A Survivor's Story

Dec. 24, 2008

By Larry Watts Contributor, BigTen.org

Talya Vexler's family has probably spent more time in a gym than in their own home.

The University of Iowa women's assistant coach's parents grew up in New Jersey and eventually made their home in Amherst, Mass. after competing in gymnastics for the University of Massachusetts. Her mother's team won the national championship. Her parents own a gymnastics club in Amherst.

Talya's grandmother on her mother's side was a member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team in the 1948 Olympics. An uncle on her dad's side was the NCAA rings champion while attending Penn State. And both of her brothers competed in gymnastics at Temple.

"I actually had two homes because I was raised in a gymnasium," Vexler says. "You know how those gymnastics families are; they throw their babies in the air at an early age so their heads get used to being upside down."

But all it took was for one word to send the Vexler gymnastics world for a tumble -- cancer.

Having already wrapped up a brilliant gymnastics career at the University of Georgia in 2002, where she was a three-time All-American and helped the Bulldogs win the national title in 1999, Vexler was spending an extra year in Athens to wrap up her degree in business administration and being a "normal student for a change." While studying one night, she felt a small lump on the side of her breast.

"I didn't think anything about it, figuring it was just a mole or something like that, but I made an appointment with the doctor anyway," she says. "The doctor told me it was normal for young people my age (23) to find a cyst on their chest and to come back in another month."

Vexler waited two months. Nothing had changed and the doctor had her go to a surgeon to have the lump removed for a biopsy.

Although there had been no history of cancer in Vexler's family and women aged 20-24 had the lowest incidence rate (1.4 women out of 100,000 women), Talya was one of those rare cases.

"It still didn't hit me when the test came back positive," Vexler, now 28, says. "I didn't understand the full effect -- chemo, my hair falling out and the sickness from the chemo. At 23 years of age, you don't think about those things."

 

 

Then Vexler opted for a life-changing, or maybe life-saving, decision. She decided to go for a double mastectomy.

"There wasn't any guarantee they could find enough good tissue and I didn't want to have one breast looking different than the other," she says. "In the end it was worth it. I have to admit the new ones look better than the old ones."

Still, there were 16 weeks of chemotherapy to endure while she was trying to complete her degree.

"My family came down to Athens a lot and my mother and best friend always seemed to be at my side when I needed them," she says. "That chemo was probably the worst time of my life. You get really sick and just when you start to feel better again; you have to go in for another treatment. I stayed in my apartment a lot, not many people saw me at my worst."

Fortunately, Vexler only had two courses left to finish for her degree and both professors were very understanding, giving her minimal work. According to Vexler, one of those professors was also a cancer survivor.

Vexler's stay in the business world didn't even last a year. In the middle of the following gymnastics season, the University of Maryland needed someone to fill in as an assistant coach.

"It was a chance to get back to the East Coast," she says. "Then I met (Iowa head coach) Larissa (Libby) at a competition and she told me she had a couple of openings on her staff and she wanted me to come interview.

"I told her I would come check it out, but at the last moment I was going to cancel because I wanted to hang out with my friends. I figured, 'who goes to Iowa?' But I went anyway and fell in love with it."

At the University of Georgia, where 10,000 spectators attending a gymnastics meet is normal, the Bulldogs undertook a breast cancer awareness fund-raiser in Vexler's honor. The teams from Alabama and Georgia held a pink leotard night for their meet in 2004 and they raised more than $100,000 for the Athens Regional Medical Center's Breast Cancer Center.

"That pink leotard night was such a novel idea and the national coaches association suggested all schools should start doing it the following season," Vexler says. Iowa will host Iowa State for its "Pink Night" Feb. 16, two days after Vexler's 29th birthday.

Vexler, who is now engaged to be married, is currently in her fourth year of coaching at Iowa, but, more importantly, February will mark the six-year anniversary of the cancer being in remission.

"Two years is supposed to be good and five years is a real milestone because you are much farther away from that tough time," she says. "I actually try not to think about the cancer at all because that was such a difficult period of my life. It consumed my whole life, but it is something that has strengthened me and helped me individually. I was lucky I caught it so soon or my life would have been much shorter.

"Now, here I am getting paid to watch a sport that I love. Not many people get that kind of opportunity."