Cancer survivor sets sights on Ironman Canada
To the untrained eye, Paul Weigel, 44, seems like your typical Issaquah resident — a healthy, hardworking family man with an unquenchable thirst for fitness and the great outdoors.
While most use the summer months for leisure, Weigel spends his time training to compete in the Ironman Canada competition in July in Whistler, British Colombia.
Self-described as “5-foot-10 and about 200 pounds,” Weigel arrives for an interview in a tan T-shirt, green khaki pants and running shoes. A bike sits securely latched atop his car, which he said was in need of a tune-up.
A seasoned marathon runner, hiker and triathlete, Weigel caught the exercise bug during his 20s when he left his native Colorado to attend the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
After finishing school, he realized he was becoming increasingly sedentary at work, and he began organizing hikes with friends at many of the picturesque mountain ranges that surround Issaquah and Sammamish.
‘It was terrifying"
But as he got older the exercise began to wear on his body. After undergoing two hip surgeries in March 2013, Weigel began having problems with his gastrointestinal system.
“As a guy, sometimes you have symptoms and you kind of ignore them,” Weigel said frankly. “The fact that I had the complications from surgery, though, really amplified the need to go see a doctor.”
To be safe, Weigel visited a specialist at Overlake Medical Center for a routine colonoscopy and blood work check up.
While his blood work came back without any issues, the colonoscopy didn’t. Weigel would have to put his outdoor excursions on hold for something he never expected: A tumor the size of a lemon was found in his colon, and he was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer.
“I went to sleep thinking, ‘I don’t have cancer, I’m fine,’ and then to be told you do, immediately my thoughts were about my family,” Weigel said. “I asked myself, ‘How long did I have? And did I have a future?’ It was terrifying.”
A resident of South Cove on west Lake Sammamish, Weigel knew he had to act fast if he was going to win the battle. With the support of his wife Laurel and his 4-year-old daughter Natalie, he checked himself into the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance at the University of Washington and dove into radiation treatment immediately.
Odds in his favor
Stage three colorectal cancer meant that the tumor had invaded the walls of Weigel’s intestine, blocking the ability for anything to go through. Luckily, it didn’t spread to his kidneys or liver, meaning the odds of recovery were in his favor.
While at the SCCA, he relied on the expertise of radiation oncologist Dr. Edward Kim, medical oncologist Dr. Gabriela Chiorean and surgeon Dr. Gary Mann, who he referred to as his army of specialists.
“Radiation and chemotherapy were used before surgery to shrink his tumor and sterilize any tumor cells that could have contaminated adjacent tissue,” Kim said. “We believe that colorectal cancers are best managed with a team approach that incorporates the expertise of all of these specialties.”
Despite regular hospital visits, Weigel tried to lead a normal life. He continued to run internal communications for Outerwall, the company that controls Coinstar, Redbox and ecoATM, and spend time with his family.
Although it was a very uncertain time for Weigel, he was determined to make sure he would join the growing number of cancer survivors.
“I always had the faith and hope that I would beat it, but every day I was afraid I wouldn’t,” Weigel said. “What got me through was thinking I’m going to live a normal life until I’m 85 and see my daughter graduate from college.”
Don’t give up
Just three months after being diagnosed, Weigel was thinking of competing again, and reached out to triathlon coach Ben Bigglestone, of Team Vo2Multisport in Redmond.
“I have been around athletes that have contracted cancer before and understand the impact the chemo, radiation and all the anti-nausea drugs can have on an athlete’s ability to lead a normal life,” Bigglestone said. “Given Paul’s desire to continue to work out, I could already tell nothing was going to keep this guy down for long.”
After being declared cancer free in January, Weigel has been able to turn his full attention back to getting in shape, and has already completed 10 events since the beginning of the year. His main goal, however, is to be ready for Ironman Canada on July 27.
“The big thing about me doing this Ironman is, even during treatment, I would help put my daughter to sleep and imagine going across the finish line and holding her at the end,” Weigel said fighting back tears. “That was the real driver for me.”
A grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon to top it off, Weigel hopes to finish the Ironman in 14-15 hours.
He will finish competing for the summer in August by riding in Obliteride, a fundraiser for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. All funds raised go toward research for cancer prevention.
Weigel’s advice for those battling cancer? Don’t give up.
“No one five months after finishing chemotherapy does an Ironman, so if I’m able to, then lots of other people can do a lot of pretty cool things, and life is pretty good on the other side.”