For those of you who don’t know, I am a bodybuilding competitor. I compete in the bikini division, and no, I did not do this pre-cancer. I have a long history with exercise. From the time I was 15, I was hooked on physical activity. I joined the track team in high school, excelled at long distances, and really enjoyed being active. Over the years, though, and after some foot and hip problems, I hung up my running shoes and switched to a lower impact exercise, mainly walking. Still very effective for me, by the way. Until it wasn’t. One day, at age 36, I looked into the mirror and didn’t recognize myself anymore. Who was this woman staring back at me? At that moment, I realized the cardio that had been so effective for most of my life just wasn’t working anymore.
Like many of you, I noticed a pound here and a pound there until I realized I weighed 10 pounds more than two years before. Eventually, another 10 pounds and quite a few unsightly bulges found their way onto my formerly slim frame. I assumed that it was just age and, quite frankly, something I’d have to accept. And that’s when my best friend told me about her weight training program. Once overweight herself, she’d really toned up, and by toned, I mean she had some serious muscle. And I wanted what she had.
I hired her trainer and started training 5 days a week. Notice I said that I hired a trainer. Training is a science, guys, and I knew I couldn’t go to the gym, lift a few dumbbells and somehow emerge looking like one of those Victoria’s Secret models. I may not have been gym savvy, but I DID at least know this.
A few months passed. I stayed the course, going to the gym 5 days a week, rain or shine. The jiggle I’d spied under my arm just a short time ago began to disappear, the fat was melting off, and lo and behold, I saw some real muscles peeking through! I continued to work out, still utilizing a trainer who changed my routines regularly, for the next four years. And then, out of nowhere, all of my fitness gains tanked. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then came the surgery. The treatment. The Lymphedema. The swelling and cording in my arm. The Tamoxifen. The weight gain – every last pound back again. Overnight, my fitness level was gone, and it left me depressed and defeated.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
My Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders Facebook followers want to know, “How did you do it? Is it safe for me? How much can I lift?” The truth is that I’m not a trainer, or a medical professional, so I’m not really qualified to answer that. I sought advice from my cancer care team before I re-started my fitness journey post-diagnosis, and that’s where I’d suggest anyone start first.
After cancer, I figured my bodybuilding aspirations were over. Radiation left me with secondary Lymphedema, and I thought I’d be lucky to ever just lift again for basic strength. Begrudgingly, I accepted this thing everyone kept calling my “new normal.” I thought, “Life’s different now, and this is the best I’ll be.” My friends and family will tell you that doesn’t sound like me at all, but breast cancer subtly changed me over time until I didn’t really recognize who I’d morphed into.
There’s lots of conflicting research out there about fitness after a breast cancer diagnosis. Like me, you may find yourself completely confused concerning how to “pick up where you left off” or even scarier, “how to start in the first place.” You’ve endured countless surgeries and reconstructions, chemo, radiation, Lymphedema, complications and in some cases, even recurrences. It’s true that with any program, you should consult a doctor, but when you experience the long list of things I just mentioned, it’s non-negotiable. Give yourself a break. You’re not supposed to know where to begin. That’s why I turned to the professionals.
Lymphedema was my main issue after breast cancer, so my first step was to visit Lymphedema specialist, Dr. Angela Wicker-Ramos, of Cancer Rehab Austin in Austin, Texas. She performed Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), a special type of light massage just for the lymphatic system, and got me back on the road to good health. She taught me how to do self-drainage, connected me with P&H Services, also a Trulife Breastcare retailer, so that I could be fitted with a compression sleeve, and rehabbed me for weeks. She advised me how to begin lifting weights again, but I have to be honest. As an experienced lifter, her advice was not what I wanted to hear. The first week back, I was released to lift – get this – ONE pound weights. Angela, however, was the expert, and not me, so I listened. She coached me, and together, we developed a safe, effective plan.
I also reached out to the doctor I trust the most, my plastic surgeon, Dr. Elisabeth Potter. She specializes not only in reconstructive surgery but also Lymphedema. Knowing full well that I risked injury or progression of my disease if done incorrectly, I felt it was absolutely necessary to involve her. I hadn’t worked out my chest in over three years following my diagnosis as well, and I feared that with a bum arm and some chest issues, I would not be able to do this bodybuilding thing. Together, we discussed my goals, my limitations, and worked to find a way to achieve my post-cancer aspirations.
And, finally, I found a coach/trainer with a proven track record. She worked with my issues and provided solid alternatives when my training needed modifications. Melanie Daly, of Bodyworx Fit, was everything I sought in a coach and more. These three women have been my guidance. Without them, I would not be able to lift weights with the confidence that I’m not destroying my health. And, recently there’s been major studies showing that weight training, when done properly, can actually help manage Lymphedema. After almost two years, I haven’t had a single flare.
My main point is that I did not achieve any of this alone. I am not an expert in any of these fields, but I’m smart enough to seek out those who are. Last October, I celebrated 4 years in remission by walking across that stage in a blinged-out bikini and winning my first bodybuilding medal. It was an empowering moment. So much so, in fact, that I decided to keep competing. I enjoyed a couple of cheat meals afterwards, and then I dove back into training. Now, here I am 8 weeks out from my next show. And none of this would have been possible without my all-star cancer care team.
I must emphasize that my road back to recovery did not happen overnight. It took me three years to get back in the gym regularly. It’s easy to get down on ourselves for not bouncing back immediately, but we all have our own cancer baggage. Some of us have Lymphedema, some experience neuropathy, and others experience a whole host of random aches and pains. Things that I may do may not be possible for you, and vice versa. That’s why it’s very important to aim for the “peak” you. Whatever your goals may be, I encourage you to consult professionals before starting and to remember that you don’t have to walk across a stage in a bikini to experience victory. It may simply be a milestone to get out of bed more days than you don’t. Wherever you are right now, seek answers to your questions and find out what you can and can’t do safely. Then be gentle with yourself as you start the next phase of your journey.