How a Rare Illness Forever Changed My Relationship with Fitness—and My Body

I had a "perfect" life as a personal trainer and fitness model. But it wasn't until doctors removed 80 percent of my pancreas, along with a good chunk of my spleen and stomach, that I finally learned to love exercise—and my body.

If you saw me in 2003, you would have thought I had everything. I was young, fit, and living my dream as a highly sought-after personal trainer, fitness instructor, and model. (Fun fact: I even worked as a fitness model for Shape.) But there was a dark side to my picture-perfect life: I hated my body. My super-fit exterior masked a deep insecurity, and I would stress out and crash diet before every photo shoot. I enjoyed the actual modeling work, but once I saw the pictures, all I could see were my flaws. I never felt fit enough, ripped enough, or thin enough. I used exercise to punish myself, pushing through grueling workouts even when I felt sick or tired. So while my outside looked amazing, inside I was a hot mess.

Then I got a serious wake-up call.

I'd been suffering stomach pains and exhaustion for months, but it wasn't until a client's husband, an oncologist, saw my stomach bulge (it almost looked like I had a third boob!) that I realized I was in serious trouble. He told me I needed to see a doctor immediately. After a slew of tests and specialists, I finally got my answer: I had a rare type of pancreatic tumor. It was so big and growing so fast that, at first, my doctors thought I wouldn't make it. This news put me into a tailspin. I was angry at myself, my body, the universe. I did everything right! I took such good care of my body! How could it fail me like this?

In December of that year, I had surgery. Doctors removed 80 percent of my pancreas along with a good chunk of my spleen and stomach. Afterward, I was left with a huge "Mercedes-Benz"-shaped scar and no instruction or help other than being told not to lift more than 10 pounds. I'd gone from being super fit to being barely alive in just a matter of months.

Surprisingly, instead of feeling demoralized and depressed, I felt clean and clear for the first time in years. It was like the tumor had encapsulated all my negativity and self-doubt, and the surgeon had cut all that out of my body along with the diseased tissue.

A couple days after surgery, while lying in ICU, I wrote in my journal, "I guess this is what people mean by getting a second chance. I am one of the lucky ones... to have all of my anger, frustration, fear, and pain, physically removed from my body. I am an emotional clean slate. I am so grateful for this chance to truly start living my life." I can't explain why I had such a clear sense of knowing myself, but I have never been so sure of anything in my life. I was a brand-new me. [

From that day forward, I saw my body in a totally new light. Even though my recovery was a year of excruciating pain-it hurt even to do little things like stand up straight or pick up a dish-I made a point to cherish my body for everything it could do. And eventually, through patience and hard work, my body could do everything it could before the surgery and even some new things. The doctors told me I'd never run again. But not only do I run, I also surf, do yoga, and compete in weeklong mountain bike races!

The physical changes were impressive, but the real change happened on the inside. Six months after my surgery, my newfound confidence gave me the courage to divorce my husband and leave that toxic relationship for good. It helped me ditch negative friendships and focus on those people who brought me light and laughter. It has also helped me in my work, giving me a deep sense of sympathy and compassion for others who struggle with their health. For the first time, I could really understand where my clients were coming from, and I knew how to push them and not let them use their health problems as an excuse. And it completely changed my relationship with exercise. Before my surgery, I saw exercise as a form of punishment or simply a tool to shape my body. These days, I let my body tell me what it wants and needs. Yoga for me is now about being centered and connected, not about doing double Chaturangas or pushing through the hardest pose. Exercise changed from feeling like something I had to do, to something I want to do and genuinely enjoy.

And that huge scar I'd been so worried about? I'm in bikinis every day. You might wonder how someone who used to model deals with having such a visible "imperfection," but it represents all of the ways I've grown and changed. Honestly, I hardly notice my scar anymore. But when I do look at it, it reminds me that this is my body, and it's the only one I have. I'm just going to love it. I'm a survivor and my scar is my badge of honor.

This isn't just true for me. All of us have our scars-visible or invisible-from battles we've fought and won. Don't be ashamed of your scars; see them as proof of your strength and experience. Take care of and respect your body: Sweat often, play hard, and live the life you love-because you only get one.

To read more about Shanti check out her blog Sweat, Play, Live.

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