Jillion Potter, a U.S. Olympic rugby hopeful diagnosed with cancer in September, completed six cycles of chemotherapy in January, finished radiation March 31 and is training with an eye on returning to international competition later this year and making the 2016 Olympic team.
Potter, 28, was diagnosed with stage III synovial sarcoma three months after waking up in June with swelling underneath her jaw, what she later learned was a cancerous tumor.
Before that, Potter was on the U.S. roster for all five legs of the 2013-14 IRB Women’s Sevens World Series. Rugby sevens debuts at the Olympics next year. The U.S. women’s team is likely to clinch a berth at Rio 2016 by the end of June.
Potter last saw a doctor the first week of April, when a scan revealed clear lungs.
“I can’t say 100 percent, but maybe 99 percent confident that I’m cancer-free,” Potter said in a phone interview from Denver on Thursday. She said she’ll know for sure after a doctor check-up in June.
Potter, who shaved her head last year, spent her first week post-radiation with wife Carol in Key West, Fla., earlier this month. Then she returned to Denver and got back to work.
She said she’s running three times per week, lifting three times per week and doing speed and agility work once per week.
“For a very long time I’ve never had to scrape the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, but chemo really takes a toll on your bone marrow, red blood cells, white blood cells,” Potter said.
The biggest struggle is cardio. Potter is prone to fatigue and isn’t nearly as strong as this time one year ago. During her chemotherapy — four-day hospital stays each separated by 21 days — she often walked a three-mile loop outside her hospital with Carol or visiting teammates. If it was snowing, she rode a stationary bike.
“I dreaded going back every month [for chemotherapy] because it’s very cruel in a way that the first week [after] is pretty awful, and then the second week is a little bit better, and by the third week you are normal, not like normal normal, but you feel good,” Potter said. “But by the time you feel good, you’ve got to drive back knowing you’re going to go through this again and again.”
But she’s confident she’ll be back at full strength by the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis.
“I’m very grateful I’ve been able to take this in stride,” she said. “I’ve had some side effects, but overall I think I managed it very well.”
The Women’s Sevens World Series debuted in 2012-13 and opened in Dubai in late November or early December each season. Potter is targeting a return to competition in Dubai in seven months, if not sooner.
Potter said doctors haven’t protested her aggressive training regimen.
“Everyone’s in my corner and rooting for me,” she said. “They just smile and give me a big hug.”
The Rio Olympic roster limit is 12 players. The current U.S. player pool is twice that.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Potter, who previously came back from breaking her neck in 2010, said of making the Olympic team, “a challenge that I welcome. I’m still very confident that I can make the squad.”
Potter and her wife discussed the very real concern of a recurrence.
“We decided that you can’t live your life in fear,” Potter said. “This is a dream that I have that we want to pursue.”