Feb. 11, 2009
By: Brad Rudner
IOWA CITY — The year was 2003 and Talya Vexler was as normal as fifth-year senior could be.
She was a standout gymnast at the University of Georgia from 1999-2002, earning NCAA all-American honors three times and was a big part of three SEC championship teams (1999, 2001, 2002), including one team National Championship. For the first half of the year, she was enjoying her college experience after exhausting her eligibility a year earlier.
One day, Vexler was studying when she felt a pea-sized lump underneath her arm. She went to the doctor to get it checked out. The doctor told her to be patient and return in a month to see if anything had changed.
One month passed. Nothing had changed. The lump was still there, no bigger, no smaller.
The doctor recommended Vexler see a surgeon. His prognosis was similar to the first doctor and left Vexler with two options. They could continue to monitor the cyst or they could take it out. Vexler opted for the latter.
It was a Thursday in February and Vexler had just turned 23. She believed the minor outpatient surgery would rid her of the lump for good. But the following Tuesday, February 23, 2003, is a day Vexler will remember for the rest of her life for all the wrong reasons.
Her worst fears were just realized. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The doctor’s advice was simple: grab a couple boxes of tissues, talk with your family and don’t go on the internet.
“I didn’t understand what it meant,” said Vexler. “I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t in pain. I never smoked or did anything out of the ordinary. I was stunned.”
The news was even more startling considering Vexler’s family had no prior history of breast cancer, or any other cancer for that matter.
“I just kept thinking, `Maybe my time is up. Maybe I’ve done all I can,'” recalled Vexler. “I was really frightened. I knew there was a chance that I may not live through it.”
Those thoughts only lasted for a short while. The athlete inside her told her to fight it. She did just that.
“These were the cards I was dealt,” said Vexler. “I kept telling myself that I wasn’t done yet. I took it upon myself to do whatever is necessary to beat it.”
To adequately treat the tumor, Vexler would go through numerous surgeries and have to undergo 16 weeks of chemotherapy. She was physically sick. Her hair started to fall out. Vexler called the treatment the hardest thing she’s ever had to go through in her life. It’s not something she likes to remember.
“I remember the pain,” Vexler said. “After a while, I knew how to separate my mind from the body. It taught me how to deal with it.”
It’s been nearly six years since Vexler found the cancer, and this August marks the sixth year Vexler has been cancer-free. She doesn’t mind talking about her experience, but she doesn’t want it to define her, either.
“It’s not who I am now,” said Vexler. “I feel like it’s gone, it’s in the past. I don’t want it to be in my life. I don’t want to think about it.”
“I just kept thinking, `Maybe my time is up. Maybe I’ve done all I can.’ I was really frightened. I knew there was a chance that I may not live through it.”
During her treatment, Vexler received an outpouring of support from gymnastics programs across the country. It seemed each day she would receive a card, flowers or books from a different university. At one point, Vexler had 25 individual vases filled with flowers scattered about her apartment. She helped raise $100,000 through small donations for the Athens (GA) Regional Breast Health Center and has a room dedicated in her honor.
In light of Vexler’s battle with breast cancer, the NCAA decided in 2003 to designate one home meet each year a “Pink Meet” for each member institution that had women’s gymnastics. Georgia and Alabama took part in the inaugural “Pink Meet” in 2004, and it has been adapted at every school that has women’s gymnastics.
Now in its fifth year, the meet is designed to raise awareness for breast cancer in young women by coloring the arenas pink. The gymnasts wear pink uniforms, the fans wear pink shirts and even the boundary lines on floor exercise are marked with pink tape.
“I feel really honored to have inspired it,” said Vexler. “If something good comes out of it, I’m more than happy to be a part of it.”
This Monday marks Iowa’s “Pink Meet” when it hosts in-state rival Iowa State inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. While the meet has an added meaning for Vexler, she wants people, especially young girls, to receive the right message.
“Go to the doctor and get checked,” said Vexler. “It will save your life. It saved mine.”