By Kim Constantinesco
One day you’re screaming down a trail, leaving tread marks and sweat in the red dirt. The next, you’re in a recliner chair being pumped full of toxins.
For pro mountain biker Jen Hanks, that was life over two years ago. The 39-year-old athlete and two-time breast cancer survivor from Salt Lake City, Utah had to put her biking career on hold while she underwent surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, but that didn’t mean that her handlebars were gathering dust in the garage.
Hanks used mountain biking to pedal through the disease, and she came back a stronger athlete for it.
Balance on Wheels
If you saw Hanks ripping down Moab’s red rock or through ravines in Salt Lake’s foothills, you’d never know that she got her start in a place that has no mountains — at the University of Iowa.
The Illinois native grew up riding horses competitively all across the country, but once she started college, equestrian was no longer practical. That’s when she retired the reins and threw a bike under her body instead.
Her interest in the sport grew rapidly, and even after her first few rides, she knew that she wanted to race. So, she competed at the recreational level while earning a biology degree in Iowa and while getting her graduate degree in occupational therapy at the University of Utah.
“I love being in the mountains, and being out in nature by myself,” Hanks said. “I love the flow of single track riding through the trees. I don’t mind doing intervals. I enjoy the structure of a training program, working toward a goal, and seeing myself progress.”
The outdoor lifestyle suited Hanks and her husband, Shannon Boffeli, so they stayed in Utah after school, and Hanks revved up her training and focus. She ended up turning pro in 2006, and soaked in a thriving career as both a professional athlete and an occupational therapist.
Treatment and ‘Therapy’
Hanks was accustomed to enduring multi-day stage races in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, but she wasn’t quite ready for the challenge that would come in 2011.
While doing yoga, Hanks found a small and questionable lump in her breast. She wasn’t sure if it was something, but fortunately, she decided to have it checked out.
“I was a healthy person. I didn’t even have a primary care physician at the time,” Hanks said. “I just made an appointment at the local clinic, and I was lucky that my doctor didn’t dismiss it.”
The mammogram came back negative because with Hanks being so young, the white breast tissue couldn’t be differentiated from the white tumor. The ultrasound caught the lump, however, and a biopsy was performed, which confirmed an invasive duct carcinoma.
When Hanks went in for surgery, a 2-cm tumor was found, and she got an official diagnosis of stage 2 estrogen/progesterone receptor positive breast cancer. Doctors did a lymph node biopsy, but those results came back negative.
After surgery, Hanks didn’t have clean margins, so she had to have a second surgery, which didn’t produce”clean enough” margins. That’s when the hard-charger opted for the full mastectomy.
Then, she had four infusions of chemotherapy with three weeks in between each treatment. That’s when Hanks went back to her comfort zone.
“I was riding as much as I could, and it was kind of an experiment for me because I really didn’t know anyone who had been through cancer treatment who was as active as an athlete as I was,” Hanks said. “I didn’t have any role models at the time. My oncologist didn’t say there was anything I couldn’t do. She just said, ‘listen to your body.”
Hanks kept a daily log to document how she felt during and after treatment, and she noticed a pattern.
“Day two of treatment would be my worst day. Day three would be bad too, but it might be a little bit better,” Hanks said. “I would schedule my exercise around how I would feel. By the time I would go back in for treatment, I was doing a couple of hours on the mountain bike. I took it easy a couple of days after treatment, and then I’d build up again on my bike before I’d have to go in again.”
The regimen helped and before Hanks knew it, she was in remission, and she hadn’t lost her sanity in the process.
A Young Old Athlete
Less than two years later, and despite having a full mastectomy, Hanks and her medical team discovered that the cancer returned.
“It came back in my lymph nodes. It was probably always in the lymph nodes because there was no place for it to come from the second time around,” Hanks said. “For whatever reason, I was a false negative on that lymph node biopsy back in 2011. What was most concerning was the cancer treatment I already received and the medication I was taking every day; those things didn’t kill the cancer that was leftover in my lymph nodes. The cancer was actually growing and changing fast despite the treatment.”
Hanks had surgery in 2013 to remove the lymph nodes, more chemo, and then finished off the six-month treatment course with radiation. After treatment, she had her ovaries removed since doctors wanted to halt her estrogen production.
“Physically, I’m like a young athlete who is in menopause,” Hanks said.
If you ask Hanks, she will tell you that cancer has made her a better athlete. She even took first place in St. George, Utah’s True Grit 50-mile race in between her first and second diagnosis.
“I always think, no matter how hard I’m going on my bike, it’s nothing compared to what I underwent with cancer treatment,” Hanks said. “Mentally, I feel stronger. Physically, I feel really stronger. Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I wonder if I would feel stronger if I had my ovaries and had a normal amount of estrogen in my body, but I try not to think about that too much.”
Hanks also took second place in the Brian Head 50-mile race in July.
“I’ve had some really solid results both before cancer and after cancer, but I think what I’m really most proud of is being able to return to a high level of competition after intense treatments with cancer,” Hanks said.
Hanks doesn’t live in fear that the cancer will return, but she is eternally grateful to still be in remission two years out from her second diagnosis.
She and her husband will be going to Chile in January, which just happens to be over the 5-year anniversary of her original diagnosis. The mission: a 6-day stage race in the warm Chilean sun.
It’s a trip that the couple wanted to take to celebrate. Anniversaries, spokes, and exploration will highlight the adventure, but one thing is certain: Hanks will remember that she has more than she knows on and off the bike.
And that’s the celebration worth flying head over handlebars for.