"She Did It" by Emily Boorstein
Almost exactly a year after starting her first chemotherapy treatments, Carletta Cunningham of Austell crossed the finish line of the Acworth Women’s Sprint Triathlon.
An avid tennis player who works for IBM in sales management operations, Cunningham was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2013.
“You always remember where you were, what you’re doing,” she said. “I was at work at my desk and when the doctor called — I’ll never forget his exact words — he said, ‘We found a little cancer.’”
She said the words “little” and “cancer” should never be in the same sentence. She called her family and friends, but the gravity of the news didn’t sink in right away.
“I probably didn’t cry for about a week after the diagnosis because it’s so shocking; you don’t quite grasp it at first.”
Cunningham underwent a double mastectomy three months later where both her breasts were removed, then went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy before having reconstructive surgery on her chest.
She had originally planned to train for a triathlon — a race that involves swimming, biking and running — in 2012, but then her father died, and she felt like she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to work toward her goal.
Then came 2013, where she spent most of the year being treated for her cancer.
Just after finishing her chemotherapy in December, she entered a contest advertised through social media for potential first-time triathletes.
Cunningham’s entry showed a picture of her sporting a bald head while she wore a T-shirt that read “She’s a fighter.” More than 4,000 people voted for her, and she won “a really nice bike” and membership to the Atlanta Tri Club, which provided her with access to trainers who prepared her for the triathlon.
That was enough motivation to finish the goal she’d set for herself in 2012.
“Someone had told me a long time ago it takes a full year after treatments to feel back to yourself again,” Cunningham said. “I would just not accept that. This contest really helped push me to get back up there (and do it).”
Her boyfriend, Kevin Calahan of Duluth, was surprised she wanted to complete the triathlon less than eight months after she finished chemotherapy.
“I thought she needed to wait awhile, said Calahan, who runs a computer repair firm. “But she was headstrong and … that was something she truly wanted to do, so we trained together.”
Fellow triathlete Tony Brown of Austell, a software developer, also helped her prepare for the Aug. 3 triathlon.
He coached her with the process of transitioning from the swim to the bike and then the bike to the run.
“That was my way of contributing back instead of just your typical ‘stay strong,’” he said.
When Cunningham first started training, she said she couldn’t swim 25 yards without stopping. The triathlon she was training for included a quarter-mile open water swim in Lake Allatoona.
That was the part that intimidated her the most, but the day of the race she told herself, “You have to be thankful that you’re here.”
She finished the swim in 17 minutes.
“When I put my foot on that sand, I had the biggest smile on my face because at that moment I realized, ‘You’re going to be a triathlete,’” Cunningham said.
She went on to complete the 13-mile bike ride and 5K run.
“It was mission accomplished,” Calahan said. “We didn’t really care about where she placed or how fast she did, we just wanted her to complete her task. And she did.”
Brown documented her journey through a video that shows her crossing the finish line. It can be seen at
Cunningham is getting back into playing tennis and plans to participate in a two-day walk to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. She hopes to participate in the Acworth Women’s Sprint Triathlon every year.
She became emotional as she gave a message to other cancer patients.
“When they’re sick and they’re fatigued and they remember what their life used to be before chemo … it’s hard to imagine getting that life back,” she said. “Hold on to the fact that you can get it back. You’ll be moving again. It’s just hard to keep the faith during the hard days.”
Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal
by Hilary Butschek
October 30, 2014
After beating cancer with a double mastectomy, Carletta Cunningham of Austell finished her first triathlon in 2014. She is moving on after her diagnosis and giving back as she volunteers to help other women and men who are diagnosed with the deadly disease.
Cunningham volunteers with the Loving Arms Cancer Outreach Center, a nonprofit that helps cancer patients pay for their treatment.
Cunningham keeps the first of her medals for a triathlon and the Atlanta 2-Day Walk for Breast Cancer in a tin box at her home in Austell.
Carletta Cunningham, a sales operator at IBM of Austell, said she doesn’t want to forget her breast cancer. “I always say, ‘My name is Carletta, and I am a one year, six month, 27 day survivor of breast cancer,’” Cunningham said Tuesday. Cunningham said she knows how old she is by counting how many birthdays have passed since her diagnosis when she was 41 in March 2013.
Cunningham said she never had a lump in her breast, but she constantly felt tired, which led her to question doctors when they said a routine mammogram came back negative for cancer.
