Growing up a competitive gymnast, Debra Murray’s favorite apparatus in the gymnastics school that her father operated was the uneven bars – difficult and challenging even for the most skilled athlete, leaving little room for error.
Now 50 years later, she finds herself in a battle against two Stage IV cancers that she tackles with the similar skills she used all those years ago in the routines that helped her stick her landings – mental toughness, physical endurance and emotional stamina.
“I’ve always been a fighter,” said the 63-year-old Colorado Springs resident. “My dad always told me – ‘Be the best and go after it,’ and that’s what I always tried to do.”
Debra is not one to retreat from a challenge. She’s been pushing back for much of her life against the status quo, whether it was playing sports in a pre-Title IX world when girls and women were excluded from athletic opportunities to pursuing a career in a male-dominated profession of sports medicine athletic training. Or more recently, shaking up her life with a move from North Carolina to Colorado with her husband as she faces metastatic breast cancer and metastatic anal cancer.
Growing up one of six in a competitive family
She credits much of her spunk and spirit to her parents, who raised her and five sisters in Somerset, Massachusetts, a small town located between Boston and Cape Cod.
She started gymnastics as a 5-year-old. Her mother was a nurse, and her father was a mechanical engineer who also ran a gymnastics school where Debra trained and even coached during middle and high school. They didn’t have much money, and she recalls just one family vacation – they went camping, and her parents slept in the car, with the girls sleeping outdoors, courtesy of her engineer-trained dad’s diagram that detailed how his half dozen daughters could all fit in one tent.
Along with gymnastics, she played field hockey, basketball and ran track during her teen years. She remembers it being a busy, happy and disciplined home where four of her sisters went to college with Division 1 gymnastics scholarships.
“My parents expected us to rise, and so we did. They gave us a strong moral compass,” she said.
She attended Springfield College before graduating from Ithaca College, and then she went on to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for graduate school. Upon graduation, she was among a pioneering group of women in the early 1980s who became certified athletic trainers – not an easy job when universities, schools and professional teams were reluctant to hire women to work with their male athletes.
“I had to forge my own way,” Debra said.
A transplanted Easterner makes a new life in the South
Her first job was at Cornell University, where she was the athletic trainer for the men’s lacrosse, men’s soccer, women’s field hockey, and men’s and women’s gymnastics teams, before she landed back at UNC in Chapel Hill, where she spent 36 years as a teaching professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science. For the past 35 years, she has been married to her husband Greg, also a UNC grad and native of the state who was a physical education teacher and coach at a K-12 academy in Durham, North Carolina. The two met after one of her sisters, who had been his neighbor in Chapel Hill, introduced them and 10 months later, they were married.
They created a good life in North Carolina where they had two daughters, Erika and Mariel, and Debra founded and directed the UNC undergraduate apprenticeship athletic training program. During her tenure, she served as aquatics director, health education coordinator and adapted physical activity specialist.
“We were both teachers all our lives, and it was so empowering,” Debra said. “And many of our students – they became part of the fabric of our lives, and they’ve given us strength to help us get through this.”
The couple even moved back to campus when she became the faculty adviser for Phi Beta Chi, a Christian sorority. Since the then-new sorority didn’t have the funding to pay for a housemother, the couple volunteered to serve as house parents for 30 of the sorority’s members.
Still, there were major difficulties the family faced along the way. In 2008, Debra was first diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. In 2020, she was stunned to learn that the breast cancer had returned and that she had anal cancer as well. Battling two cancers proved daunting and Debra would have to retire from her beloved teaching career.
Cancer fight on two fronts
Greg and Debra’s daughters had moved to metro Denver. To keep the family together, they moved to Colorado Springs last June. With the assistance of a health concierge service that helped match Debra’s needs with a health care plan and physician, the couple found themselves in the office of Radhika Acharya-Leon, chief of oncology services at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.
“My case is very difficult because I have two cancers, both Stage IV, and it’s a moving escalator all the time to keep up with both. Dr. Acharya and her staff have really made a huge difference,” Debra said. “I needed one doctor to navigate both cancers, and I found her. She’s a rock star.”
Her husband agreed: “The communication with all of the moving parts and the response of UCHealth has been off the charts,” he said. “The difference between here and how we were treated in the past is immeasurable.”
For Acharya, building trust is integral to her relationship with patients.
“We’ve been able to develop a wonderful rapport, and it goes both ways. We can really talk to one another and respect one another. She’s a fighter. She’s so smart and she advocates for herself,” she said.
What does fighting two cancers simultaneously entail?
For Debra, it means taking oral chemotherapy pills every other week for seven days and estrogen-blocking medication.
She also undergoes two different types of immunotherapy infusion treatments every three weeks for both cancers that prime her immune system to recognize cancer cells as foreign in a better effort to fight them. These cancer treatments will continue throughout her life.
Immunotherapy uses a person’s natural defenses of their immune system to fight cancer by boosting or changing how the immune system works so it can find and attack cancer cells.
“Immunotherapy is really the name of the game – it’s the up-and-coming treatment for so many cancers,” Acharya said.
Acharya monitors any new symptom or change Debra might experience, determines which cancer is causing it and then shifts treatment accordingly. Both cancers are in remission and “well controlled,” Acharya said. “We’re tackling both cancers and she’s in a good spot, but we can’t let up. We must keep a lid on both of them.”
Focusing on a future with her expanding family
Debra said having a seamless health care protocol at UCHealth Highlands Ranch — she doesn’t wait long for appointments and is greeted by name — has done wonders for her overall well-being. She has more energy, is not so tired, has less stress than before, and is still able to take care of her toddler grandson Jackson, who was just joined by his newborn brother Justin.
“When you have cancer, people look at you and forget they are looking at a person with a heart. You are scared and trying to figure out a healthcare system that is often hard to understand. But UCHealth Highlands Ranch is like a family. Here, I feel everyone knows me as a person – I’m not just a cancer.”
Acharya said that’s exactly the tone she wants to set, enabling patients to feel like it is a “home where staff know your name while you are getting the most technologically advanced medical care possible.’’
The transplanted North Carolina couple has acclimated not only to the mile high elevation, but they also have embraced the outdoor Colorado lifestyle and most importantly, proximity to their daughters, son-in-law and grandsons.
And while Greg will always be a Tar Heel fan, he also has a newfound love for the Denver Broncos and says he just might be a cowboy at heart. On the couple’s bucket list are trips to Scotland and Ireland.
“As long as she’s healthy, the sky is the limit,” he said.
Debra said her faith in health care has been restored here, and that’s brought her piece of mind as she continues to fight for each day with her family, like her parents would have wanted her to.
“I stay focused on the moment, and I enjoy the moment. I’m very fortunate and grateful.’’