Have you heard of the triathlete Lisa Bentley? She won the Australian Ironman five years running (2002-2006), is three-time winner of the Canadian Ironman, two-time New Zealand winner and finished 3rd place in the Ironman World Championships in 2006. This race—involving a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42km run—is not for slouches.
Bentley is 41 years old, a Canadian and was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was in her 20s.
I wonder how we respond to a story like Bentley’s. We may immediately focus on the fact that she must have a ‘mild version’ of CF to have accomplished all of this. Possibly. Certainly Bentley might not have faced half of what some of us (or our children) have faced on our health journey. However, she has obviously had to fight a tough and scrappy fight along the way. Amazingly, she began the 2005 Hawaiian Ironman with a burst appendix, only pulling out much later in the race when the pain became intolerable. More recently Bentley ruptured her Achilles tendon, believed in part to be caused by the antibiotic (Cipro) she was taking at the time.
‘The bacteria my lungs grow – called pseudomonas – is very bad and it requires some very strong antibiotics to fight it. So that is the vicious cycle that I get into when I get sick. I train with chest infections – if I didn’t, I would never train or race. That is my reality… So I suppose my training may suffer during these periods but you just have to do what you can with what you have and I am blessed to be as healthy as I am. It is very important to keep moving when I get sick or when others with CF get sick because the exercise helps to clear the lungs.’
Not many people with CF are competing in, and winning, Ironman races. But 40 years ago the same could have been said about people with CF finishing school or, more recently, having children. Yet now those milestones are commonplace. Could the same be true of endurance racing 10-20 years down the track? It may sound unlikely, but Bentley trains 25-30 hours/week; who would reap the health benefits of this kind of training more than someone living with CF?
The point here is really about attitude. We can view Bentley’s achievements as just an ‘outlier’, a fluke that we (or our family member with CF) could never achieve. Or we can view it as a spur, a catalyst, gnawing at us, nudging us out of bed in the morning for a run: ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’
According to her website (www.lisabentley.com), Bentley doesn’t allow her disease to rule her life. She says, ‘Attitude is more important than fact. The fact may be that you have an obstacle, but it is how you think about that obstacle that determines its manageability.’
One lung doctor I know believes that how well people with CF do is 30% genetics and 70% environmental. His definition of ‘environmental’ is broad, including what bugs we’re exposed to, how compliant we are with treatments, and attitude. Though other doctors might disagree with this ratio, the important issue here is that we can’t change our genes (though, damn, it would be nice) but we can control our attitude about living with them.
Because how we tackle our illness today is enormously important for how well we will live tomorrow.