I was training for the Northern KY Beverly International Bodybuilding/Fitness show with the goal of competing in the figure division. Everything that I had worked for would be altered forever after discovering a small lump on my right side. Little did I know that the very month I was supposed to compete would be the month that I would have to undergo cancer surgery. I had just made it back to my apartment after a grueling workout session with my trainer and discovered something that felt like a hard stone while I was in the shower. After checking my other side, I immediately panicked because I knew instinctively that I had cancer and envisioned myself lying in a hospital bed with IV’s and hoses everywhere while doctors worked furiously to save my life while dying a horrible death and losing everything.
This was a potential nightmare because I was working in commission sales and had no health insurance. I had immediately contacted the American Cancer Society and was able to get a mammogram which confirmed a small lump. Where do I go from here – was my biggest question.
One month later I was sitting in the treatment room of the Oncology/Hematology Dept. with an IV inserted into my arm so that I could get a dose of DDAVP to prevent any bleeding before the Radiologist could biopsy the suspicious lump. I have a bleeding disorder which had to be addressed first before I could have a breast biopsy or any surgical procedure for that matter. During my treatment is when I received a phone call from a headhunter to inform me that I had just been hired for an executive level sales opportunity in advertising from a very competitive pool of candidates and that I would need to fly to Philly by the end of January to report for sales training. I was thrilled – this was the opportunity of a life time. Unfortunately, two days later the surgeon called to inform me that the biopsy results had come back from the lab and my worst nightmare had been confirmed – I had just been diagnosed with stage one breast cancer! I will never forget that day as long as I live.
I couldn’t believe it was my first reaction. This can’t be happening – this is beyond a nightmare! I’m in the best shape of my life, I’m healthy and I have breast cancer! I was incredulous. I didn’t have health insurance to pay for it and I had lost my job all at the same time. What more could go wrong? I was training hard to compete in one of the biggest fitness shows in the US and had just landed an awesome career opportunity only to lose it all. I was both terrified and angered at the same time. I was so full of so many negative emotions that I didn’t know what to do. The first question that I had for the surgeon was, “is this treatable,” and when she answered, “yes,” I was relieved because this sounded like something that could be taken care of.
But without health insurance there was no way that I could afford to pay for health care. The real challenge was the fact that after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer – there was nothing I could do about it until I could find a way to pay for it. I was desperate and contacted an attorney who informed me that I would have to spend everything down before I could get any help. I asked the attorney that if I spend everything down – what will I live on while I’m in treatment? I was able to get into the breast and cervical cancer program that took care of the healthcare situation. I don’t know what was worse? The cancer diagnosis or no health insurance.
No stranger to health issues, I thought that if I survive this – it will be a miracle because I have Von Willebrands disease type 1 (bleeding disorder) and almost died due to complications and hemorrhaging from a tonsillectomy when I was in college. I also had internal bleeding after a green belt test back in college and coughed up blood for almost a week. Since I had to pass on competing in figure I did attend The Arnold Expo in Columbus Ohio right after the cancer diagnosis and just three weeks before my scheduled surgery. I competed in the USMC Men’s Fitness challenge. I figured at this point I had nothing to lose and I was going to go for it! I had broken the record for the Women’s challenge just four years prior. Everyone thought that I was crazy for doing this – but I didn’t care because I believed that this would somehow encourage other cancer patients and survivors. I was also training to try out for The American Gladiators at the time. I had tried out for the Gladiators back in the 90’s and was determined to do it again. During the Expo – I had run into a trainer from the gym and he informed me that he had survived bone cancer twenty years ago and had to undergo chemo and lost part of his leg. I couldn’t believe it – he was in such great shape – I would have never guessed it.
From the time that I had been diagnosed – I went crazy in the gym and trained both heavy and intense because I didn’t know what they were going to face in the operating room. I had trained up until the eve of my surgery and throughout my radiation treatments. Several people informed me that I wouldn’t’t be able to train anymore and that I would never do what I once did. I refused to accept this and trained hard anyway. I had to learn how to train around biopsies, surgeries, radiation and various other cancer treatments. It was a real learning experience because I had contacted several trainers and no one had any real experience training around lymph node removal and radiation. I got certified as a trainer and taught myself how to train around all of the above and had consulted with all of my doctors and health care providers so that I could learn as much as possible and someday work with cancer patients.
The radiation lasted for seven weeks and I had lost some weight and had a hard time keeping weight on. Radiation is very draining and all you want to do is sleep. I had to cut my training in half and down to about 25% of what I was normally used to in terms of amount of weight used, intensity and duration of training. I had consulted with my doctors – I had a team of Radiation Oncologists, Medical Oncologist, and a breast surgeon regarding my training. At first there was some concern training around the biopsies and lymph node removal. Then there was even more concern training around grueling radiation treatments which I received every day for five days in a row.
