Cancer left me feeling broken and betrayed by my body. Getting fit showed me that I'm stronger than I ever knew.
Photos: Courtney Sanger
No one thinks they're going to get cancer, especially not 22-year-old college students who think they're invincible. Yet, that's exactly what happened to me in 1999. I was doing an internship at a racetrack in Indianapolis, living my dream, when one day my period started—and never stopped. For three months, I bled constantly. Finally after getting two blood transfusions (yeah, it was that bad!) my doctor recommended surgery to see what was going on. During the surgery, they found stage I uterine cancer. It was a total shock, but I was determined to fight it. I took a semester off of college and moved home with my parents. I had a total hysterectomy. (Here are 10 common things that could be causing your irregular period.)
The good news was that the surgery got all the cancer and I went into remission. The bad news? Because they took my uterus and ovaries, I hit menopause—yes, menopause, in my 20s—like a brick wall. Menopause at any stage of life isn't the most fun thing. But as a young woman, it was devastating. They put me on hormone replacement therapy, and in addition to the typical side effects (like brain fog and hot flashes), I also gained a lot of weight. I went from being an athletic young woman who went to the gym regularly and played on an intramural softball team to gaining over 100 pounds in five years.
Still, I was determined to live my life and to not let this get me down. I learned to survive and thrive in my new body—after all, I was just so grateful I was still around! But my battle with cancer wasn't over yet. In 2014, just months after finishing my master's degree, I went in for a routine physical. The doctor found a lump on my neck. After a lot of testing, I was diagnosed with stage I thyroid cancer. It had nothing to do with my previous cancer; I was just unlucky enough to get struck by lightning twice. It was a huge blow, physically and mentally. I had a thyroidectomy.
The good news was that, again, they got all the cancer and I was in remission. The bad news this time? The thyroid is just as essential to normal hormone functioning as the ovaries are, and losing mine threw me into hormone hell all over again. Not only that, but I'd suffered a rare complication from the surgery that left me unable to talk or walk. It took me a full year to be able to speak normally again and to do simple things like drive a car or walk around the block. Needless to say, this didn't make recovering any easier. I gained an additional 40 pounds after the thyroid surgery.
In college I'd been 160 pounds. Now I was over 300. But it wasn't the weight that bothered me, necessarily. I was so grateful to my body for everything it could do, I couldn't be mad at it for naturally gaining weight in response to the hormone fluctuations. What bothered me was everything I couldn't do. In 2016, I decided to go on a trip to Italy with a group of strangers. It was a great way to get out of my comfort zone, make new friends, and see things I'd dreamed of my whole life. Unfortunately, Italy was a lot hillier than I'd expected and I struggled to keep up on the walking portions of the tours. A woman who was a doctor at Northwestern University stuck by me every step, though. So when my new friend suggested I go to her gym with her when we got home, I agreed.
"Gym Day" arrived and I showed up in front of the Equinox where she was a member, scared out of my mind. Ironically, my doctor friend didn't show up, due to a last-minute work emergency. But it had taken so much courage to get there and I didn't want to lose my momentum, so I went in. The first person I met inside was a personal trainer named Gus, who offered to give me a tour.
Funnily enough, we ended up bonding over cancer: Gus told me how he'd taken care of both of his parents during their fights with cancer, so he totally understood where I was coming from and the challenges I was facing. Then, as we walked through the club, he told me about a dance party on bikes taking place at another Equinox nearby. They were doing Cycle for Survival, a 16-city charity ride that raises money to fund rare cancer studies, clinical trials, and major research initiatives, led by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in partnership with Equinox. It sounded fun, but nothing I could imagine myself doing—and for exactly that reason, I made a goal to participate in Cycle for Survival someday. I signed up for a membership and booked personal training with Gus. They were some of the best decisions I've ever made.
Fitness didn't come easily. Gus started me out slowly with yoga and walking in the pool. I was scared and intimidated; I was so used to seeing my body as "broken" from cancer that it was hard for me to trust that it could do hard things. But Gus encouraged me and did every move with me so I was never alone. Over the course of a year (2017), we worked up from gentle basics to indoor cycling, lap swimming, Pilates, boxing, and even an outdoor swim in Lake Michigan. I discovered an immense love for all things exercise and was soon working out five to six days a week, sometimes twice a day. But it never felt overwhelming or too exhausting, as Gus made sure to keep it fun. (FYI, cardio workouts may also help ward off cancer.)
Fitness changed how I thought about food too: I started eating more mindfully as a way to fuel my body, including doing several cycles of the Whole30 diet. In a year, I lost 62 pounds. Even though that wasn't my main goal—I wanted to get strong and heal—I was still giddy with the results.
Then in February 2018, Cycle for Survival was happening again. This time, I wasn't watching from outside. Not only did I participate, but Gus and I led three teams together! Anyone can participate, and I rounded up all my friends and family. It was the highlight of my fitness journey and I've never felt so proud. By the end of my third hour-long ride, I was sobbing happy tears. I even gave the closing speech at the Chicago Cycle for Survival event.
I've come so far, I hardly recognize myself—and it's not just because I've gone down five dress sizes. It can be so scary to push your body after having a serious illness like cancer, but fitness helped me see that I'm not fragile. In fact, I'm stronger than I ever could have imagined. Getting fit has given me a beautiful sense of self-confidence and inner peace. And while it's hard not to worry about getting sick again, I know that now I have the tools to take care of myself.
How do I know? The other day I had a really bad day and instead of going home with a gourmet cupcake and a bottle of wine, I went to a kickboxing class. I kicked cancer's butt twice, I can do it again if I need to. (Next up: Read how other women used exercise to reclaim their bodies after cancer.)
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