TENMILE — When Brenda Welker was 47, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and neuromuscular disease. She was told she would probably die and certainly never walk again. Four years later, Welker is very much alive and gets around with the aid of a walker.
She also races a dragster that her husband, Kevin Welker, built for her while she battled cancer.
On the back of Brenda Welker’s motorized wheelchair is a sign saying “Girls get dirty too.” It is a reference to the more than three decades she has spent racing first a Jeep and now a dragster on dirt tracks. In July, with her cancer in remission, she returned to the races in the dragster.
Brenda Welker became aware something was wrong in 2011 when she lost her balance while walking and couldn’t get it back.
“Everybody thought I looked like I was drunk. I never even dreamed it was cancer,” Welker said.
Though many doctors would ultimately become involved in her treatment, at first she could find no one to see her. She had no regular doctor and no insurance. After many frantic calls, the Welkers made contact through a friend with a doctor who brought Welker in for tests on his lunch break and sent her straight to the hospital. A cancerous spot was found in her lungs and doctors said her difficulty balancing was due to neuropathy, nerve damage that was a side effect of the cancer.
Welker, 50, of Tenmile spent the next year in bed.
“In the first year she was pretty much a vegetable. She couldn’t feed herself, couldn’t dress herself, nothing,” Kevin Welker said.
Doctors told him she had a 10 percent chance of surviving and even if she survived, she would not walk.
Kevin Welker refused to accept that. He lifted his wife into the truck and took her with him while he delivered water for their business, Oregon Sunshine Water Delivery. He fed her, bathed her and did everything else she could not do for herself.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to lose my wife. I married her until death do us part, and I’m not going to let her go,’” he said.
Today, Brenda can walk about 400 feet with the aid of a walker. She said she will keep working on it until she can walk normally again.
She was unable to feel her feet and legs for about three years, but started getting feeling back a few months ago. She continues to feel the effects of the neuropathy.
“It tingles, like when your foot falls asleep. That’s what I feel like all over,” she said.
She was determined not to let her condition prevent her from racing.
She has been racing since she was a teenager and won her first trophy in 1981. For many years she raced a 1972 Jeep and won dozens of trophies. She started racing in Lookingglass and has raced in Washington, California and Idaho, as well as around Oregon.
In July, she raced the dragster Kevin made her for the first time at the Riddle Raceway, which is owned by her father, Fred Green. The track is a 300-foot stretch of road in loose sand. Green hosts a race every year on July 4.
Friends and family suggested Brenda Welker take it easy during her first race. She said she did not follow their advice.
“I don’t know what easy is. I put the gas pedal to the floor,” she said. She did not place in the race, but she loved it.
“I was nervous at first. I was just worried about all these little things. I shouldn’t have been. Once I ran it down the track, all the butterflies went away,” she said.
She said she loves the feeling she gets at the beginning of a race.
“There’s nothing like the adrenaline you feel when you fire up those motors,” Welker said.
Kevin said he built the 14-foot dragster from an old custom-built frame, a 350 Chevrolet engine and paddle tires. When he first brought the parts home in 2012, he thought he might build a dragster for himself. When his wife expressed interest in it, he decided to construct it for her.
“When we got it, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought he was buying another piece of junk,” she said.
Though the dragster still needs work and paint, it does the job, they said.
“Pretty doesn’t win races,” Brenda Welker said.
She said she plans to race this summer.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m feeling a lot stronger now,” she said. “This year I plan to place, but if I don’t, at least I get the fun of doing it.”
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t know what easy is. I put the gas pedal to the floor.