“I didn’t have a lump or anything that could be felt. It was a combination of symptoms that kept me so adamant about finding out what was wrong,” Cunningham said. “I had spent the better part of 2012 saying I don’t feel good, but I’m getting back all these tests that say I’m OK.”
When Cunningham was adamant she didn’t feel right, her doctors took a biopsy of a lymph node under her left arm that was hurting. They found cancer in the lymph node.
“The doctor called and told me, ‘You have a little cancer.’ I said, how could you tell me that? There’s no such thing as a ‘little cancer.’ Cancer is a big deal,” Cunningham said. “I learned that you have got to pay attention to what is normal for your body. You’ve got to be your own advocate.”
Cunningham said doctors told her the cancer was aggressive.
In June 2013, she had the double mastectomy doctors recommended to remove both her breasts to prevent the cancer from potentially spreading. The procedure was done at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.
Cunningham said she tried to be strong through the surgery, and she felt like a survivor when it was done.
“I had gotten past this big hump of having to get a double mastectomy, and then the next day, the doctors told me I had to have chemo,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham was prescribed 16 chemotherapy treatments because the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, and the chemotherapy was meant to destroy cancerous cells that might still have been left in the lymph nodes around her breasts.
“When they told me that, I just cried. I cried more about what I didn’t know about chemotherapy than what I did know. I was ready to fight and conquer the double mastectomy, but I didn’t know what chemo would be like,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said she went to the Kaiser Permanente office in Cumberland once a week for 16 weeks from August through December 2013 to get chemotherapy treatments, which was the hardest part of her treatment.
Cunningham said she lost all of her hair, and although she bought wigs, she didn’t wear them often because they were uncomfortable. The unexpected side effects were the sickness and fatigue she felt the three days after each treatment.
“I would go to the grocery store, and I would just be exhausted,” Cunningham said.
The exhaustion from the chemotherapy caused changed Cunningham’s lifestyle because she is an active person who loves to walk, run and play tennis. She plays in four Cobb tennis leagues, completed a 30-mile walk to raise money for breast cancer in October, a two-mile run in Atlanta in October and a triathlon in August in Acworth.
After the chemotherapy treatments, Cunningham had reconstructive breast surgery in January 2014, and she was declared cancer-free.
Through her treatment and recovery, Cunningham kept a journal where she recorded her feelings and her goals. Cunningham kept a checklist of things she wanted to be able to do after recovering in 2014.
“It seriously helped me in terms of taking me out of my current situation. My body was in 2013, but my mind was in 2014,” Cunningham said.
One of Cunningham’s goals was to complete a triathlon, something she had never done before.
“The year 2013 was the most difficult year of my life, but 2014 has been the most rewarding,” Cunningham said. “I felt like it was going to be a great year, but it has exceeded my expectations.”
Cunningham likes to call herself an overcomer of cancer more than a survivor because she tackled the odds against her.
Her positivity and ambition fueled her battle against the cancer, she said.
“Once I accepted the course of everything, then I became stronger,” she said.
Shamichael Traylor said Cunningham’s strength was inspiring.
Traylor, vice president of Loving Arms Cancer Outreach Inc., a Marietta nonprofit organization helping cancer patients pay for their treatment, said she met Cunningham while she was looking for wigs and makeup to prepare for chemotherapy.
“She is the most positive person. Even though it’s a bad situation, she just wouldn’t let it get her down. She got beauty out of ashes. She thought of it as there are some things that I wanted to do in my life, and I’m not going to put it off,” said Traylor, of Marietta.
Cunningham said she was thankful for the support she got from the local nonprofit. She joined the group as a member of its planning committee for a fundraiser called “Dancing with the Stars of Cobb County.”
Traylor said the event, which is Saturday, will feature Woodstock City Councilman Bob Mueller and Assistant Principal Joe Sharp of Sprayberry High School, among others as the “stars” and all proceeds will go back to Loving Arms Cancer Outreach to help Cobb residents with the costs of their cancer treatment.
The event will start at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lassiter High School Concert Hall.
Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal
Media links and/or references to other places you can find me:
Chapter 2: I Wanna Be a Triathlete:
CDC Breast Cancer - Bring your Brave Campaign
CDC - Bring your Brave
Black Triathlete Association/Black Multisport
Marietta Daily Journal
Fulton County Women's Journal (not online) Publication/Print
Amoena print and online
University of Louisville