When Mindy Kiepke learned she had breast cancer in late 2009, her first thought was for her five girls. “I thought, ‘What if I don’t live to see their next birthdays?’” the now-41-year-old mom recalls. Still recovering from thyroid cancer—which doctors had found only a few months before—Mindy faced a grueling year of more treatments and surgeries, all the while caring for her daughters, then ages 4 to 13.
Rather than give in to fear, Mindy turned to her family and faith. “Your mind naturally goes to the worst,” she explains. By training herself to focus on the present—one day, even one hour at a time—she was able to let go of the worry and anger, reassuring her girls as much as she could while never hiding the truth. Her “tremendous sense of humor” helped, too, says Mindy’s mom, Sarah Clayton, who nominated her for the Spry Inspiration Awards. Indeed, Mindy even signed up to receive a joke-a-day text message to her phone. “My friends and I laughed through my cancer,” Mindy says. “It kept me going.”
Mindy’s friends helped in other ways, too—even when she resisted. “I’ve always been an ‘I-can-do-it’ person,” Mindy admits. So when offers came pouring in to watch the kids, buy groceries or do laundry, Mindy hesitated. “But then I realized my family needed the help. And I needed to let people in.”
Her running buddies also gave Mindy, a serious marathoner, a goal to focus on as she recovered from her bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries. They signed up as a group for the Chicago Marathon, several months away. “It was something positive to think about,” Mindy says. “It gave me hope.”
It gave her purpose, too: To qualify, she raised $1,000 for the American Cancer Society. She ran in honor of her father-in-law, Gary Kiepke, who died of pancreatic cancer. For Mindy it was a race of triumph, of feeling grateful to be alive. “I couldn’t get the smile off my face,” she says.
And she’s still smiling. Now cancer-free, Mindy teaches family Zumba classes—“the most fun exercise ever,” she says of the dance-inspired fitness sensation—at a local gym. “I want kids to know fitness is fun,” says Mindy. That might mean going for a walk or run with her girls, creating an obstacle course in the park, or making up little rewards for when her kids choose healthy foods. “A healthy way of living should be part of our routine,” Mindy says. She models that—and more—every day.