SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
BrittLee Bowman was always the portrait of health as a cyclist, kale smoothies and workout photos on her Instagram feed. That changed last year. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bradley Campbell has a portrait of how one athlete copes with cancer.
BRADLEY CAMPBELL, BYLINE: Before BrittLee Bowman made the biggest decision of her life, she lined up at a cyclocross race in Queens.
BRITTLEE BOWMAN: And then they blew the whistle.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
BOWMAN: And then we were off.
CAMPBELL: Bowman immediately jumped out front, along with three other women, all elite racers.
BOWMAN: Yeah. We're flying through the course.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go Britt.
CAMPBELL: Cyclocross is a sport that throws obstacles at you, from sand pits to staircases to knee-high barriers. And this one, at a public park alongside the Hudson River, was no different.
BOWMAN: And so the three of us are going, going, going.
CAMPBELL: Bowman pedaled. People cheered. And if you saw her that day, you probably had no idea that decision she was wrestling with. Do I have both my breasts removed?
Fast forward several weeks, Upper West Side, BrittLee Bowman's apartment. We sit on a couch, split a french press of coffee. And she tells me how it all began.
BOWMAN: You touch your boobs sometimes. Like, you are familiar with your body, especially as an athlete. Like, you should be familiar with your body. And I just, you know, was, like, touching my boob and felt a lump.
CAMPBELL: What went through your head?
BOWMAN: Literally, I was like, hm, that's weird. I wonder what it is.
CAMPBELL: Stage One multifocal invasive ductal carcinoma, ductal carcinoma in situ and lobular carcinoma in situ, all in her left breast. Her right was unaffected. Her doctor told her her options - lumpectomy, single mastectomy or double mastectomy.
BOWMAN: So basically, if I chose double mastectomy and then take care of everything right now, then I hopefully will not have a recurrence of this cancer.
CAMPBELL: But that's a big deal. At 34 and single, she wanted the option to breastfeed in the future should she have kids. She also wanted to keep the option to have kids, and some treatments impact fertility. Then there were a host of other concerns, including how it could impact her athletic career and how she looks at her body.
BOWMAN: It wasn't totally the fear of it changing my body. It was, like, more about, like, the fear of it changing how I felt about my body.
CAMPBELL: She soon had her surgery date but still hadn't decided which surgery to get.
BOWMAN: I didn't have much time to make my decision.
CAMPBELL: This had to be just, like, constant.
BOWMAN: Yeah. It was the thing I thought about every moment.
CAMPBELL: All that was going through her head when she entered that cyclocross race in Queens.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go Britt.
CAMPBELL: Bowman was powering through the course, battling for second place alongside rider Rachel Rubino. The two were competitors and friends.
BOWMAN: You know, she was saying really encouraging things to me.
RACHEL RUBINO: Hey. I've been thinking about you so much all week and just want you to know, like, (laughter) I love you so much.
CAMPBELL: Wait, you said this in the middle of the race?
RUBINO: Yeah. Like, while we were racing (laughter).
CAMPBELL: By the last lap, Rubino was in second, and Bowman had third place in the bag.
BOWMAN: And so, like, I just enjoyed riding it, especially in the last lap, just, you know, finishing out, doing each obstacle and feeling, like, the full power of my body, what I can do with it, what it has done for me, what I appreciate about it.
CAMPBELL: They'd stand on the podium together. It meant a lot for Bowman, but it meant a lot for Rubino too.
RUBINO: For me, a lot of people in my family have had cancer. My mom passed away of breast cancer when I was 22. So that's, like - for me, it hits this really deep place, you know. Like, being a woman and being an athlete, it's like this can happen to any of us.
CAMPBELL: Days after the race, BrittLee Bowman made her decision. She'd have surgery to remove both her breasts.
BOWMAN: So they they placed the IV in my arm while I was in the holding area with my family. And then they eventually said, OK, it's time. And they walked me down a hallway, and there was an elevator. And I was with the nurse, and I had to, like, say bye to my family. The doors closed, and I was, like, in the elevator with the nurse. And I was just crying and - yeah, it's just like, you know, you don't want to have to do that. But, like, you know that, like, you're trying to fix the problem.
CAMPBELL: She walked into the operating room in her gown past the table of surgical tools. She climbed onto the table, and she stared into silver lamp lights.
Three weeks after her surgery, I met up with Bowman at her apartment. Her body was still healing. And as she told me her story, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd ever ride a bike again. It's just so key to her life.
BOWMAN: Oh, my God, of course. (Laughter) Like, I got on my bike on a 28-degree day here in New York City. While I was riding, I wasn't totally thinking about, like, my surgery area. I was thinking about, you know, wow, like, this is how I feel when I take three weeks off the bike and then get back on it normally. It's hard.
CAMPBELL: Bowman is quick to remind me that she just had Stage One. She's young, and there are a lot of women dealing with far worse. That said, there's still radiation ahead, along with five to 10 years of Tamoxifen to ward off a reoccurrence. Even then, who knows?
But BrittLee Bowman is an athlete. She excels at charging at obstacles and past them. It's just who she is. For NPR News, I'm Bradley Campbell in New York.
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