Overcoming adversity with tenacity: Cancer survivor Patricia Fujii, 84, lives life to its fullest

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Patricia Fujii, 83, second from left, of Meridian, ID, competes in 50m dash at the National Senior Games presented by Humana on Thursday, July 9, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. Fujii was honored as a Humana Game Changer for serving as an inspiration to people of all ages to get active. She began exercising after a bout with breast cancer and believes the friendships she makes on the field are more important than your competition results. (Photo by Craig Lassig/Invision for Humana/AP Images)

Patricia Fujii, 83, second from left, of Meridian, ID, competes in 50m dash at the National Senior Games presented by Humana on Thursday, July 9, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. Fujii was honored as a Humana Game Changer for serving as an inspiration to people of all ages to get active. She began exercising after a bout with breast cancer and believes the friendships she makes on the field are more important than your competition results. (Photo by Craig Lassig/Invision for Humana/AP Images)
Patricia Fujii, 83, second from left, of Meridian, ID, competes in 50m dash at the National Senior Games presented by Humana on Thursday, July 9, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. Fujii was honored as a Humana Game Changer for serving as an inspiration to people of all ages to get active. She began exercising after a bout with breast cancer and believes the friendships she makes on the field are more important than your competition results. (Photo by Craig Lassig/Invision for Humana/AP Images)

Despite winning eight gold medals in this year’s Idaho Senior Games, 84-year-old Patricia Fujii does not consider herself an athlete. According to the octogenarian sprinter, the difference between her and the athletes she competed against at the National Senior Games is that the other higher-placing athletes train harder.

“I don’t have time to hire a trainer like the others do,”  the Meridian, Idaho resident said. “Many of the other athletes competing in Minneapolis trained two hours a day.”

Humana, this year’s presenting sponsor for the National Senior Games in Minnesota, recognized her dedication to staying healthy. The insurance company awarded Fujii and 12 other athletes — from among 10,000 senior athletes in the country — as this year’s Humana Game Changers, a statement said.

“Pat was chosen as a Humana Game Changer because she exemplifies life-long well-being through her spirit of determination, personal strength and dedication to her sport,” Marvin Hill, Humana’s national public relations manager said. “It is particularly impressive how Pat still made health and well-being a priority through her chemotherapy and after her battle with breast cancer.”

While Fujii did not win any gold medals at the national level, she has kept active at home. She began taking aerobics, line dancing and tai chi classes in 1998 after her children bought a membership to the local YMCA to encourage her to exercise. “Most of my activities (before) were just sitting around,” she said.

In 2008, however, Fujii was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctor told her that radiation therapy would kill her red blood cells and tire her out. “I asked them what can I do to get more red blood cells, and they said ‘exercise,’” she said.

Fujii said she continued to exercise despite the added burden of undergoing treatment, and competed in the 2008 Idaho Senior Games the day after she finished treatment. She won several gold medals that year.

She has since kept going, competing in both the Idaho Senior Games and the National Senior Games, as well as attending classes at her local YMCA. “I’ve been doing 14 years of tai chi,” she said. “It’s especially good for older people and balance. It also builds muscle through its slow movements.”

During this year’s Aug. 1 Idaho Senior Games, she took home gold medals for long jump, standing long jump, the triple jump, and the 50, 100 and 400 meter dash on a 100-degree day.

Mike Thornton, state coordinator for the Idaho Senior Games, said Fujii is “what the Senior Games are all about.” He said she currently holds state records in the 50 meter (13.50), 100 meter (27.99), 200 meter (51.45) and 400 meter dash (2:49.30), as well as in the long jump (5 feet, 9.25 inches) and triple jump (12 feet, 7.75 inches) for her age group.

“She is an inspiration to a young 75-year-old like myself,” Thornton said.

In addition to competing in the senior games, Fujii’s schedule is also filled with numerous other activities. A former teacher, she retired in 1993, but she continues to volunteer and help at schools. She also works part time at a florist and a real estate brokerage.

Fujii, who is of Chinese descent, has been busy all her life. She was born and raised in Portland, Ore. Her parents ran restaurants and between her time spent studying, she helped her family business. She recalled being pressured to get straight A’s in school, professing that she had cried for a week when she came home with her first B in high school.

In 1951, she moved to the Oregon Slope area near the border of Idaho and Oregon to marry Ed Fujii, a Japanese American farmer, She gave birth to three children. Living on the farm, Fujii saw her farm hands ruining the onion crop while driving a tractor crookedly and took it upon herself to learn how to properly drive a tractor to harvest onions.

The life of a farmer, however, did not appeal to Fujii, so she decided to return to school. Starting with night school, she eventually graduated with a degree in mathematics and home economics from the Northwest Nazarene University in 1968 and became a teacher, winning the Idaho Teacher of the Year in 1976.

“I took (exercising) today off because I had a mammogram this morning. And then I had a closing right after that — I’m selling my son’s house,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I just walked in the door about 10 minutes ago.”

Normally, she works five to six days a week at Hillcrest Florists and tries to attend her zumba, line-dancing and tai chi classes.

Aside from her two jobs and YMCA classes, Fujii said she organizes the potluck fundraisers for the senior classes at the YMCA and is an active member of Delta Kappa Gamma International Society for Key Women Educators, previously serving as state chapter president. As a florist, she also makes arrangements for her church, the YMCA and local community center.

With Fujii’s whirlwind of a schedule, it is no wonder why she cannot afford to train two hours a day for the National Senior Games, but she maintains a steadfast and active lifestyle.

She advises seniors to get started by taking classes that they are interested in, or even by walking more. “I would suggest walking 10,000 steps a day if possible … Buy a pedometer and lengthen the amount of time spent walking each day,” she said. “Even if they have to push themselves a little, you need to get in shape.”

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