I graduated in the Class of ’84 from Danville’s Monte Vista High School and then graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Exercise Physiology. I was a happy student, serving as dorm president and member of the school cycling team. Those bike competitions gave me courage and I learned I could succeed at things that at first didn’t seem possible. I made friends with college students from all over the world. I did well in some of the races, went to collegiate nationals, and placed fifth in a national Women’s Points Race, which was held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
I worked as a pharmaceutical rep for Merck & Co. educating doctors and office staff, teaching them how to spot symptoms of various illnesses, which drugs to apply, together with the appropriate doses. I loved the job and the fact that my responsibilities brought me into contact with a number of wonderful medical people. I felt that the job helped me work out my purpose in life, which is helping people. I did that for nine years until last August when they downsized me out of my job. I always kept myself in shape and worked part-time as an In-Shape City trainer. My life moved into a new phase in 2012 when I accidently bumped my breast and discovered a lump. The next day I went to a radiology office where they diagnosed the lump as infiltrating ductal carcinoma. The diagnosis was scary, of course. We women typically begin fearing breast cancer before we actually grow any breasts. However, I was being treated by the incredible medical team at Antioch’s Epic Care center. Their doctors, which they call Care Partners, are on a mission of “providing comprehensive cancer care in a convenient and friendly outpatient setting.” Epic Care doctors practice a holistic approach to medicine with innovative, compassionate, and supportive resources for healing mind, body, and spirit.
My oncologist, Shoba Kankipati, regards cancer as “a life transforming experience.” She provided the best treatment possible with an attitude of compassion, grace, and dignity. Dr. Kankipati saw me for the first time after hours. Even though she was planning to leave on vacation the next day, she spent a lengthy period of time with me during which she described in detail what would happen. She set up an effective treatment plan and assembled a great team of specialists. By the time my treatments had ended, Dr. Kankipati had become, in my thinking, one of the best people in the world.
The diagnosis was made on December 18, so the holidays were a little tough. My intention was to prevent my illness from spoiling the festive atmosphere of the occasion. I didn’t have anything to worry about at that point. My whole family had planned to meet for a celebration at my parent’s house in Shingle Springs, California. Nearly 30 of us gathered for a wonderful reunion. We shared a lot of hugs, tears, and laughter. If anything, my illness seemed to bring a level of positive intensity to the occasion — reminding us, perhaps, of our mortality and the need to demonstrate our love for each other in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be able to do so forever.
My first surgery was January 21. They discovered cancer cells in one of my lymph nodes, which was a sign that the disease was beginning to spread. However, the surgery went smoothly, and they removed all the cancer. I started 12 weeks of chemo the next month followed by 31 sessions with radiation. I breezed through chemo. My hair all felt out but, for some reason, when I looked in the mirror at my bald head, I felt better about myself than I had at any point in my life. My hair, which had been long and blond, now seemed to have been like a
disguise. People had always regarded me as “that blond-haired girl,” which involved supposed qualities that never fit with my real personality. However, now my hair was gone and seemingly had taken with it that false persona, suddenly freeing me to become the person I actually was and uncovering a personality that I hadn’t known existed. I loved being bald! It fit with my new persona as a warrior who was taking the battle to the enemy. Barriers had fallen away with my hair. I was proud of myself for facing up to the disease and fighting against it.
The Epic Care doctors were treating my medical condition, but recovery required more than surgery, radiation, and chemo. Matters of exercise and diet were essential and exercise absolutely became the thing that kept me strong. It was literally a matter of life and death. Exercise served to keep my spirits high as well as to keep my body doing its best job in fighting against disease. I was able to put to use my background in Exercise Physiology together with the material I was getting from the Epic Care staff in devising a regime of diet and exercise that enabled my body more effectively to fight off the effects of cancer. I was working out on a regular basis at In-Shape and continuing to work part-time as physical trainer even while I was still recovering from the disease. People were inspired by my bald head.
