Spokane Journal of Business

Biking, running, swimming for recovery

Gynecologic oncologist teams up with patients to take part in triathlons

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In the middle of the night, gynecologic oncologist Dr. Melanie Bergman sat next to Rose Mary Volbrecht on her hospital bed at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, consoling her with the words, “We’re going to get through this.” The “this” was severe nausea and dehydration, side effects of Volbrecht’s chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer, leading to hospitalization eight years ago.

This summer, as Volbrecht finished a one-half mile swim in Lake Coeur d’ Alene, she handed off the race bracelet to Bergman, who took off pedaling. After cycling 16.38 miles, Bergman passed the bracelet to Noel Rademacher, who ran a 5K.

Bergman has participated in this triathlon for four years. She chooses two new patient participants each year, inspiring hope, good health, and the thrill of victory for women who’ve fought the hardest battle of their lives: gynecological cancer.

So, how did the Triumphant Trio begin? Bergman credits another patient, the Rev. Barbara Irvine, who is a retired pastor, professional painter, and lifelong swimmer. Irvine was in her late 70s, battling ovarian cancer, when she lamented to Bergman, “I’m never going to swim again.” Her granddaughter competed in triathlons; she had hoped to give it a try.

Bergman’s wheels started turning – both literally and figuratively. She is a strong advocate for healthy living and exercise, and counsels her patients that a healthy lifestyle is important to surviving gynecological cancer. And, she loves to cycle. 

She researched and found Race the River, a public, sprint triathlon. She said to Irvine, “Let’s do this together.” Bergman recruited another patient as their runner – and the Triumphant Trio was born.

Eight women have participated to date. 

Bergman does the cycling leg of the race; her patients run or swim. Bergman’s criteria to participate: Be one of her patients, have completed cancer treatment, be healthy enough to swim or run, and be interested in participating.

How does Bergman find patients who have survived cancer and competed?

“Many have not competed in a race,” she says.

Bergman wants her swimmers to have a background in swimming, though many have not swum in open water, a triathlon requirement. Some of her runners have not run before. They train separately, then, meet on race day.

“Participation is a no-pressure commitment,” says Bergman. “I want them to have fun, enjoy the exercise, and celebrate their health – and their lives. In doing so, they inspire others.”

Bergman’s oncology practice is based at Providence Gynecologic Oncology Clinic, on the Providence Sacred Heart campus.

A gynecological support group, which also is based at Sacred Heart, meets on the third Thursday of every month to provide community support for women who are living with or have lived with gynecological cancers. 

For more information, contact Vicki Dodson and Tyler Moosman, oncology nurse navigators, at 509.474.5490.


Beth A. Hegde is the communications director at Providence Health Care, in Spokane.

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