Categorized | Featured, Multi-sport, Sports

Cancer survivor using triathlons to raise funds

Jenn Sommermann marks the last of 50 triathlons in 50 states at Lavaman Keauhou 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Sommermann)

Jenn Sommermann marks the last of 50 triathlons in 50 states at Lavaman Keauhou 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Sommermann)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

UPDATE: Monday, Nov. 25

Jenn Sommermann completed her 50th triathlon in the 50th state well before her 50th birthday. And she also beat her $100,000 goal by more than $7,000.

Sommermann was one of more than 500 triathletes to participate in the Lavaman Keauhou race Sunday.

Her time of 3 hours, 7 minutes and 10 seconds was good enough for sixth in her age category and 124th overall.

Jenn Sommermann hoped 50 and 50 would add up to 100,000.

Earlier this fall, the 100,000 part became a reality, but she’ll have to wait until Sunday’s Lavaman Keauhou triathlon to finish to 50 part.

Seven years ago, Sommermann was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer and was determined to beat it. After surgery and six months of chemotherapy, the New York massage therapist and weekend triathlete set another goal: complete 50 triathlons in 50 states before she turned 50 and raise $100,000 for ovarian cancer research.

Lavaman will be Sommerman’s final triathlon in her personal crusade and she already has topped the $100,000 fundraising goal.

Currently standing at slightly more than $107,000, the coffers are still open for donations and Sommermann is grateful for every penny.

“It was back in September at a kickball tournament some organized to raise money. When we added it all up and realized I’d made my goal, that was one of the few times I cried,” she said. “It’s all from the kindness of strangers. Strangers throwing money into a hat they passed around, children giving me handfuls of change and people literally busting their piggy banks.”

As Sommermann ticked off the races and states, she didn’t plan too far ahead until recently.

“Lavaman will be about my 80th triathlon. The last three states were South Dakota, Wyoming and Hawaii,” she said. “Making Hawaii the last one was very intentional. It seemed like the obvious choice.”

Although she has no desire to compete in the Ironman World Championship, Sommermann said any race in Hawaii piques a triathlete’s interest.

“It’s the mecca. You can’t help but think about all the greats who have come before you and raced here,” she said. “I didn’t start until I was about 40 and I didn’t even know I was competitive, but I am fiercely competitive. Triathlon is a way of life and I am so ridiculously addicted.”

Sommermann said she won’t be watching the clock Sunday.

“It’s already a victory. I like to stay in the present and just race,” she said. “The next chapter will reveal itself when it’s time.”

Among the crowd at the finish line will be 22 of Sommermann’s biggest supporters, including husband Don and mother Anne. They should be easy to spot as the entire group has painted their toenails with teal – the signature color to raise awareness about ovarian cancer.

“I’ll just be soaking up the love. Without witnesses, this would have been meaningless,” she said. “If you act alone as an island, you don’t get the same out of it.”

The teal toes team. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Sommermann)

The teal toes team. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Sommermann)

Although she sought to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and the crucial need for a means of early detection, her journey also included opportunities to touch lives across all 50 states.

“I didn’t play the victim card. It’s my obligation to spread the message and use that sport that saved my life to spread that message,” she said. “I do a lot of public speaking and just want women and the men in their lives to know the early warning signs.”

Those vague and subtle signs include weight gain, bloating, fatigue and indigestion lasting more than two weeks.

“Of course, we all suffer from those symptoms on occasion,” Sommermann said. “But if they last for more than two weeks, go see your doctor. Make your doctor prove you don’t have ovarian cancer.”

Sommermann said more than 90 percent of women can be saved if the cancer is caught in its early stages, but there is no test for ovarian cancer.

“Ovarian cancer is an insidious killer, and without a known, reliable screening test, less than 20 percent of cases are caught before the disease has already spread,” Sommermann said. “That’s what I’m raising money for. The cure for cancer may be out there and so many people are working on it, but what we need right now is a test for ovarian cancer.”

Sommermann considers herself lucky because, as a massage therapist and athlete, she is in tune with her body. Also, she was treated by a gynecologist who specializes in cancer.

“I was incredibly blessed to see him,” she said, noting that it was a mere 72 hours between the diagnosis and waking up after surgery.

“That speed and my attitude, I think, were what saved my life,” she said. “I just was not going to let it kick my ass.”

Propped up in a hospital bed and flipping through a triathlon magazine, Sommermann saw an advertisement for the 2008 Women’s Triathlon Series – races in San Diego, Chicago and Seattle that raise funds for cancer research.

“I said, ‘I’m totally gonna get better and do that,'” she said.

Sommermann did just that and caught the attention of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund chief.

“She invited me out for coffee and that’s how it started,” Sommermann said. “They are an amazing group of people and do such good. No one needs to die from this disease if it is caught early.”

Sommermann was fired up by the OCRF mission.

“The training and racing is not the hard part,” Sommerman said. “I’m doing this by myself, so the logistics are the difficult part.”

Sommermann pays her own travel expenses, entry fees and costs associated with the events. In addition, in-kind donations (including competition entries and hotel stays) are turned into cash donations in the name of the contributor.

Contributions are tax-deductible, and all funds raised through her efforts go 100 percent to fund ovarian cancer research.

“No donation is too small,” she said. “Lots of people don’t bother to make a contribution because they’re feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. My hope is that those considering making a donation aren’t dissuaded because they can’t afford a $25 or $50 contribution. I just love seeing those $5 and $10 donations coming in.”

Reflecting on the last six years of racing, Sommermann has racked up some interesting experiences.

“I got swamp rot in Louisiana and was quarantined and everything. But they had the best swag. There was a sleet and hail storm in Alabama, a tornado in Ohio, and a moose on the bike course in Alaska,” she said. “That was interesting. They are so dumb. It just wouldn’t move.”

And, in New Mexico, the race was run backwards – run, bike, then swim. The temperature soared past 110 degrees in Kansas, striking down athletes with heat stroke.

In Las Vegas, the race was run at sundown instead of the usual early morning start.

“I was so lost. I didn’t know what to do or eat,” she said. “Finally my Mom said, ‘just take a nap.’ So I did.”

As she contemplates the final race in her campaign, Sommermann is looking forward to relaxing on the Big Island for a few days before returning to life on Long Island. But the cause is never far from her mind.

“I look at the lives that have been saved,” she said. “This isn’t about me.”

The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund is the largest private funding agency supporting ovarian cancer research.

According to OCRF, “Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States and is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among American women. We are working hard to find better tests that can diagnose ovarian cancer earlier and more precisely.”

Since 1998, OCRF has awarded more than $54 million in grants for the purpose of finding a method of early detection and ultimately a cure for ovarian cancer.

OCRF helps patients and their loved ones understand the disease and its treatment and provides outreach to raise public awareness.

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