On August 24, I held a big celebration party at my Uncle’s Livermore winery, which is called El Sol. I was celebrating life and being cancer-free. About 70 of us gathered. I guess people tend to show up when you hold a party at a winery, but many of them had been by my side throughout the whole ordeal — sharing my fears, pain, and tears. The party provided a great opportunity for all of us to laugh, dance, and celebrate the sunshine we had found at the end of the dark tunnel we had gone through together. I was feeling better and getting back to my old self. I had become active again, and fun to be around. I had deliberately maintained a positive persona throughout the duration of the cancer, but now that I was actually feeling better, my positive energies didn’t require so much maintenance.
Of course, the cancer changed a lot of things. An ordeal like that prevents a person from going back to the way things were.
Even after recovery, life was complicated. I had to accept the fact that I was now living life as a survivor, which turned out to be a more difficult challenge, at some points, than the cancer itself. I had to rethink my life and to accommodate myself to the new normal. I still have to go for regular doctor visits and submit to a battery of tests. There are residual side effects. An ongoing issue called chemo brain keeps me from thinking clearly. I’m taking a medicine called tamoxifen that causes deep bone pain. I’m glad to put up with the pain because the medicine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing the cancer from returning.
Recovery from a disease like cancer forces people to prioritize the things that occupy their time and attention and to identify those things that are actually important. My fight with cancer served to sharpen my sense of purpose. I’ve always loved helping people and discovered a whole world of service opening up before me because of the cancer.
When I learned of friends and associates who had cancer, I found that I could suddenly reach out to them more effectively than had been possible before I had gotten the disease myself. I was able to lift their spirits. I came along side them and helped them adopt the diets and exercise programs that would enable them to confront the disease, just as I had done myself. As a survivor myself, they were inclined to listen to me and to follow my advice and directions. I began serving as a guide and fellow traveller with a number of cancer survivors on their road back to remission and health.
My ministry of helping others with recovery began to occupy an increasing amount of my time so I decided to set up my own personal trainer business that I called Fight 4 Life Fitness with the tagline “Empowering those with cancer to achieve health, healing, and hope through fitness.” I began to prepare myself by taking classes from cancer exercise specialists through the online Cancer Exercise Institute that, among other things, required mastering the content of an enormous book. The study concluded with two days of intensive training at Newport Beach, which involved a lot of sweating, but I was able to meet a number of colleagues who shared my vision for offering personalized training for people who were dealing with disease, which reassured me that I was on a good course.
I set up a business plan and a program for clients with specific instructions, beginning with the requirement that they secure their oncologist’s permission to work with me. I then conduct a comprehensive evaluation that includes taking their medical history and then assessing their physical limitations including such things as range of motion, flexibility, and gait. I conduct a serious conversation about specific treatments, family relationships, plus whatever other conditions they might be struggling with such as arthritis and arthralgia. We talk about what’s bothering them emotionally, physically, and socially. We conclude by devising a custom program that will enable them to deal with the specific issues that we identified.
Some of my clients are struggling with such conditions as a swelling of tissue (called lymphedema). Many are struggling with the effects of scar tissue that is affecting their posture. We do a lot of strengthening exercise, even if clients are forced to exercise while sitting in a chair or holding onto a wall. I focus on the physical, spiritual, social, and mental conditions of each person. I conduct personal sessions in people’s homes and do whatever it takes to meet them where they are with the resources that will actually help them in recovery. I conduct group meetings. Participants are encouraged by others who are worse off then they but who are determined to fight the disease. Two times a week I sponsor hour-long boot camps.
While going through cancer myself, I never became too despondent or depressed because I knew that whatever happened was part of a plan that God had for me; and that it would be okay. My task, therefore, was to walk the path as confidently and purposefully as I could. It became my purpose in life to communicate that sense of hope to others. I tell clients that they can be joyful, feel healthy, and feel good about themselves no matter their condition. There is always room for hope and a reason to be joyful.
The only reason I’m doing my personal training as a business is so that I can actually devote a significant number of hours to helping others be better by remaining at their side on the pathway they are following through this difficult valley. I reassure my clients that wherever the path leads, they will not have to take the journey alone. I tell them that God will always be with them, so that will make three of us walking together towards the light.