Irish cancer survivor is a true Iron Lady and example to us all 

A brave Wexford woman in her 60s has just completed one of the world’s most gruelling endurance events just months after winning her battle against cancer, writes Brian Canty

Irish cancer survivor is a true Iron Lady and example to us all 

Most normal people would find the idea of training for — and completing — an Ironman a fairly pointless and needlessly painful exercise. But then again, Marie Casey-Breen is not your normal person.

For the uninitiated, an Ironman is a 3.8km open water swim, followed by a 180km bike ride followed by a marathon of 42.2km, all within a time limit of 17 hours.

Marie Casey-Breen is a 62-year-old nurse, from a farming background.

She was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and only in March this year did she get the all-clear. This is a woman who has always lived life on the edge and always trained hard, worked hard and lived her life to the full. So you can imagine what it was like for her to get stopped in her tracks with a very vicious form of colon cancer.

“Ah yes, I was always looking for challenges but challenges that would never take me away from my family because they’re paramount to me,” she explained of her lifestyle pre-cancer.

“But the kids are all grown-up now and moved on. Then when I got cancer, I was just over chemo and I decided to walk the Dublin marathon. I finished chemo in September and I walked the marathon in October.

I was 10 and a half stone and I couldn’t even walk without holding onto a friend, it took me seven and a half hours, I was all blistered and my feet broken up. My daughter had to put me in the shower after, but I did it to take my mind off cancer.”

Get the idea? In the aftermath of her treatment she’d improve — though walking half a mile would require four hours sleep. Still, it was a step — a small one, but a step, nonetheless. She then set her sights on the world’s hardest, most gruelling event; KONA, a triathlon that takes place in Hawaii every October where around 15% who take part don’t finish.

“When I’m busy I never think about cancer, so I had to set myself a challenge that would totally physically, mentally and emotionally require all my energy,” says Casey-Breen. “A friend of mine gave me a book called Iron Fit and the whole schedule was in that to train for it so I said ‘this year is my year’.

“The cancer was a real setback to me and my family but I wanted to be as normal as I could when it happened. I remember one time I was due to see the doctor in Dublin for a check-up and one of the calves was sick, so we said we’d kill two birds with the one stone. We piled her into the boot of the car and headed for UCD to the vet to drop her off to get checked, then I went and saw the doctor.”

The KONA course is formidable with water temperatures during the swim at Kailua Bay at typically around 79 F while cyclists can be exposed to intense trade winds as they make their way north along the highway.

The marathon normally takes place in dense humidity and 82-95 F temperatures. KONA is only for the elite though, and it’s not just a case of signing up for it. You must qualify, and the Wexford wonder-woman went to places like Austria and Sweden to try and secure her ticket.

After the former she said ‘never again’, but sure enough, her competitive instinct took over. She finished second, and sadly would have missed out, if the woman who won in Sweden hadn’t offered up her place.

“That whole event was just amazing,” Casey-Breen recalls. “I was second and an Icelandic lady passed me out but when I caught up to her again I asked her was she going to take the slot for Kona if she was offered it, and she said she was.

So I said ‘well, the competition is on girl and the best of luck to you’ and I pedalled passed her like I never pedalled before and I never saw her again, even though I ended up getting beaten afterwards myself.

“But when the lady from the UK offered up her place they announced that Ireland now had the chance to go to Kona and there was a huge fanfare, it was the most amazing feeling in the world — except when the man asked me for the €855 deposit to secure my slot, but that was alright.

So, last weekend, Casey-Breen battled horrendous winds, stifling temperatures, blistered feet and a fear of open water to cross the finish line in Hawaii well inside the time limit.“I’ve battled an awful lot worse, as anyone who has ever had cancer will tell you,” she said with just a hint of emotion creeping into her voice.

“It was a dream come true, I always said to myself that I hoped I’d never get here because I couldn’t do that swim with the 45mph crosswind with no wetsuit, and the bike with the hot lava coming up off the road. It’s the toughest course in the world but after completing the swim last week in training I was determined to do it.”

And now? Breen is getting a tattoo. “I really don’t like tattoos — I’d kill my sons if they got one — but this is different. If you manage the Ironman, you’re entitled to one.”

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