An avid tennis player who works for IBM in sales management operations, Cunningham was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2013.
“You always remember where you were, what you’re doing,” she said. “I was at work at my desk and when the doctor called — I’ll never forget his exact words — he said, ‘We found a little cancer.’”
She said the words “little” and “cancer” should never be in the same sentence. She called her family and friends, but the gravity of the news didn’t sink in right away.
“I probably didn’t cry for about a week after the diagnosis because it’s so shocking; you don’t quite grasp it at first.”
Cunningham underwent a double mastectomy three months later where both her breasts were removed, then went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy before having reconstructive surgery on her chest.
She had originally planned to train for a triathlon — a race that involves swimming, biking and running — in 2012, but then her father died, and she felt like she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to work toward her goal.
Then came 2013, where she spent most of the year being treated for her cancer.
Just after finishing her chemotherapy in December, she entered a contest advertised through social media for potential first-time triathletes.
Cunningham’s entry showed a picture of her sporting a bald head while she wore a T-shirt that read “She’s a fighter.” More than 4,000 people voted for her, and she won “a really nice bike” and membership to the Atlanta Tri Club, which provided her with access to trainers who prepared her for the triathlon.
That was enough motivation to finish the goal she’d set for herself in 2012.
“Someone had told me a long time ago it takes a full year after treatments to feel back to yourself again,” Cunningham said. “I would just not accept that. This contest really helped push me to get back up there (and do it).”
Her boyfriend, Kevin Calahan of Duluth, was surprised she wanted to complete the triathlon less than eight months after she finished chemotherapy.
“I thought she needed to wait awhile, said Calahan, who runs a computer repair firm. “But she was headstrong and … that was something she truly wanted to do, so we trained together.”
Fellow triathlete Tony Brown of Austell, a software developer, also helped her prepare for the Aug. 3 triathlon.
He coached her with the process of transitioning from the swim to the bike and then the bike to the run.
“That was my way of contributing back instead of just your typical ‘stay strong,’” he said.
When Cunningham first started training, she said she couldn’t swim 25 yards without stopping. The triathlon she was training for included a quarter-mile open water swim in Lake Allatoona.
That was the part that intimidated her the most, but the day of the race she told herself, “You have to be thankful that you’re here.”
She finished the swim in 17 minutes.
“When I put my foot on that sand, I had the biggest smile on my face because at that moment I realized, ‘You’re going to be a triathlete,’” Cunningham said.
She went on to complete the 13-mile bike ride and 5K run.
“It was mission accomplished,” Calahan said. “We didn’t really care about where she placed or how fast she did, we just wanted her to complete her task. And she did.”
Brown documented her journey through a video that shows her crossing the finish line. It can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fOIRbCX5QM&feature=youtu.be.
Cunningham is getting back into playing tennis and plans to participate in a two-day walk to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. She hopes to participate in the Acworth Women’s Sprint Triathlon every year.
She became emotional as she gave a message to other cancer patients.
“When they’re sick and they’re fatigued and they remember what their life used to be before chemo … it’s hard to imagine getting that life back,” she said. “Hold on to the fact that you can get it back. You’ll be moving again. It’s just hard to keep the faith during the hard days.”