Board Member Spotlight: Christie Ekern

As a mother of five, marketing consultant, and business school lecturer, Christie Ekern has always kept a quick pace to meet a demanding schedule.

So when she returned from a trip abroad with an upset stomach, it didn’t slow her down.

“As someone with celiac disease, I knew I had to be careful,” said Christie. “I had been in Europe, eating a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have. I figured that I just needed a quick detox.”

Mild discomfort quickly turned into a medical crisis. Despite multiple doctors telling her not to even consider cancer as a possibility, Christie persisted as her pain and fatigue grew.

In 2019, she was diagnosed with advanced stage 3 colorectal cancer with a near-complete blockage of her lower GI tract.

A life-long athlete and busy professional, a sense of inertia kept Christie active even during treatment for her life-threatening illness.

“I would come in to teach wearing a fanny pack with a cord that went up to my port,” she recalled. “I let my students know what was happening and that I might be tired from the treatment, but that I planned to keep teaching as much as possible.”

Students who were freshmen at the time are now seniors. Many have shared their own cancer stories with Christie, inspired by her candor about her illness as well as her drive to stay active despite it.

When the chemotherapy ended, Christie found herself with a challenge that every survivor encounters – how to become well again.

“My grandfather was one of the original proponents of the connection between physical and mental health,” said Christie. “That concept runs deep in my life, but to experience it as a survivor was profound. Both physically and psychologically, I needed to regain a sense of agency over my life.”

“Before the diagnosis, I was running four miles a day, practicing yoga, going to spin classes, and training with weights,” she continued. “After treatment ended, I couldn’t even walk to the end of my driveway.”

With a clean bill of health, Christie remains as active today as ever, to which she credits her experience as a Survivor Fitness participant.

For 12 weeks, Christie met with a personal trainer who had the experience and expertise to work safely with cancer survivors.

After a thorough assessment of her baseline fitness, she began a customized workout regimen with the goal of regaining strength and rebuilding endurance.

After completing the program, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Survivor Fitness, Meg Grunke, invited Christie to join its board of directors.

“After cancer, every small action is worth the effort,” explained Christie. “Survivor Fitness helps people get healthy again by teaching us that each and every step forward, any movement of any kind, is critical.”

Today, Christie’s favorite form of exercise is a brisk walk with her dog along a quarter-mile walking trail just outside her front door.

“My partner, Juan, spent his downtime during the pandemic carving the trail through the woods on our property,” said Christie. “He did that for me out of love, because that’s what brings me joy.”

It’s a quiet, secluded path where Christie reconnects with nature, resets to a more mindful state, and keeps herself in motion toward complete wellness.

Christie Ekern is a management and entrepreneurship lecturer at the Haslam College of Business in Knoxville, TN.