The following blog post tells the story of one OCRWC athlete and her personal battle with cancer. Valerie Boulanger is French Canadian, and French is her first language. The account was written in 2021 by Valerie from her point of view, and we chose to keep editing to a minimum to let her tell the story in her own words. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Valerie!
My name is Valerie Boulanger.
I’m a 35 years old single mom of two beautiful children. My son is 12 years old and my daughter is 4 years old . We also have a 14 years old Pitbull and a 5 years old hyperactive Husky. So essentially I’m a single mom of 4!!!
I am from Chibougamau, a little nature paradise in the North of Quebec! I actually live in Sainte-Adele, a small city surrounded by nature in the Quebec Laurentides area. I’m a kinesiologist, a personal fitness trainer, a sport massage therapist and a health-fitness-lifestyle coach working on developing my own business.
I did my first obstacle race in 2015. It was a Prison Break Race. I was already a very active woman playing hockey, doing snowboarding, snowshoes, mountain hiking, kayaking, wakeboarding, rock climbing, Via Ferrata and fitness training. I was also a volunteer firefighter and did the Fireman Skyscraper Challenge consisting in climbing 49 floors of a tower in Montreal dressed in full firefighter’s outfit to collect donations for children with muscular dystrophy! I like anything that requires physical effort or allows you to surpass yourself! But, this first obstacle race made me discover a new passion!
A little health mishap forced me to wait before I could participate in my second race…
In November 2015, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 intestinal cancer. They said that I needed to have a operation as fast as possible and there was possibilities of having metastasize elsewhere in my body too. Because Chibougamau hospital is a small hospital, I had to go to Saint-François-d’Assise Hospital in Quebec City where there is digestive cancer specialist doctors. This is where I had a lot of the testing done so that they can figure out the best approaches and possible treatments for me. After all those tests, I was given only two choices. One was having an abdominopelvic resection surgery with a permanent colostomy and the second was having a slightly smaller surgery without colostomy but having to wear a diaper for the rest of my life making it more difficult to continue doing everything I love to do and increasing risks of having another cancer come back because less tissue would be removed…
I had only one week to make a decision. The decision was so hard to take cause I did not want any of those two solutions… But in the same time the first option was the only one allowing me to continue doing almost everything I’m doing.
From the time I received the diagnosis on November 11th and until I knew what would be the plan and procedures, I really just kept everything in. I never even let anyone else know about it other than my boyfriend at the time know about this diagnosis. I chose this way because I did not want to make it harder than it was. I did not want to have them worry about me and for me the anxiety of this would have made it harder because ultimately I know there are a lot of people who care for me and I didn’t want the added stress and anxiety of this. Most of all, I was not able to tell them cause I did not want to hurt them. I was only thinking about my 7 years old son at the time. I had made a promise to myself that I would never give up and that I would beat this and always be there for my son as being a strong mother should be.
So two days after knowing about my two options, I make my decision and took my courage to tell my parents and my sister about everything. Then, it was only 5 days before the surgery, I was throwing up a lot and feeling a lot of nausea. I thought it was because of the stress but I then realized that the nausea had been there for too long. So I decided to take a pregnancy test to just be sure that I wasn’t pregnant and to relieve myself of as many possible anxieties … I had taken the test to only find out the results were actually very much the opposite. I was actually in fact pregnant. So I called the surgeon that I had met the week before to tell him about this . He did not know what to tell me… He never did a surgery like that on a pregnant woman before because you don’t want to do a stomach surgery while someone is pregnant …
He had to do an emergency meeting with the medical specialist team and he called me back the day after. I had an other decision to make. If I was not doing the surgery now there was a lot of risk that I could die before the baby is born. That means the baby would ultimately not survive either. And if I was doing the surgery now there was 90% risk of miscarriage…
Again another hard decision to make. I had two choices but neither was a good enough one for me. So I convinced myself that the best choice would be to do the surgery now because I will have more chances to survive and be there for Nathan, my 7 years old son. On December 10th, 2015, I had a big abdominopelvic resection surgery with a permanent colostomy.
I guess it wasn’t going to be easy again… At the end of February, the doctor said that I will have to do chemotherapy and that I will have to stop the pregnancy… Just to let you know, because of the big operation I had and the risk of miscarriage, I had a lot of pregnancy follow-ups and I saw my baby on the screen every week so I saw her growing, every week ! We already known the sex of the child and It was no longer a fetus. It was now a real baby with two arms and two legs and her heart beating. There was just absolutely no way I could bare to take away the life of my child. I wanted this baby and I wanted to do everything I could and make her my miracle baby. We waited to see the oncologist the day after and he told us the same thing about the risks involved. But I could not ever make that decision. He asked me if I wanted to see a risk pregnancy specialist so I did. We had to wait two other days before to see her. It was probably the two longest days of our lives. But finally, because the baby was already well developed there was no risk for her life and for her development but maybe grow less and be smaller! But the specialist tells me that the chemotherapy will be very hard for me in the same time of a pregnancy plus the big surgery I just had. It didn’t matter to me! There was no way I wanted to stop this pregnancy especially if it was not a danger for the baby! So, in March I started my chemotherapy treatments.
And why not something else to add to all of this… A couple of weeks later, the nurse who did the ultrasound saw something on the baby’s heart… After showing to a specialist, he said that it could be a sign of chromosomes disorder and a sign of trisomy but can’t say if it was a danger for the baby’s life and development. So we had to do some other tests and wait again to know what will happen. After around two stressful weeks, we knew that is was a special inverted chromosome that me and the father both have and when parents both have this same inverted chromosome it can make this mark but it’s nothing dangerous.
