In my early teens, I was an elite level gymnast, participating in competitions all over the US. In high school, I was a sprinter whose speed and versatility was since unmatched in the track and field world in Minnesota. When I graduated, I entered my first year at the University of Northern Iowa with a full scholarship competing in Track and Field. Who I was could be defined by a single word - athlete.
After being crowned the 2000 Missouri Valley Conference Champion in the 400m dash outdoors, my promising athletic career was only beginning to develop. Everything changed during my third year of college, when I noticed a lump in my upper left groin. After countless MRIs and being poked and prodded, the doctors decided it was just a harmless deposit of subcutaneous fat. However, it caused a lot of pain and hindered my performance, so I decided to have it removed that summer. After surgery, I experienced swelling in my left leg which did not subside. There were occasional episodes of swelling but nothing alarming until one practice in the fall of 2002. After my workout, my leg started swelling before my eyes. I immediately sought medical attention, but even multiple doctors could not determine the cause. I returned home to Minneapolis to see a University of Minnesota specialist, Carrie Macoskey, who finally diagnosed me with lymphedema. She told me I would have to give up track since it would cause too much trauma to my affected limb. I was devastated to say the least; about the abrupt end of my track and field career and the uncertainty of how the rest of my life would pan out.
I was in complete denial. I tend to fight everything off, but I found over the months that this was one thing I couldn't "shake". I went nights without wrapping and days without wearing my Elvarex stocking. During my remaining months on campus, I tried to blend in by wearing shorts and dresses. I felt self-conscious with my leg even in jeans, and I had difficulty finding clothes that would hide it properly. Many times, I hoped the lymphedema would go away because I wanted it to. I cried while wrapping my leg at night and frowned in the mornings when I had to put on my garment. I began surrendering to my lymphedema, and I felt I had to figure out who I was all over again.
Soon after moving home I was set up on a date with a man named Patrick Carson. I was very insecure, as any 23 year old woman might be on a first date, but in a different way because I constantly thought, "What will he think when he sees my leg, and what I have to do with it?". On our first date, I decided not to wear my Elvarex stocking underneath my jeans. I reasoned that this might help me feel more "normal", but by the end of the night I was limping slightly and Patrick asked me if I was okay. I felt very comfortable around Patrick so I told him my story. Start to finish. And just as soon as I told him, he was over it. I couldn't believe it didn't phase him one bit. I expected the worst case scenario and that he would run away while calling me a freak. It was a blessing that my lymphedema didn't bother him, but it was also hard because it still bothered me, quite a bit.
About six months into dating (and one episode of cellulitus that took both of us for a ride; thankfully I was okay) I was going through a particularly bad period when my leg was very swollen and unresponsive to anything I tried. I was inconsolable. I was beside myself with the reality of my lymphedema and physically weak worrying about how I would live the rest of my life.
Frustrated and angry, I tearfully asked Patrick, "Why did I get this? Of the people in the entire world, why me?"
He answered simply, "Why not you? You have shown me that you are the strongest, most resilient person I know, if anyone can fight this in the whole world, you can. I'm not worried about you Deborah Cordner. Never have, never will be. You are a fighter."
And that was it. After that, I started LIVING with my lymphedema.
Due to the months of lessened activity I gained some weight so I started walking in order to lose a few pounds and manage my leg. This lasted a week. Anyone who knows a sprinter knows how much they hate walking. It's the worst, you feel like you get nowhere, fast. I started jogging/walking and gradually worked my way up to jogging straight for 20 minutes. Eventually I signed up for my first 5k race and completed it in 25 minutes. I kept making time goals and continued training until I reached my goal of under 19 minutes. Through it all I was losing body fat and my leg was surprisingly very manageable. I found myself really CARING for my leg - checking it every morning and giving it a good, well thought out, wrap every night. In addition, my relationships with my family and friends flourished and I was seeing a future with this thing I had called lymphedema.
Over the years I became very proficient in wrapping and taking care of my leg; and learning how to deal with the spontaneity of life. I spent a few years getting my Masters in Sport Management in upstate New York at the State University of Cortland. I became a track coach at the same university and also an NCAA Intern for two years.
I continued to run, do yoga, and basically try anything to stay fit. I did not let my leg define what I was able to do in life. On a cold December run in 2009, I stumbled into a CrossFit gym and met, my now coach, Tyler Quinn, co-Owner of CrossFit St. Paul and CrossFit Minneapolis. He led me through a workout and convinced me that I needed to do this and that I really had no choice; he felt I had a talent for this. I agreed to start working out, but not competing. Mentally, I wasn't ready and I wasn't sure how my leg would hold up. Over the course of that year I slowly increased my training until I was training 4-5 days a week. In the summer of 2010, I quietly decided that I would compete and try to qualify for the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games. I told my coach, Patrick, and my close friends and family, and so my journey began.
I thought my days of competing were behind me when I developed lymphedema; and now I feel I'm only coming to the pinnacle of my athletic career. The Reebok CrossFit Games is billed to be a competition on who will be crowned the "fittest person" in the world. It's crazy that I am competing for this title with a condition that I was told would limit me to light or very moderate exercise for the rest of my life. After it all, I couldn't have accomplished it without the support of, my family and friends and the CrossFit St. Paul and CrossFit Minneapolis community. I am also thankful for the support of my lymphedema therapist Carrie Macoskey who continues to help me maintain my lympedmena with MLD treatments and Jobst Elvarex garments.
As I continue my training, I am humbled by where I was when I started this journey. Would I have been the same person without lymphedema? Would I even think of competing to be the fittest in the World? The truth is probably not. Something about having lymphedema has forced me to take control of my life and my destiny in a way that I may have never imagined. Mediocrity is not okay for me anymore, there are no barriers in my life. A barrier is merely a challenge. I welcome challenges; anyone who lives a life with a chronic disease faces challenges every day. The beautiful thing is you only have one choice; you HAVE to conquer it. I am grateful to my lymphedema. Every day my lymphedema continues to teach me new lessons, it makes me stronger, and most of all it pushes me to be a better person.
Now, if you wonder who is Deborah Cordner Carson? I hope you think 'She's an athlete, who also has lymphedema.'
Video from Deborah's Keynote speech at the 2012 NLN Conference:
* Photos by CrossFit, Inc.