Surviving Cancer Led This Woman On a Quest to Find Wellness
"I wanted to heal both physically and emotionally, and that became my number-one priority."
Alex Dvorak was just 19 years old when she was first diagnosed with cancer. Overnight, she went from being a normal college student to battling a potentially terminal illness that changed her life in unexpected ways.
"When you're 19, being sick isn't something you think about twice," Dvorak tells Shape. "So when I had low energy combined with a cough and cold, I chalked it up to just adjusting to college life."
Still, during Thanksgiving break, Dvorak decided to pay her doctor a visit. The doctor suggested she get some tests done to make sure there wasn't something else going on. "Within a few days, the results came back and I was informed that I had an inoperable tumor in my chest," she says. "I went in for a biopsy almost immediately after and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells." (Related: Five Cancers That Start Young)
In a split second, Dvorak went from having her whole life ahead of her to counting all the dreams and moments she might miss out on. "Being that young, it was difficult to process those emotions, but in hindsight, I had no idea how challenging the next few years of my life would be," she says. (Learn about what six women impacted by breast cancer wish they'd known in their 20s.)
Dvorak started aggressive chemotherapy treatment almost immediately after getting diagnosed. That's when it all started to become very real. "My body didn't cope well with the chemo and I felt it start to deteriorate pretty quickly," she says. "Within weeks I had lost a ton of weight and was afraid to look in the mirror because of how bony and frail I was. Having grown up a competitive athlete, and aspiring model, it took a huge emotional toll to see my body in that state."
In fact, she felt so miserable that when the doctors told her the cancer was basically gone three months later, she couldn't believe them. "I continued treatment for another three months, but as a person both physically and emotionally, I had changed completely," she says. (Related: I'm a Four-Time Cancer Survivor and a USA Track and Field Athlete)
There she was at 20 years old, going through recovery-and while the whole time Dvorak thought she'd go back to living like before, she found herself starting from square one. "My life before was boys, friends, going to parties, and having a good time," she says. "But now, all I wanted to do was get better. I wanted to heal physically and emotionally, and that became my number-one priority." (Related: How Having Breast Cancer Changed the Way Amy Robach Thinks About Wellness)
So, she started seeing a therapist twice a week, every week, and investing in different ways in which she could show her body some love. "I started learning about how different foods can fuel your body," she says. "Rather than restricting myself or cutting anything out, I started eating what made me feel good, which usually meant unprocessed whole foods that have helped optimize my healing process." (Related: 6 New Dietary Guidelines Announced for Cancer Prevention)
Dvorak also started looking into some alternative medicine therapies. "I started seeing a masseuse who really helped with the pain my body was in, as well as the fatigue I constantly felt following treatment," she says. "I also started meditating for 10 to 30 minutes every morning and getting acupuncture."
Yet, Dvorak's says her body just wasn't how it used to be, even months into recovery. She was a runner before her diagnosis, but after going through treatment and losing so much weight, she says cardio was nearly impossible for her. What she really wanted and needed to do was put on more muscle and weight.
So for the first time in her life, Dvorak started focusing on strength training. "All I wanted was some meat on my bones and to feel strong and powerful again," she says.
After experimenting with several different workouts, she found a love of Pilates and the toning workout became her go-to. "I find it to be so empowering and it has done wonders to build my strength and help reconnect with my body again," she says. (Related: Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)
Starting a career in modeling (a dream of hers) also helped Dvorak feel comfortable and confident with her body. "I'd done some modeling prior to my diagnosis, but coming back to the industry with my scars and new body really helped me build a new appreciation for the skin I was in," she says.
When she was first diagnosed with cancer, Dvorak wasn't sure how much life she had left to live. But once the realization that she would be given the chance at a long and healthy life started to sink in, she didn't want to take that for granted.
"I'm eight years in remission and only recently have I started to feel strong and as though I'm 'back to normal'-if that's even a thing," she says. "When I reached my five-year mark of being cancer free, the chances of me getting sick again went down significantly. After that, life just becomes about prevention, which isn't something I take lightly. Having gone through what I did, I don't want to or feel like doing anything that could compromise my health-especially when I know how good I feel when I take care of my body."
Mostly, Dvorak wants people to know how important it is to make every day count and to treat your body with kindness. "You only have one body for the rest of your life, and I think it's really easy for that to go unnoticed when it hasn't been tested," she says. "I know everyone's version of treating their body well won't be the same as mine, but making a conscious effort to do that goes a long way."