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Rolling to recovery

June 18, 2018 GMT

Cheer for the Med City Mafia (and, hopefully, for a post-cancer comeback)

Cat Thisius is taking the fast track to cancer recovery.

On Jan. 15, Thisius went in for a routine mammogram. Nine days later, she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). A little more than a month after that, she underwent surgery to remove the cancer, and started a long road to recovery.

She’s has had plenty of milestones along the way.

About five and a half years ago, Thisius joined Rochester’s roller derby team, the MedCity Mafia. And as her fifth season proceeded without her, Thisius—called “Mad Catter” during games—knew she wanted to play this year, breast cancer or no.

“Derby is one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life,” she says. “It was the most challenging, until cancer came along.”

A six-month timeline from mammogram to end of the roller derby season wasn’t going to stop Thisius. “My ultimate goal is going out in that final home game [June 16]. Even if it’s just for one jam,” she says. “So I can say, ‘Okay, I’ve done it.’”

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After a double mastectomy the first week of March, Thisius had six weeks of rest ahead of her. Those were long days in her armchair, dealing with chest compression and drainage tubes, and absolutely no exercise.

By April 16, she was back up on skates.Through April, Thisius had to rely on a piece of gear outside the normal roller derby pads, helmet and skates—her purple Fitbit, which determined whether she could continue to practice with the team. At her first practice, she struggled to stretch her arms above her head, and broke to skate laps while the team drilled.

“I’m winded. I think that’s the hardest part, and my legs are shaky,” she said after practice. “I’ve always pushed myself and I can’t do that now.” But being back on skates was a relief in itself.

By her third practice, Thisius was “feeling good!”

Thisius plays as a blocker, which is the position in roller derby that tries to stop opposing jammers from getting through as they attempt to make a full lap around the track. Furthermore, Thisius likes to brace—during a block, she faces the oncoming jammer so she can tell her teammates where the hit will come from, and add “force that makes the block strong.”

But there’s a disadvantage to the position that became increasingly clear as her first contact practice approached.

“If the jammer gets through, the brace will also take the hit to the chest,” she says. Enter the chest shield: a piece of molded plastic designed for fencing that Thisius padded with Wonder Woman felt.

“I didn’t feel anything, which was great,” she says. “It felt good, it felt really good. It didn’t feel like anyone was holding back, which is what I was wishing for.”

On June 16, Cat will play in MedCity Mafia’s final home game. The number of jams she’ll skate is not yet certain. But watch out, Minnesota Southbound Rollers—this player is armored up.

—Anne Halliwell