Throughout October, we will be sharing She’s a Survivor stories: #motherrunners whose lives have been changed by breast cancer; hopefully the perspective and ideas they share will benefit others who are going through similar situations.

This week, we’re featuring Bren Willwhite, a mom of three and daycare provider from Kansas City, Kansas. Bren, 40, stands out not only for her shock of bright pink hair and electric smile, but for her amazing resiliency while enduring a very scary Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis in 2018. Today, Bren is cancer-free and kicking butt: A multiple-time Ironman triathlon finisher, she just qualified for the 2024 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, fittingly wearing a race kit emblazoned with the words F*ck Cancer across the front. Here’s more about Bren’s battle—and her triumphant return to triathlon.

Date of Diagnosis: May, 2018

On her shocking diagnosis: Bren was just three weeks out from Ironman Boulder and in the thick of her training when she felt a lump in her breast. “I was drying off after a swim and my towel just brushed over it,” she recalls. A few days later, she discovered another lump in her armpit, and made a doctor’s appointment right away. Within days, doctors told her the grim news that she had Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. “It was a shock. I had no family history, and I was just 36,” she says. “Plus, I was an Ironman triathlete! None of it made sense.”

With her doctor’s approval, Bren competed in Ironman Boulder, knowing that the road ahead of her would be much tougher than swimming, biking, and running for 12 hours. “I didn’t know if I was going to beat cancer, but I knew that I could finish that race,” she recalls.

A radiant cancer-free Bren, rocking her shock of pink hair.

On her daunting treatment plan: A few weeks after crossing that finish line in Boulder, Bren began six rounds of chemotherapy. A bilateral mastectomy with lymph node removal followed in the fall, and that winter she went through 25 rounds of radiation (not to mention complications and another year of infusions and reconstruction surgery that would follow). “They had to give it all since it was such an aggressive form of cancer,” she says.

Bren added some spunk to her race-day look with a temporary tattoo on her head.

On racing during chemo: One day on a run, while mulling over the countless changes ahead of her, Bren made a promise to herself that no matter what, she would not let cancer deter her from being active. And this included entering a local sprint triathlon series during her chemo treatment cycle. “It worked out that the races were held on my off weeks, when I actually felt OK,” she says. “I had lost my hair, so I had fun by putting temporary tattoos on my scalp. I raced them for fun and to remind myself that there was so much more to life than cancer.” And chemo had nothing on Bren: She placed in the top four in her age-group in all four races she entered.

Bren, in all of her bald beauty, after one of her local triathlons.

On how cancer changed her perspective:This was the fight of my life, and there were days when I wasn’t sure I’d make it through,” says Bren. “So now that I’m through it and cancer-free, I am just so much more grateful and gentle and kind to myself, especially as an athlete. It’s OK if I miss a workout, it’s OK if things don’t go totally to plan.” That’s not to say she’s not competitive: At Ironman Chattanooga in September—her first go at the distance since cancer—Bren finished ninth in her age-group to secure her Kona slot. She’ll race in Hawaii one year from now.

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