Susan Wachler never likes to refer to herself as a cancer survivor.
Active and athletic since she was a child, the 51-year-old Decatur resident is more aware of her self-care since overcoming a bout with melanoma more than 20 years ago. That awareness led Wachler to the Aflac Irongirl Triathlon at Lake Lanier last month.
Wachler, a social worker with brain tumor patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was among about 200 employees at CHOA who participated in the event. Wachler completed the 1/3-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride and 3-mile run in the top 30 percent of her age group.
“It was the right thing to do. I had fun and didn’t do as bad as I thought I did,” Wachler said. “I’d like to do other triathlons now and move up to the next distance.”
Diagnosed with melanoma in 1988, Wachler had surgery to remove the cancer two weeks before her wedding. The cancer has never reappeared. She made a conscious effort not to let the disease define who she was, but how she dealt with it has helped her become who she is.
“Having cancer changed my life,” Wachler said. “You’ve got to let people help you. I believe the way you treat yourself affects your health.
“I steered clear of identifying myself as a cancer patient,” she continued. “I didn’t think it would be good for my well-being. It was my diagnosis, not who I was as a person. Making more of it would only make it worse.”
Part of that change was exercising more. When she was younger, Wachler would run for 10 miles or go on 20-mile bike rides. She still finds time to get plenty of exercise with her husband and teenage children (a 16-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter).
Wachler spends an hour or two exercising daily and said she runs about 35 miles a week. She also swims and does spin classes on occasion. She has participated in several marathons and half-marathons but now may spend more time with triathlons.
“It keeps me being nice to people,” Wachler said. “It’s part of my mental fitness. I work with a lot of sick kids and a lot of kids who don’t make it. It’s a hard job but exercising helps me get through a lot of that.”
Wachler ran track and cross country for her high school teams and kept running in college. Watching her father struggle with polio was an inspiration for her to run.
A few years after Wachler graduated college, she was faced with dealing with her cancer diagnosis at 28 years old. She made the decision to face her fears after finishing her first marathon. She ran the race in May of 1988 and had surgery to remove the cancer in August of that year. Wachler never needed chemotherapy or other treatments after the surgery.
“After running the marathon, I knew I’d be strong enough to face it,” Wachler said.
The cancer and how she dealt with it has changed her outlook.
“It wasn’t an identity that I needed. I made a conscious decision to stay healthy and there were a lot of things I did to change my self care. I’m definitely interested in being a cheerleader for people going through cancer. I have a heightened sensitivity because of my own experience.”