December 1, 2011

Community Giving profile: Koh measures cancer recovery by competing in triathlons

Julie Koh (kneeling) and her Team in Training teammates at the Gulf Coast Half-Ironman in Panama City, Fla., in May 2007. (photo courtesy of Julie Koh)

Julie Koh (kneeling) and her Team in Training teammates at the Gulf Coast Half-Ironman in Panama City, Fla., in May 2007. (photo courtesy of Julie Koh)

by Jessica Pasley

Six years ago Julie Koh, a self-proclaimed nonathlete, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when a friend asked her to participate in the Memphis in May triathlon.

She agreed to participate in the endurance event, and it proved to be a life changer.

The triathlon was a perfect fit for Koh, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology. It was a way for her to quantify her road to recovery.

In 2003 Koh underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, type 3. She opted to enroll in a clinical trial called Stanford V. Instead of a six-month chemotherapy protocol, typically followed by radiation, she would undergo three months of intense chemotherapy with no radiation.

“Cancer takes everything you have,” said Koh, then a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt. “I could not walk for five minutes straight without breathing hard, and that was walking at a normal pace.

“I was so tired and so weak. I needed to take control of my health again and the only way for me to do that was to start working out and documenting it. Hitting certain marks along the way told me I was getting better. This was a huge milestone for me.”

Koh added an additional component to her recovery – fundraising. She competed in several more events sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), including half-Ironman triathlons in 2007 and 2009.

Gifts can be made to this and other community agencies through Dec. 31.

“As a scientist, I understood the science behind the research that was improving the lives of patients through clinical trials like the one I was in,” Koh said. “Translational research is so important in making sure science pushes the boundaries and improves the therapeutics we give to patients.

“I knew the impact LLS research was making — I lived it,” she said. “So I wanted to raise money for cancer treatments. It was a way I could be a part of the solution.”

Since 1949 LLS has been committed to curing leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. It is the largest nonprofit health organization dedicated to funding life-saving blood cancer research around the world and providing free education and support services for patients and families.

In 1988, the organization created Team in Training (TNT), now the world’s largest and most successful endurance sports charity training program. More than $1.2 billion has been raised to fund research to help advance new treatments and cures for blood cancers.

LLS is a member agency of Community Health Charities of Tennessee, a federation of health organizations that have joined together to raise contributions in the workplace. Community Health Charities enhances the operations, programs and services of its 43 health-related member charities in Tennessee. It is one of the groups included in Vanderbilt’s community giving campaign, Vanderbilt Gives, which runs through Dec. 31.

For Koh, training through LLS did more than track her health – it inspired a new career. Soon after her second half-Ironman in 2007, she left the research lab and joined the Development team at Vanderbilt. She is now a director of Foundation Relations.

“At first raising money was a bit intimidating,” Koh admitted. “But I found that I was really able to connect with people. Having a background in science gives me the knowledge to talk to researchers and translate their information to others.

“This job is helping me to connect entities with a passion for a specific area so they can work together to solve problems. That is very satisfying to me.”

Koh recently celebrated her eight-year remission anniversary. She continues to move forward in her quest to compete in endurance events. She plans to do a second half-Ironman in the fall of 2012.

“I signed up for TNT because it was a way I could show myself that my health was improving every single day,” Koh said. “I keep doing it because I love the experience. I have the ability to do these marathons. It is really a blessing in many, many ways. It is a gift and I treasure it.”