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Cancer can’t keep pace with professor

Kelly Meehan | Monday, September 18, 2006

When doctors told Toni Barstis “no,” all she could hear was “yes.” Not even the March 2006 diagnosis of stage one ovarian cancer could hinder the Saint Mary’s associate professor of chemistry’s willpower to train for the Ultraman Canada Championship.

Neither a hysterectomy nor chemotherapy treatments dampened 40-year-old Barstis’ determination to run 52.4 miles, swim 6.2 miles and bike 260 miles in the August triathlon event.

“It was a miracle I finished actually,” she said.

Not only was it a personal victory, but also a triumph for women and cancer victims. Barstis was the first American to cross the finish line on Aug. 14, the second woman – of only two previous women competitors in the history of the Ultraman – and perhaps the most admired athlete at the event.

As she sprinted across the finish line, hand-in-hand with her husband, Dave, and his brother, John Barstis, “the athletes who had already finished, their crews, the [Ultraman] directors and the resort personnel were standing there clapping, supporting me, cheering me on,” she said.

“I broke down. Everyone was in tears, hugging and celebrating,” she said. “It was a celebration of an accomplishment for everyone, but particularly emotional and special for myself and my family.”

The three-day race took Barstis and the 11 other Ultraman competitors throughout the “extremely beautiful and peaceful” Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, she said.

Throughout Barstis’ 30 hours, 56 minutes, 21 seconds of extreme athletic exertion during the Aug. 12 to Aug. 14 race, she said she felt completely “in communion with God and her family.”

Barstis found the inspiration to train and complete the physically grueling event from the women she met while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Because of the extreme minority of women’s participation in the Ultraman, Barstis originally “applied to the Ultraman to represent the accomplishments of women.”

“I thought ‘I’ve got to do it’,” she said, “purely to show that as women we are tough and we can do these things.”

Never missing a single day of work during her treatment, the dedicated chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics said her attitude and drive also came from her work atmosphere and the support of Saint Mary’s women who helped her realize she could complete the race despite setbacks.

Junior biology and chemistry major Allie Greene has had Barstis as a professor for only one month, but has already witnessed the many “amazing characteristics that she possesses.”

“She motivates her students with her cheerful attitude, and amazing drive in life,” Greene said. “She is an inspiration to me, because even though she was faced with one of the scariest moments of her life, she was still able to keep her head up and do something to overcome it.”

Senior biochemistry major Katie White also said she could not help but notice how Barstis “lives her life with a vengeance” and “cannot fully express [her] admiration and respect” for the resilient professor.

“Her encouragement and support have been invaluable in my own development as a chemist and as a woman,” she said. “Saint Mary’s College is lucky to have such an enthusiastic, warm, and intelligent woman.”

The admired and revered College professor did not solely receive inspiration from Saint Mary’s, but from her personal interaction with fellow cancer patients.

The women she met during her chemotherapy treatment fueled her passion to train for the Ultraman – completing the race in honor of women who have dealt with gynecological cancer.

“I was very lucky that my cancer was discovered very early,” she said. “I met women who had to receive chemo treatments five days a week just to stay alive.”

Despite being told to minimize or terminate training, Barstis used her workout time as a mental release from the tensions of dealing with her illness.

“Every time I would go to receive chemo treatment, the other women would ask me how it was going,” she said. “It reminded me of my higher purpose – I was doing this for them. It gave both myself and the other women strength and encouragement.”

The key to her success was the willpower to “show up on the starting line everyday,” she said. “I did not know if I would finish, but the key is being there and starting the race. I finished every time – it was a miracle.”

Through competing in the Ultraman, Barstis met many extraordinary athletes whom she described not as competitors, but as “family.”

The Ultraman athletes showed their kindness and compassion through their sincere support of Barstis and her family – comprised of her husband, Dave, and children, 9-year-old Elijah and 6-year-old Aviyah.

“All the competitors accomplished an amazing feat,” she said. “For me it was just under special circumstances.”

Although Barstis will be monitored for 10 more years, she looks at life in depth now more than ever – never taking anything for granted.

“I look at how trivial many things in life are,” she said. “Everyone is always worrying over stupid things, when the most important thing is family and family events.”

Barstis will “forever treasure the fact that [she] finished the race,” but more importantly, she will remember the time spent and the support she received from her family during the race.

“Being able to run down a mountain hand-in-hand with my little daughter is such a great memory – something I will never forget,” she said.

As for the future, Barstis hopes to run the Ultraman Hawaii or double triathlon in 2007 or 2008, but wherever her life takes her Barstis said she will “live fully.”

“You never know how long we’ll be here,” she said. “We must celebrate life and live every minute fully.”