I'm an Amputee and Trainer—But Didn't Step Foot In the Gym Until I Was 36

After a rare form of bone cancer took her leg at 15, Dareen Barbar fell into a depression for decades. Here, she shares how she found fitness and finally learned to appreciate her body.

I was born in 1978 in the midst of Lebanon's civil war. Growing up, everyone around me was afraid, hiding from bombs and doing whatever they could to avoid conflict. When the fighting finally came to an end in 1991, like everyone else, I felt I could finally rest easy knowing the danger was over.

But then, two years later, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (otherwise known as osteogenic sarcoma) a very aggressive form of bone cancer.

I was 15 at the time and went through seven months of chemotherapy before doctors decided to amputate my left leg above the knee. The country was just starting to rebuild itself then, so there weren't many health care facilities for normal people, let alone for those of us with disabilities. So my teenage years were tough-to say the least.

Before I lost my leg, I was active and played sports. But post-amputation, I gave up on the thought of ever being athletic. I exercised lightly, walking and doing some ab workouts, but it never even occurred to me to step into a gym. After falling into a depression, I neglected my body and just stopped taking care of myself throughout my 20s and 30s.

It took another life-altering incident to help me finally realize that I was letting my disability get the best of me. Two years ago, at 36, I was standing in my kitchen washing dishes when I slipped and fell, breaking my left hip-the same side as my amputated leg. That's what really woke me up. It was like someone slapped me in the face and said, "What are you doing?" I had let my body get so weak that standing and washing dishes had become difficult. I knew something had to change.

After undergoing surgery and having screws put in my hip, I was put on bed rest for three months, giving me a lot of time to think about my life. I knew I had to rise up again and get over the slump I'd been in for so many years. But that was much easier said than done.

When you're on bed rest, not wearing your prosthetic, your muscles get weak. When I was cleared to start walking again, I was starting back at square one, and that was depressing. But it was my kids who got me to push through the rehabilitation process. I looked at them and I knew that for their sake, I needed to get better. So I started going to our community gym.

Within weeks, my body changed-both from the outside and from within. What started as 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill (usually involving a lot of huffing and puffing) quickly turned into an hour of brisk walking and intermittent jogging. I taught myself basic circuit training and started going to classes for CrossFit and aerial yoga. When I wasn't doing that, I was swimming, doing jujitsu-determined to do whatever it took to feel strong again.

Once I started to feel more capable, I wanted to achieve something physically-just to see what my body could do. So I signed up for the Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon. It was only a 4K race that I didn't really run, but it was the first time I had walked that far since I lost my leg. And being able to accomplish that was unbelievable.

I had always heard that exercise releases endorphins, and I discovered firsthand how true it was. I became hooked on fitness and the more I saw results, the more motivated I became. The way people started to see me once I changed my lifestyle had the greatest impact on my confidence. I even started to wear my prosthetic without its cover, a huge deal for me-and it was all because I wasn't ashamed anymore.

My whole life I tried to be normal-thinking that's what other people wanted me to be. But becoming fit and gaining control of my body made me realize that I didn't care what other people wanted. I became happy with my body just the way it was.

Now, it's been two years since I broke my hip and I've lost over 25 kg (55 pounds). During this time, I realized I wanted to take my fitness to the next level and inspire others. Before I started my journey, I remember looking through social media and thinking that there was no one else out there like me. As I started becoming healthier, I asked myself: "Why can't I be that role model?" "Why can't I inspire people?" So that's what I did.

I'm now a certified gym instructor and nutritionist. There was a time when I thought I'd never make it far enough to grow old. And now I know I'm healthy, fit, and taking care of myself. The way I look at it now, having a disability is the extraordinary ability to make something impossible possible. You can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it. If you trip, get back up, and keep on moving forward. And most importantly, enjoy what you have and feel empowered, because you never know what life will throw your way.

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