After all those stressful adventures, the rest of my pregnancy went not too bad. It was hard to take pounds because I had a lot of nausea because of both the pregnancy and the chemotherapy treatments. But, I was already developing a health-fitness-lifestyle business before all of this and I had very good supplements so it helped me a lot to keep a good body nutrition and a good recovery between each of my treatments. I had follow ups with my doctor every week in my town, follow ups with risk pregnancy specialist doctors every two weeks at 4.5 hours driving from home and chemotherapy treatment 7 days ON /7 days OFF. I was very tired because of the pregnancy and chemotherapy treatments but I continued to be very active when I had good energy days. Walking in the forest, snowshoeing, running and training was the best ways to escape, recharge my batteries and keep a positive and determined mindset. It was also a way to go out from the stress and the pain of people around me and go away from loved ones comments who didn’t want me to be as active as I was because they didn’t know how much I needed it and they thought I needed to rest all the time… Sport, outdoors activities and fitness training was the best ways to be able to live the present moment, enjoy the nature energy, enjoy everything around me and focus on what I’ll do after all of this instead of thinking about what was actually hard.
One month before the expected date of delivery, the baby has stopped to grow. So I had to do some other tests and the doctors decided to do a cesarean delivery on July 5th 2016, three weeks before the expected date. I had to go to a hospital at 4.5 hours from home and I had to be there a couple of days before the cesarean date to do some tests. Then I had to stay one week at the hospital to let the baby gain enough pounds cause she lost a lot in the first days. Then I had to stay close to the hospital for two other weeks to have some medical appointments and follow ups. So, my parents loaned us their fifth-wheel RV and we went on a camping trip close to the hospital one week before and then two weeks after the delivery. It was very nice to be there in the nature with our seven years old boy and our new miracle baby! Everybody on the camping trip was so nice with us. After the two weeks of follow ups, we went to the paternal grandparents of the kids for two weeks doing camping in their driveway! So when we went back home, the baby was already five weeks old! She did camping and went in the nature for the first five weeks of her life!
Two weeks after the delivery, my chemotherapy treatments started again until the end of September. I had a total of 7 months of chemotherapy, all in the same time of my pregnancy and after the birth of my miracle daughter Mila and while I was trying to be a good and present mom for my son Nathan who was only 7.
I swear to you, Nathan is the most courageous little boy I know. He became a resourceful and autonomous little boy very fast and helped me so much to do what I had to do and helped me take care of his little sister when my treatments were difficult and exhausting. I would never thank him enough for the wonderful little boy he is.
Mila’s name comes from the diminutive of the Spanish name “Milagro” and the Portuguese name “Milagre” which both means “Miracle!” We were looking for a name who will mean something like that and her father found this amazing name!
In September 2016, I did my second obstacle race. It was two months after my cesarean delivery and between two chemotherapy treatments! And this of course confirmed that obstacle races was not only a new interest but it was a new passion!
After my treatments and my maternity leave, I progressively came back to work and worked hard to get back my fitness to do everything I was doing before. And I had to try so much different colostomy and medical products to try to find the best things allowing me to go to swim with the kids like I really like to do and to be able to do intense fitness training without having problem with the collar coming off. I often felt like no medical equipment company employees or no nurse or doctors can understand that I don’t want to give up on finding something that will allow me to do fitness training as intense as I want or do anything I love to do. I know it’s not their fault but sometimes I felt very frustrated by their answers.
In May 2019, I get separated from my kids’ dad. We had known each other since 16 years so it was another very hard part of our lives. It was hard for me, for him and for the kids, especially for Nathan. I needed a change of scenery so I moved in the Laurentides area with the kids for the summer and then decided with Nathan that we will try to stay here for one school year to see if we like that. We had a lot of financial challenges and then had to deal with the Covid-19 that crashed everything again but we knew there is really worse things than this!
I did my third obstacle race in 2019 with my son Nathan, my nephew and my sister-in-law. I did it with them and wait them to share this great moment and encourage them to surpass themselves. Then, I did my fourth race in 2020 with friends and kids. Every time it was a great experience and I loved it.
But after the last one I said to my friend that I decided the next one will be one for me where I will subscribe in the timed category to see where I stack up against those in the elite category cause eventually I would like to be qualified for the Championships! Sadly, a lot of 2020 races had been canceled. So, here I am now! Last year I started to be able to do more intense fitness training but I had an other health relapse and I had to decrease my training level and intensity. Now, I’m good. I can be more intense again and I know better how to deal with my new body physical abilities, energy level and recovery needs. So I can plan better my fitness training programs and schedules. And for the 2021 obstacle races season, I plan to do one to two races by month from May to September to try to qualify for the Championships!
In October 2017, one year after the end of my chemotherapy treatments, I needed to do something special to challenge myself to help me turn the page on this health mishap so I participated to an expedition to the Everest Base Camp. And now, in the end of September 2021, it will be five years since my chemotherapy treatments were completed. Which means that I will theoretically be totally in remission! So I decided that I want to do something big and representative for me to prove to myself I can get back the fitness and the shape I had before and even more and that nothing can stop me! That’s why I dive in this amazing adventure of fitness training and obstacle races keeping in mind that I want to qualify for the OCR Championships!!!