Going Taekwondo on Cancer

Practicing the martial art has given this year’s Race for the Cure ‘honorary survivor’ her fighting spirit

When Maura Bivens signed up her 5-year-old daughter, Zoe, for taekwondo in 2004, she had no idea what impact it would have on her own life. Just three years later, it was Bivens’ involvement in the martial art that would anchor her fight for survival.

Now 41, Bivens says she was quickly drawn to the values that Summerlin Family Martial Arts and Taekwondo was instilling in Zoe. “It’s more of an academy than a sports class,” she says. “They really taught honor and integrity, and I loved that.” So she joined, too, and before long she was hired on as the studio’s program director. She worked her way up to a purple belt and was angling for a black belt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Bivens had a litany of challenges ahead of her: four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery and radiation, but she wasn’t going to let that derail her. Five weeks after surgery she was back in the studio. Five months and 23 days after radiation, she earned her black belt.

Taekwondo wasn’t the only thing by any stretch that got her through her illness and recovery (her family, friends and church have been priceless, and she’s benefited from getting involved with the Susan G. Komen Foundation). But she says martial arts helped her learn and grow, even as her world seemed to be shrinking. In recognition of her achievement, Bivens was named “honorary survivor” for this year’s Susan G. Komen Southern Nevada Race for the Cure (May 1; see page 35 for event details).

She’s an inspiration to many, including her taekwondo instructor. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t talk about Maura and how [much] she’s overcome,” says Paul Spencer, chief instructor of Summerlin Family Martial Arts. “Here’s somebody that’s really gone through a lot of tragedies and she stays upbeat and she stays focused. She just has a great personality, a great outlook on life.”

Bivens is quick to credit taekwondo for helping her become that way. “I was never a goal-setter—ever. I figured goals are just something you’re not going to achieve. Taekwondo made me change my thoughts,” she says. “It made me set long-term goals and also short-term goals, which really helped me.” The next goal, Bivens says, is to earn her second-degree black belt. But some complications have arisen. She found out in December that the cancer metastasized to her lungs, which makes it stage four. She’s been on chemo for the last nine weeks and has had to take a break from working out. But, through it all, she’s still focusing on her goals.

“I’m on the same chemo Lance Armstrong was on, and look at him now,” she says. “Maybe I can be Wonder Woman afterward.”

Improving Your Odds With Exercise

Countless other people like Maura Bivens have discovered the benefits of exercise. The Women’s Health Initiative has found a 20 percent reduction in breast-cancer risk among postmenopausal women who walked about 30 minutes a day. The women who were of a normal weight decreased their risk by 37 percent, whereas obese and overweight women did not see a decreased risk.

While exercise is in no way a cure or a prevention for cancer, doctors agree that it is part of the spectrum of healthy living, and healthy living is important when it comes to preventing, treating and surviving cancer.

According to Dr. John Ruckdeschel, CEO of Nevada Cancer Institute, exercise makes you feel better, less fatigued and less depressed.

“I think you have to think of exercise as part of a package of things that make for a healthier lifestyle,” he says. “And it’s not just eating vegetables; it’s being active, having a balanced diet and, from my perspective, having a cocktail or two or a glass of wine a day. All those things are part of a healthier lifestyle.” – Kate Silver

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