Meret Bainbridge wanted to swim the Tri for a Cure in honor of a friend—she ended up swimming for herself, too
“In September 2013, I went to a sports store and bought a wetsuit at an end-of-season sale,” says Meret Bainbridge. She had just attended a memorial service for a member of her Unitarian-Universalist Church, who succumbed to her fourth cancer diagnosis. “I swore I’d swim the [Tri for a Cure] in Andrea Juers’ honor. But then life got in the way.”
A self-employed acupuncturist and single mom of a teenage daughter, Bainbridge couldn’t find time for training in her busy life. She felt too out of shape and admittedly hated Maine’s cold waters, even though she loved swimming. Then life threw a curveball.
At a routine mammogram on May 18, 2016, a small tumor was picked up by the scan. So small, in fact, that neither she nor her doctor had felt the lump. A subsequent breast ultrasound raised suspicion, which led to a biopsy. On June 23, 2016, Bainbridge, who at the time was 57, got the news no one ever wants to hear: she had cancer—specifically, stage one breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma.
“I was given the choice of either mastectomy or lumpectomy with radiation,” says Bainbridge. She opted for the lumpectomy. “I wanted to keep my breasts,” she says.
The lumpectomy occurred July 21, 2016, and the lymph node removed was negative. She did not need chemotherapy but undertook radiation that fall. During the time between the lumpectomy and radiation, Bainbridge’s mother—who was just shy of 80 at the time—came from Germany to visit her in Maine for the first time. Together they visited Acadia National park, hiked Little Hunters Beach and, as soon as Bainbridge was cleared by her surgeon, she swam in Echo Lake.
“Swimming never felt so good,” says Bainbridge.
When she received her diagnosis, Bainbridge recalls Southern Maine Health Care’s nurse navigator, Helene Langley, reviewing her treatment options. She says, “One of my first thoughts was, after I am through this, I will do Tri for a Cure, and I will swim in the survivors’ wave.”
The thought of swimming in that survivors’ wave carried her through her treatment. “It was the goal I always envisioned when things got tough,” she says.
Four days prior to her lumpectomy, Bainbridge joined the hundreds of spectators at the Tri for a Cure for the first time. It poured during the whole event and she cried watching the participants swim, bike and run.
“Watching these women athletes of all shapes and sizes, some with bald heads, compete and be strong, laugh and cry together made me feel I wanted to be part of this community of [athletes],” she says, and in that moment realized, “I was not alone in this cancer journey.”
Once Bainbridge completed radiation, she shifted her focus from treatment to training. She enrolled in the triathlon swimming program through SheJAMs, an athletic organization founded by three women helping women train for all aspects of a triathlon. Bainbridge was not an avid swimmer, though she did love the water.
“I loved to swim and was never afraid of the water. I just hated the cold,” she says. “I swam in Maine’s ponds and lakes during the summer, but never took to the ocean because it was too cold. Having a wetsuit made all the difference,” as did prescription goggles.
What experience Bainbridge did have swimming was limited to the breaststroke. During the SheJAMs training, she learned to swim freestyle and the rhythm of breath necessary for the stroke. Bainbridge says, “I was the slowest in the class, but speed did not matter to me. I had perseverance and stamina.”
“Watching these women athletes of all shapes and sizes, some with bald heads, compete and be strong, laugh and cry together made me feel I wanted to be part of this community.”
As she set about training, Bainbridge knew she could only manage the swim leg of the triathlon due to a chronic hip problem that kept her from cycling or running. When she floated the idea of a relay team, a friend from church, Niki Norman, 65, volunteered for the cycling leg. Norman says, “I wanted to support Meret in her recovery and challenge myself with the bike ride.”
Then, Bainbridge asked her daughter Megan if she would run. Megan, now 17, ran cross country in school, so she could easily ac complish the 5K at the end of Tri for a Cure. Remembering when she learned of her mom’s diagnosis, Megan says, “I was in disbelief. The possibility of losing the person that I care about the most was difficult to digest.”
She agreed to be the third member of Team Trilogy. “It was a bonding experience for us, having a common goal, but the Tri was more empowering for my mom. She had survived cancer and the triathlon was a symbolic comeback for her.”
And a comeback it was. One year and two days after her lumpectomy, Bainbridge stood on the beach by Spring Point Ledge Light among the cancer survivors who would kick off the race with a 1/3-mile swim. Bainbridge says, “There I was, one of this community of strong women survivors who had turned their cancer into being athletes for the common good. It was awesome.”
Having swum the course twice before for practice prepared her for the swim, but not for the chaos of splashing and thrashing as dozens of women in the second survivors’ wave took to the waters of Casco Bay. “The most fun part was to hear the cheering crowd of spectators each time my head came up to breathe and then became a distant white noise when my head was back under water.”
Bainbridge will sit out for the 2018 Tri for a Cure so she and her daughter can focus on college campus visits, since Megan will graduate high school in 2019. However, she continues to swim as if she were participating. It has helped increase Bainbridge’s exercise as she made lifestyle changes as a cancer survivor. As an acupuncturist, Bainbridge has used Chinese herbal remedies and supplements since her diagnosis and changed other eating habits, such as reducing processed foods, sugar, gluten and caffeine, and giving up alcohol.
“Cancer has been a great teacher,” she says. “I will not let cancer define who I am. I will not let my life and my decisions be ruled by fear. I will do whatever it takes to get healthy and stay healthy. I will not blame myself…or others…Blame is a wasted to time and energy that is better spent healing. I will take responsibility for changing my life to give myself the best possible outcome.”
Emma Bouthillette authored “A Brief History of Biddeford,” about her hometown. She is a yoga instructor and a corgi mom. (emmabouthillette.com)