I had various challenges that my healthcare providers had to work around. Some were good challenges. During my visit to the Oncology/Hematology Dept. the nurse had inserted an IV in my arm because I needed a treatment before another biopsy. I complained that the IV felt like it was in wrong and she checked it and called another nurse over to look at it. She said to the other nurse, “this patient has a lump in both arms,” and when she pointed to it – I explained that the lump was my lower bicep. I had very developed muscular arms at that time and they were not used to getting weightlifters through the Dept. The whole incident was pretty funny. The Mammogram were tough because of having developed deltoid and peck muscles made it more difficult. This was a very challenging and scary period in my life because cancer is a life threatening illness and at times I wondered i
f I would make it through the entire process. Then there was the possibility of mastectomy and chemo therapy to think about.
The day of my surgery was pretty much the scariest part. When I walked into the operating room and observed all of the equipment and a tray of tools that the surgeon would be using within minutes made me want to turn around and run out the door. They asked me questions to get my mind off of things such as what kind of work was I in. I said that maybe I’ll get a job selling Medical Devices and I’ll get to work with them in the OR someday. Just for fun I said, “well I guess I won’t be going to the gym tonight,” They must have thought I’d lost it. Then before I knew what happened I woke up in the recovery room. My right side and breast area was packed with ice, and then my surgeon came into the room and informed me that everything went well and there was no cancer in the margins or the lymph nodes. Thank God, I was cancer free!
The night following my surgery, I couldn’t’t even lift my right arm to brush my teeth. They had done a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy removing five lymph nodes under my right arm. When I woke up the next morning I watched in horror as my right arm and fingers swelled almost twice their size. This was caused from lymphedema and is normal after this kind of surgery. I was really sore and couldn’t’t use my right arm for several days and it took many months before I was healed from the lymph node surgery. I healed and recovered rapidly and made it to the gym within three weeks. I was really weak and drained from the surgery and the surgeons nurse had even warned me, “Lisa whatever you do don’t lift at this point. You’ll tear that entire area up under your arm and do more damage.” Then I realized that due to the nature of my surgery – recovery and serious training would be put on hold for now and then I had radiation to go through. It was a long process.
Once I was back in the gym I trained just using 3 lb. dumbbells at first instead of 25 or 30 lb. weights. I wanted to test the waters due to the threat of lymphedema which was a valid concern. So far so good – so I eventually added more weight until I was as strong as before. By the time I was sure that I was healed and fully recovered – I was able to do 2 to 5 wide grip pull – ups, and 10 to 12 triceps dips on a good day. I could do a bicep barbell curl of seventy pounds for a max rep. The most I’d ever done was sixty – so I beat my own record. At first the nurses advised me not to lift at all and lymphedema specialist will warn you that your days as a bodybuilder are over! My Radiation Oncologists just advised me not to train my chest area during radiation because it could irritate the peck muscles. But they informed me to train at my own risk. I trained around everything because if you stop lifting weights your muscles will atrophy and besides – I would be climbing the walls if I couldn’t’t train for two months or more.
Fast forward to 2011 – I competed at The Mid-Atlantic Grand Prix in November 2010 and placed fifth in the figure division with still a long way to go. People couldn’t’t believe that I had survived breast cancer and was just starting to compete. I competed at the Northern KY 2011 Beverly International and placed 5th in figure (age 35 +). I even went to The Arnold Expo and did the US Air Force Fitness Challenge – they put a 50 lb. flak jacket on (same one worn by US Soldiers in Iraq) ) and you do pull – ups. I squeezed out one! I just competed at the NPC Kentucky Derby Festival 2011 and placed 4th in figure. I still have a long way to go as far as truly getting into competition shape – but I will never give up. I thank God every day for getting me through all of the above – again I consider everything to be a miracle and a gift from God. I have doubled my strength in the gym. Guys will come up to me and say, “I have never seen a female do triceps dips or wide grip pull ups with no assistance,” and when I tell them that I survived breast cancer – they can’t believe it! They always mention someone in their life that has either survived cancer or is facing treatment right now. Hopefully I will be able to reach as many people as possible with the message that there is life after cancer.
I’m writing a book on how I went from a cancer diagnosis to where I’m at now and what steps were taken to get me through everything. Such a book could benefit the cancer patient/survivor by encouraging and motivating them to get through their situation.
I hope everyone that reads this article will be inspired to pursue their goals in life – whatever challenge’s they may be faced with and never give up and except mediocrity.
Lisa C. Nicolette