As a running coach, I’ve taught many runners many things – about running and life. I’m incredibly proud of the work that I’ve done and extremely proud of each and every one of the athletes I’ve coached.
However, at any given moment, I’m not the only one doing the teaching – my athletes have also taught me many things – about running and life. When I stop to really take inventory of what I’ve learned from my athletes, one person in particular stands out as my most significant student/teacher – Isaedmarie (Isa) Febo.
When I first started working with Isa, she seemed timid and gentle but I wasn’t fooled – there’s something I can sense in people, a hidden strength that they already possess but don’t quite “own” yet. I wondered how long before Isa would embrace and own the strength she had inside her. Turns out, it didn’t take long.
The very first group workout of mine that Isa attended, I watched her across the parking lot as she repeatedly hit a tractor tire with a sledge hammer as if she was scared the tire was gonna jump up and bite her. I walked over to her and – in no uncertain terms – told her to “HIT THE TIRE”. She looked me in the eyes and, in that moment, I saw something inside her shift. She turned away and hit that tire like she really meant it, over and over and over. That day, she changed – she flipped the switch and began to truly own her strength…and she never looked back.
In the year that followed, I was at Isa’s side for many miles. I’ve witnessed firsthand her perseverance despite all obstacles – real or perceived – in her way. I’ve watched her face discomfort and doubt, sporting her signature smile as she relentlessly trudged on. Whenever she had a job to do, she always managed to find the strength inside herself to get it done.
This quality she possesses is what caused me to nickname her “Unstoppable Isa” – a title she has proved time and time again to be extremely deserving of. And that continued to be the case when, earlier this year, her life unexpectedly and abruptly took a sharp and dramatic turn.
A New Challenge Ahead
Seconds after receiving the news of Isa’s Stage III Breast Cancer diagnosis earlier this year (just a few weeks shy of her 29th birthday), I immediately drove to her house to see her. When I got there, she looked me squarely in the eyes – with the same look I’d seen in the parking lot a year earlier – and said words that’ll echo in my ears for as long as I live:
“I am not afraid. I will beat this. I will live my life.”
And to this day, she hasn’t waivered. Through 6 grueling rounds of chemo, a double radical mastectomy, several additional rounds of chemo, and the prospect of future radiation treatment still lingering on the horizon, she has been the very definition of a warrior.
By all accounts, she has also made good on her promise to continue to live her life – she turned down a “get out of work free” card and shows up to her job every day that her body will allow. She socializes with friends. She’s stayed active and exercises within her comfort level (read all about that HERE).
Seriously, other than her beautifully bald head, it’s business as usual in her life. You wouldn’t know what’s happening otherwise. She’s glowing, radiant, and happy. We’re all in absolute awe of her.
The Student Becomes The Teacher
I’ve learned so much from Isa in the past 7 months and – until I showed her this post just prior to its publication – I don’t think she had any idea what she was teaching me.
Even if you’ve never met this woman and even if you never face something as daunting as cancer, it’s my hope that in truly understanding what Isa did so differently, we can all learn something from this brave warrior about how to be better at life no matter what cards we’ve been dealt.
- Do not be driven by fear. Cancer is scary. The prospect of suffering and the possibility of death are scary. But fear is not what motivates Isa – her words to me on the day she got the diagnosis are all the proof that you need of that: “I am not afraid. I will beat this. I will live my life.” That, my friends, is not fear – it is HOPE. Hope for the future fuels her fight. Hope gets her up every day. Hope is the foundation for each and every decision she’s made about her treatment to date. Hope – not fear – is the driving force in her life.
- Be grateful for what you have. It would be easy for Isa to say “why me” and no one would judge her for it – it is, after all, a very fair question. But she’s never said it to anyone. Instead, every conversation with her is laden with gratitude – every time I see her, she tells me how lucky she is to have so much support from her family, friends, strangers, and a fabulous medical team. Her gratitude is astounding.
- The only way out of the tough stuff is straight through it. She hasn’t once tried to shortcut the journey or work around the process. When she was told she would soon lose her hair, she voluntarily walked to the nearest hair salon and donated almost every inch of her hair with a smile on her face. When the doctors revealed after her radical double mastectomy that her cancer cells tested HER2 positive – meaning 4 more unexpected months of chemo were required – she accepted that detour with grace and unwavering determination.
- You can always choose to outshine the darkness. Isa’s outlook and energy are consistently positive and radiant. She never lets the light that shines inside her dim – not because it’s easy for her to shine, but because she chooses to keep it burning bright no matter the circumstances. It is a choice she makes every single day.
- Don’t dwell in the depths of the unknown. Some things about Isa’s future still remain very uncertain. Rather than dwell in the worst-case scenarios, she chooses to allow this unknown to be just that…unknown. But as with all parts of this journey to date, she remains positively optimistic about what the future holds for her.
- Don’t be a victim. Like many other formidable foes we will face in life, cancer can rob people of many things – strength, hair, and years. But it cannot destroy love, or hope, or happiness – unless we choose to allow it. Isa’s life is still her own. Cancer has taken nothing of significant value from her and you can see it in her eyes. She gets up every single day and lives her life to the fullest. No self-pity, no holding on to sadness, no dwelling in fear. She truly is the heroine of this story – not the victim.
If you have the honor of knowing this young woman, you’re one of the lucky ones. But whether you know her personally or not, know this: the qualities that make her so special live inside us all – she is us – the difference is that she flipped the switch and now owns the strength and courage that have always been a part of her.
It’s true that not all of us are naturally courageous enough to do what she has done (which is what makes her so incredibly unique) but we are all capable of this type of courage and we all have lurking within us a remarkable strength.
Let us find that courage in ourselves.
Let us tap into our own strength.
And let us own them.