Tallahassee Democrat 10/4/14
“Inner peace helped Clarke deal with cancer”
Connie Clarke sat in the car, convincing herself to walk into the Premier Health & Fitness Center. She wore a red bandana on her head; her hair had fallen out during chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013.
Clarke, a competitive runner and marathoner, certainly understood the hard work and dedication required to be the best. She was also in the middle of earning her certification as a life and wellness coach when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Clarke, a wife and mother of three, summoned the strength she had gained through her faith, family and friends. She took a deep breath and emerged from her vehicle.
“Each day got easier to walk through the lobby,” Clarke said. “Cancer is a big challenge but it does not have to defeat us. We can be stronger on the other side.”
Clarke is proof, too. After years of working at various marketing jobs following her graduation from Florida State, Clarke changed course and followed her passion for health and fitness through running.
Describing herself as a non-athlete for many years, Clarke started as a recreational runner following the birth of her three children. She gradually advanced into competitive racing, adventure runs and marathons – all helping her to get physically fit while clearing her mind and connecting spiritually.
It was those endeavors that pushed Clarke from her comfort zone and provided the courage and tenacity to tackle the challenges that cancer brought. Clarke found herself deep into research, doctor appointments and out-of-town consultations. She initially felt lost and overwhelmed. “I was surprised how mentally exhausting it was,” Clarke said.
She was overcome, however, by another feeling during her ordeal against a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Through prayer, she learned to be at peace even when facing the unknown, in addition to dealing with the physical and emotional realities of disease.
“I have learned to live more intentionally,” said Clarke, crediting her medical care, support staff of family and friends and her faith.
“I have learned to slow down and live more in the moment. To do those important things and to reach out more to others.”
After undergoing six surgeries, chemotherapy and moving from Tallahassee to Jacksonville for seven weeks of radiation, Clarke has received clear checkups. Rob Clarke called his wife “the strongest person I have ever known.”
Connie finished her certification as a life and wellness coach and is the founder of Striving Forward Coaching. Clarke has also returned to running and, as a member of Gulf Winds Track Club, was awarded the 2013 Race Director of the Year.
She describes her journey as one towards clarity, competence, confidence and courage. And it took all those qualities when it came to walking into Premier that first time with the red bandana on her head.
“I have learned to be reasonable in my expectations as I face the unknown, and I know I can use my experience to help others on similar journeys,” Clarke said.
The room becomes suffocating, the lights dizzying, time blurs with seemingly no beginning or end. The words “Stage 2 breast cancer” are not good words to hear. The words are brutal and they are cruel. They suffocate. I never asked Connie Clarke what went through her mind when she first heard those words. Whatever the initial reaction and struggles, Connie processed those words and decided she would fight and call the shots the best she could.
The survival rates of Stage II breast cancer are good. But while that measures the worst possible result, it does not account for the suffering, physically or mentally, of the fight against perhaps the world’s most notorious killer. Unfortunately, a diagnosis that includes the “C” word, extinguishes the ability of many patients to ever enjoy life again.
I knew that would never be the case with Connie Clarke. My first strong clue was watching her run toward me, head shaved and partially covered with a bandana, on the Lake Overstreet Trail. It was not long after her diagnosis and the message was clear – “I am taking the fight to this disease on and I will keep my running (and my life) as strong as I possibly can.”
Of course, cancer doesn’t quit easily either. After an initial round of treatment that included surgery, the margins around the original tumor were clear and it appeared the cancer was gone. But some time after the first round of chemo, it returned earning the label “atypical” and “more anxiety, consults, research and a lot of prayer!” The chemo, which began in March of 2013, would be changed and a mastectomy would follow.
These however were challenges, not insurmountable obstacles. Connie would go after them with a grace and quiet courage that left friends and family in awe. “I believe that continuing an active lifestyle has greatly contributed to my getting through this – physically, as well as mentally.” She explains: “My running has understandably gone through cycles as I have recovered from surgeries and chemotherapy. During the first week or so of chemo, I was doing good to get out for walks. Eventually I could slowly jog my usual 5 mile course with the help of my Early Girlz. I had to learn a new normal – trying to be consistent with the work-out schedule I had before my diagnosis, yet knowing that meant that many runs would become walks and my spin classes and weight training would be less intense. Patience!”
In addition to her iron will, Connie has a number of very positive factors working for her; her faith is strong, her family is with her and she has rock solid friends led by the Early Girlz. When asked what her favorite part of running was, Connie was quick to answer “I am part of an awesome group, the Early Girlz.”
The Early Girlz have made sure that every day a card arrives from someone wishing Connie the best. The love is obvious and it flowed when I asked them to send me their thoughts about Connie. Classy, giving and strong were the images that flowed past me. Lisa Vickers recounted that after the Florida Ironman: “Long after most of the racers had gone home, just after 11p.m., Connie was waiting at the finish line cheering and smiling. She helped me retrieve my bike and gear, drove me to a nearby restaurant for food and got me settled into my hotel room. That is Connie.” Bonnie Wright told how Connie is the “one in the lead or pushing the pace on a run at 5:30 a.m.” Despite that competitive nature though “there is the part where she wants all of her running buddies to have the same fun as she is, and will slow down and walk with them to make sure it happens. Loranne Ausley said, “Connie continues to inspire me every day as a mother, daughter, wife, community volunteer and amazing athlete. She is a dear friend to all of us.” Judy Chin, says: “Connie has lots and lots of faith! She put on the Shamrock Scurry 5K race while going through chemo. Connie is a gem” Bringing the Shamrock Scurry 5K back was a special gift both to the running community and her church, Killearn United Methodist Church and its ministry.
So for now, the chemo is done and she is being bombarded with radiation treatments. Of course, her response was to take on the challenges of the hills and terrain of the Women’s Distance Festival 5K. For much of the way, she and Mary Jean ran together, enjoying each other’s company and one more chance to run. But as that finished line came into view, something grabbed hold of Ms. Clarke and those legs started turning faster as she raced past the clock.