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Cancer in the rearview mirror

Professional athlete celebrates with an Ironman

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Professional athlete celebrates with an Ironman

By Miriam Smith

Claire Thielke always intended to compete someday in an Ironman, a grueling triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run. The challenge was fitting: Thielke ran for Stanford University and joined the USA track and field professional circuit after graduating in 2009.

Photos courtesy of Claire Thielke

 Thielke's positive attitude helped to speed her recovery after surgery.

“I’d always wanted to do an Ironman in my 40s, when I had kids,” Thielke recalls. “But then I met people at MD Anderson who were talking about bucket list items in a very real way, and it changed my perspective.”

Thielke, 27, was competing to qualify in the 2012 Olympics 800-meter run when a performance checkup revealed her thyroid tumor. It was February, only three weeks after her grandmother, also a patient at MD Anderson, died of anaplastic thyroid cancer, an incurable form of the disease.

“I developed an appreciation for MD Anderson’s research while my grandmother was a patient,” says Thielke. “We knew how it would end, but it gave us a real sense of comfort that she was there because she would be part of a cure for anaplastic thyroid cancer instead of simply being told ‘there’s nothing we can do.’”

Gary Clayman, M.D., a professor in Head and Neck Surgery, provided care for both Thielke and her grandmother.

 Thielke dances and cartwheels through the finish line at the December Ironman Cozumel 2013.

“His bedside manner blew me away throughout my grandmother’s treatment,” Thielke says. “But I didn’t know he was also an avid runner until I was his patient. Dr. Clayman understood I didn’t just want to be better; I wanted to be back racing. Sharing this love of running with him made me feel so lucky.”

Thielke had surgery to remove her tumor in March 2012. On Dec. 1 of the following year, she completed the Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico with a time of 15 hours, despite six bicycle breakdowns. She danced and cartwheeled through the finish line, thinking about how far she’d come in the past year and a half.

“When you get to the finish line, you barely remember all of the stuff you’ve been through,” Thielke says. “Yet you know it happened because otherwise getting there wouldn’t feel so good.”

Thielke, an investment management director at Hines, hopes to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She lives in Houston with her husband, Rick, and is a member of MD Anderson’s Advance Team, a volunteer leadership board of “next generation” community and business leaders. She believes part of her life mission is to “spread awareness of what makes MD Anderson different from other centers that treat cancer.”

“It was amazing how all of the doctors learn your story and how the nurses support your family just by being there,” she says. “As a Houstonian, you automatically appreciate MD Anderson, but as a caretaker and a patient, I feel like I’ve gotten to see it in a very different light.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center