Tri-athlete Back to Training After Lung Cancer   

Tri-athlete Back to Training After Lung Cancer

Donald Cooper

Donald Cooper, 69, of Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, is an avid runner, tri-athlete and Ironman participant. After quitting smoking and taking up walking in his late 30s, Donald began running in his early 40s and soon started competing in running events. A member of Ocean Running Club in Ocean County, New Jersey, Donald eventually took up swimming and biking and started competing in triathlons, ultra-marathons and trail marathons.

However, one day, he began experiencing chest pain during his runs. “After a few miles, the chest pain would go away and I would be able to breathe a bit better, but I just wasn’t getting back to normal,” says Donald, who works as a quality assurance analyst and tests computer software.

In fall 2020, Donald visited his cardiologist, who suspected Donald might have some small blockages that were causing his chest pain. But after undergoing several tests, Donald received shocking news.

“My cardiologist found that I had four major blockages and scheduled a quadruple bypass for December 3, 2020,” Donald says.

A Second Shocking Diagnosis

During Donald’s preoperative testing for his bypass surgery, an imaging test revealed that a lung nodule—which his pulmonologist had been following for several years—had suddenly grown much bigger. Donald had been seeing a pulmonologist for years to manage his asthma.

Despite the concerning change in his lung nodule, Donald’s cardiac surgeon thought it was best to go ahead with his quadruple bypass procedure.

“I was only in the hospital for four days,” Donald says. “I got out of the hospital on a Monday, and the next day I was up walking outside with my wife.”

Although he was determined to get back to his peak athletic performance level, Donald stuck with walking for a few months after surgery to lower his risk of experiencing complications. After a smooth recovery, Donald scheduled a biopsy of his lung nodule.

The results revealed a second shocking diagnosis: lung cancer.

Donald’s pulmonologist recommended that he schedule an appointment with Thomas Bauer, M.D., MBA, chair of the Department of Surgery and director of Thoracic Surgery at Jersey Shore.

A Plan to Get Back to Running

During his surgical consultation, Donald told Dr. Bauer about his active lifestyle and expressed concern about his ability to breathe after surgery. A two-time Ironman Lake Placid finisher himself, Dr. Bauer was committed to balancing Donald’s fitness needs with an excellent oncologic solution.

To preserve as much of Donald’s healthy lung tissue and breathing capacity as possible, Dr. Bauer performed a less-invasive operation than originally planned to remove the nodule on May 30, 2021—about six months after Donald’s quadruple bypass surgery.

“I took a few days off work after my lung cancer surgery, and then I had a weekend and I was back to working from home,” Donald says. “I felt pretty good, and I could do everything I wanted to do except for exercising."

Because Donald’s lung cancer hadn’t spread, he didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation after surgery, and he was soon able to return to his exercise routine.

“I’ve been working at it for over a year to get my breathing back for my swimming, biking and running,” Donald says.

Although he’s not quite back to his pre-surgery performance level, Donald competed in a half-Ironman in New York in August 2022 as a warm-up race, followed by the Ironman Maryland triathlon in Cambridge, Maryland, on September 17, 2022—just 16 months after his lung cancer surgery and 21 months after his quadruple bypass.

“I’m a little nervous, because it’s been tough getting back to where I left off,” Donald says. “But if I hadn’t quit smoking, taken up exercise years ago and received the care I needed from Dr. Bauer and my other doctors, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care. 



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