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In 2008, doctors told Scott Woods that his lung cancer was incurable.

So what did he do?

He set out to complete a triathlon.

“If I have to walk that last three miles,” said Woods, 43, a professor of hydrology in the University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation, “I’ll finish it.”

In 10 weeks, Woods’ mettle will be put to the test in the Peak Missoula Triathlon, a difficult enough challenge for the healthy, much less those stricken by cancer.

Just months ago, Woods had no hair, no sense of taste and barely enough strength to get out of bed.

After two years of chemotherapy, he was tired of being tired and defeated. That’s when he and his wife discovered Fit to Fight, a nonprofit program at Peak Health and Fitness of Missoula.

The program offers those battling cancer – and even those well on their way to winning the fight – a chance to reclaim at least some of their physical, spiritual and mental health.

“It’s amazing, because it increases the quality of their life while they’re in the fight of their life,” said Samantha Schoeneman, a Peak trainer and co-founder of Fit to Fight.

A cancer diagnosis is difficult to take, but it’s quite easy to slip into a state of depression and defeat. That’s made even easier by cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, which often traumatize the body and leave it helplessly weak.

Fit to Fight fights back.

*****

Schoeneman and cofounder Mary Lynn Eiseman, herself a cancer survivor and Peak Health partner, launched a pilot program in 2008, and received nonprofit status last year.

Never having to sacrifice a dime, cancer patients are given fitness exams before they are fitted with a tailor-made exercise program, and the chance to complete the annual May triathlon, which consists of a 500-yard swim, 12.4-mile bike trek and 3.1-mile run.

Two years ago, 48-year-old Jeff Runyan was given the news that still shakes him: He had developed Burkitt’s lymphoma, one of the rarest and deadliest cancers.

“It is,” said the 48-year-old Army veteran, husband and father of two, “the most aggressive malignancy there is.”

Tumors ballooned throughout his body – 20 full pounds of them. Doctors said that even if he survived the intense chemotherapy and radiation, he still had only a 50 percent chance of survival.

Five days a week, Runyan got the highest dose of chemo that humans can endure, which ended only because the treatment routinely killed all his white blood cells.

“Then I’d recover and do it again, and again and again,” he said.

While the aggressive treatment worked – “the tumors melted like ice cream in a microwave” – it traumatized his body.

Runyan has been in remission for a year. But after the treatments, his body was deeply injured.

He had localized paralysis, blackened toes, had lost 40 pounds and was terribly weak.

That’s when he learned about Fit to Fight – and made a phone call.

For three months now, Runyan has been training for the triathlon. Yes, it would have been much easier for the man who “used to hike 20 miles every weekend” to simply give up.

“But just because you have limitations, it doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch and not do anything,” he said.

Mary Pat Malerk feels the same. First diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, the 51-year-old Meadow Hill School teacher has been in remission for more than four years.

All through her treatment, which included radiation, a mastectomy and two reconstructions, Malerk, who golfs and skis and bikes and runs, used fitness to keep up her physical and mental strength.

Completing the May 22 Missoula Triathlon will be “one more step of getting my life back.”

Like Woods, Malerk, who has competed in one other triathlon in her life, is confident that she will complete May’s event.

“If I have to crawl,” she said, “I’ll make it.”

For Runyan, the Fit to Fight program has been a godsend, whether he crosses the finish line or not.

“I am not going to win this triathlon,” he said with a knowing smile. “I may not run the three miles. But I’ll do my best. And I’m doing this for payback.”

Those are fighting words.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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