri got their approval.
"I was just so grateful to have the opportunity that I didn't care if it took seven hours to walk 20 miles," Griege said.
And the race wasn't something Aymerich and his wife wanted to miss. He volunteered in the Ironman medical tent, along with Teri's oncologist. They were among 35 family members and friends who watched Teri burst into tears as she crossed the finish line in the dark after 14 hours, 50 minutes and 32 seconds.
"I just had all this emotion well up in my body, I was so overwhelmed," Teri said. "My niece calls it, 'the ugly cry.'"
When a healthy Katie Couric had a colonoscopy on live television in 2000 it actually was followed by an uptick in the number of people who went in for the diagnostic procedure. (Couric's husband died of colon cancer at age 42.) Colon cancer remains one of the few diseases in which the diagnostic test can actually remove pre-cancerous polyps.
"In the old days, cancer had a stigma," Aymerich said. "You immediately thought of death. Advances in surgery, what techniques we offer, absolutely doesn't mean death at all. They can offer treatment, think of this as any other disease."
And Griege is living proof.