Cancer survivor continues fitness regimen at 82

Eileen Birdsong, pictured May 29, 2014, exercises daily with light weights and walks along the pathways near her Pleasanton, Calif. home. Birdsong has faced cancer three times over the past two decades, but she has never let it slow her down. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

(MCT) -- WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Eileen Birdsong has faced cancer three times over the past two decades, but she has never let it slow her down.

During eight months of radiation treatment for breast cancer in the mid-1990s, the Pleasanton woman walked the 6-mile round trip to her doctor's appointments five days a week.

Two years ago, back home following surgery from esophageal cancer, she was walking as soon as she could, if only to the end of the block and back.

"It's not how much you do or how far you walk, doing some form of exercise is better than doing nothing," says Birdsong, 82. "My doctors told me I survived because I had taken such good care of myself all my life through exercise and diet."

Birdsong's can-do spirit revealed itself when she was a young woman in the 1950s, living and working in the Canadian Arctic with that country's Department of Defense. Birdsong, a native of Manitoba, was a dental assistant, supporting multinational military exercises at a base in Churchill, a town on the shore of Hudson Bay.

At the time, Canada and the United States feared a Soviet invasion via an Arctic route, so from September to May, the allies trained soldiers and pilots to fight in extreme weather conditions.

Churchill is known for its autumn migration of polar bears and stunningly stark landscape of tundra and icebergs.

"We were above the tree line," says Birdsong, who initially signed a one-year contract. For the six months of winter, she lived without sun. For the other six months, the sun shone all the time. And it was cold, with average January temperatures falling into the double digits below zero. "It was the coldest place I've ever been in."

But Birdsong loved the place and the work and stayed for five years. When she wasn't providing dental services to soldiers, she was dispatched to take care of the teeth of Inuit and other natives.

In the 1950s, Birdsong says, people didn't think about going out to exercise just for the sake of exercise, but Birdsong couldn't help but get fit.

"You were always walking outdoors in cold weather," she says. "You could eat like a horse because you burned a lot of calories just surviving."

Her Arctic adventure ended after she met her first husband, U.S. Army Col. William Trapp, who had accompanied Wernher von Braun, considered the German father of rocket science, to the Canadian north to test rockets.

Birdsong became a military wife. She maintained her sense of adventure while finding something to enjoy in every place they were posted, from Leavenworth, Kansas, to Taiwan and Bangkok.

After Trapp died, Birdsong met her second husband, U.S. Air Force Col. George "Buzz" Birdsong, a famed World War II pilot, at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C., in 1967. Col. Birdsong participated in the first daylight raids over Germany, and his plane, the Delta Rebel, was the first to complete 25 missions in Europe. After the colonel retired, they married in 1970 and eventually settled in Pleasanton to be closer to three of his four children from an earlier marriage.

Eileen Birdsong stayed active by working as a receptionist at a Pleasanton law firm and volunteering at the Camp Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin and the Livermore Veterans Administration Hospital. She joined wildlife and birding groups that had her trooping all over the East Bay hills, and played after-work rounds of golf with her husband. Col. Birdsong died in 2004.

Birdsong began her six-mile walks after she retired from the law firm. Since her cancer surgery two years ago, she reduced walking from six miles to three but is satisfied with that distance because she maintains a pace that has her done in an hour.

These days, she also stretches every morning. Four times a week, she uses eight-pound weights to do a series of lifts to strengthen her upper body and to "get my blood going first thing in the morning."

Not only does the exercise make her feel better, she knows it's key to maintaining her independence.

"I am thankful every day that I am able to be active," she says, "and hopefully, in the process, encourage other seniors to get moving."