Mission accomplished: Brandon woman fights cancer, competes in races
Ann Challes is a woman on a mission. She's determined to prove that cancer hasn't won. And she is doing it one step at a time.
UNUSUAL PAIN AFOOT
Challes did not get off on the right foot in 2004. She had constant pain in her right one.
Doctors diagnosed plantar fasciitis, but it would not get better. After a week in a cast had no effect, Challes had an MRI. It was not good news.
The results indicated cancer. Within days the Brandon resident was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where they gave her the official diagnosis. She had synovial cell cancer, a soft-tissue cancer, in her right foot.
"Cancer was not even in the top five things in my mind," said Challes, who had recently become a registered nurse. "I mean, who gets cancer in their feet?"
The tumor was embedded throughout her foot and meshed around the bones. It was either remove the tumor and parts of the foot, or have the entire foot amputated. She chose the latter.
"I knew that with a part of a foot I wouldn't have as much walking ability as with a full prosthetic," she said.
On August 2, 2004, Challes had her right foot amputated just above the ankle. When she woke up after the surgery and looked in anguish at where her foot used to be, she knew she had a choice.
"Life could go one of two ways - I could take the pity party path, or the other path," she recalled.
That Halloween, Challes was dressed up with a new leg - a prosthesis that fit over what was left of her lower leg and attached at the knee.
"I was very excited to have my foot," Challes said. "I remember holding it in my hands as my husband [Jerry] was wheeling me out of the clinic. I thought, 'I have my freedom back!' It was like an Emmy Award."
Despite the fact that she was still having chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for 36 hours straight, Challes had daily rigorous visits with a physical therapist who taught her how to walk with a prosthesis.
"I remember the feeling of freedom," Challes recalled. "It was like, OK, I can walk again. My independence was coming back."
STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Instead of an artificial foot slowing her down, it gave Challes the kick she needed to get moving. She was sitting around and eating too much, which had caused her to gain a lot of weight.
Knowing it was affecting her health, about two and a half years ago Challes joined a weight-loss program. Having always dreaded any kind of exercise, at first she focused only on the eating portion of the program. But she knew that she couldn't let her disability get in the way of attaining her goal. She knew she had to get moving as much as it pained her.
"I decided that if I walk one block, it's a block further than I did yesterday," she said. "So I started with one block."
Determined not to quit, Challes slowly increased her distance, with the encouragement of a walking partner. By August of 2011, the amputee did what she had never thought was possible.
She competed in a 5K race.
Much to her surprise, she finished the 3.1-mile race in Brandon in one hour and 13 minutes. With such a major goal accomplished, she knew that with her faith, her family and her friends by her side, she could keep going.
Over the next year, Challes took part in several other 5K events, and this past August she came full circle. She once again competed in the Brandon 5K race, this time finishing in 58 minutes.
Now 60 pounds lighter, Challes went one step further and doubled her goal. On October 6, she competed in the Twin Cities in Motion 10K race. She crossed the finish line of the 6.2-mile race in just one hour and 38 minutes.
"There is nothing greater than walking across that finish line and saying, 'I did it. I did it on my own,' " Challes said. "From not walking at all to saying, 'This is mine. I won!' "
But Challes knows that it's not only the foot race she has won. It is the race against cancer. On the back of the T-shirt she wore as she finished her first 10K were the words, "I am a woman on a mission to prove that cancer hasn't won."
Although the fight hasn't always been easy, she knows that because of it, she is in a better place.
"There have been tough days. There have been days I have thrown my leg across the room. But I knew with Jesus on my journey, we could walk together, and it has been tremendous for me," she concluded. "I have had more blessings because of this than I ever could have imagined."