Training Beyond A Diagnosis

TAGS: fitsurvivor, cancer patient, first bodybuilding show, NPC show, Lisa Nicolette, Training Beyond A Diagnosis, stage one breast cancer, chemotherapy, cancer survivor, depression

I’ve always had some pretty lofty goals in life, along with brutal determination and work ethic. I’ve always believed that all I had to do was work hard to fulfill them and I’d achieve it. By the summer of 2007, I was competition-ready and looked forward to competing at the NPC Northern Kentucky Beverly International Show in March 2008. Little did I realize that I’d be facing the bright lights of the operating room instead of the stage at the NPC show.

By January 2008 I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer after finding a suspicious lump. When I first discovered the lump after a grueling workout, I was gripped with extreme fear and panic because I knew it was cancer. I suddenly envisioned myself dying in a hospital bed with IV’s, tubes going everywhere, and my life now over.


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I instinctively knew that when a doctor calls your house, it’s never good news. My first emotions after receiving the lab report from my surgeon were extreme fear, panic, anxiety, frustration and then rage. I had come so far and my life was now about to be destroyed piece by piece. My heart was racing. I was sick to my stomach because I had just accepted an executive level sales opportunity in another city, was stage ready for my first NPC show, and planned to try out for American Gladiators — and I lost it all due to a cancer diagnosis. My life and plans were being unraveled due to losing the career opportunity, canceling the show, and now being faced with losing my entire bank account, IRA, and savings. How much worse could life get? And there was no guarantee that I’d even live through the treatment.

I was then informed that my life would have to go another direction and the goals that I once had would have to change. Basically, I was informed that competing was out of the question and I’d have to settle for a lesser career because treatment would be so grueling. There was one major problem: there was no way I was going to take this and settle for a life of quiet mediocrity. After attending cancer support meetings I became even more depressed, and the extreme fatigue of radiation treatments wasn’t helping.

Surgical lamps in operation room

I had consulted with other trainers and realized that I’d be training myself because there was not much information out there concerning training as a cancer patient and the side effects of doing so. I started consulting with my own doctors and healthcare professionals concerning training around the various challenges that cancer patients face. To my surprise, there was very little information available for cancer patients that were bodybuilders. I often felt like I was out in the Wild West, smashing trees down to carve out my own pathway through this deep wilderness of difficulties, despair, and depression. It was like being a prisoner caught in a labyrinth of extreme frustration, anger, and bitterness for being put in a situation like this and then being informed what my “new normal” would look like.

When first diagnosed I went nuts, and hit the gym harder than ever, because I was going out fighting and had nothing to lose. I had to try to work off the intense anger I was feeling because the thought of losing everything was too much to stomach. While sitting in the hospital oncology department with an IV in my arm and looking at all the other cancer patients taking their chemo treatments, all I could think about was getting to the gym. I was the youngest and only athlete in the lab and was tempted to just yank the IV out of my arm and run screaming out the door. This was not going to be my new life — I had goals, plans, and was facing the possibility of an early death.


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My self-esteem was at an all-time low, so I’d take the treatment in the morning and then hit some of the cool coffee houses in the city with my laptop and start writing. At the time, there was nothing for a cancer patient that was motivational, just overly emotional, touchy-feely stuff. I wanted to scream! I also attended some cancer support group meetings and became even more depressed, because I was the only bodybuilder and didn’t want to face a life of endless surgeries and treatment. I just fell deeper into a pit of depression and hit the gym to try to focus on the future with just a hint of hope.

One day I was leaving the gym and ran across an article on John Meadows titled, “A Brush with Death.” I had my own brush with death after a routine tonsillectomy during college and almost hemorrhaged to death as a result. I could totally relate to John’s story about almost bleeding out after an intestinal hemorrhage. John’s story was one of the few messages of hope I ran across after being informed by others that my chances of bodybuilding after cancer treatment was over. When I saw the shape that Meadows was in, and the fact that he was a national competitor, it really gave me the hope and inspiration to drive myself beyond a diagnosis and push for new goals again. I immediately went online and tried to locate John Meadows' information. I was surprised that after sending an email, John Meadows responded! I was able to connect through social media and soon discovered that we had a lot in common. We both faced an eerily similar situation with only minutes to get to the hospital in time.

Nicolette NPC show

I realized that no matter what, I’d have to ignore the naysayers and carve out my own pathway in the wilderness. I did four NPC shows, a fitness photo shoot, and published a motivational ebook. The journey has not been without setbacks and challenges, but it took someone else’s story of hope to give me the inspiration to move forward. I now have a trademark and logo called “Fitsurvivor,” which began as an AKA name in the gym and just kind of followed me!

My advice to any bodybuilder facing a cancer diagnosis is to first consult with your doctors concerning your training regimen. I was told not to train, and then my radiation oncologist said to avoid chest exercises due to treatment and to train at my own risk. I trained around biopsies, surgery, and radiation by cutting down weights and intensity by 75%. You have to work with your body and realize that you won’t be at 100% “balls out” like before. I believe you can still train, stay on your diet, and maintain what you have until strong enough to move forward. I had to start out with three-pound dumbbells due to lymph node removal and the long process of healing. This is not an easy venture, and for those facing chemotherapy, ports, and other surgeries, training will have to be adjusted accordingly. Never lose hope or sight of your goals, regardless of what someone tells you!


Lisa Nicolette has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and is an NPC figure competitor and trainer. She recently published a motivational ebook, "Fitsurvivor How to Thrive After A Life-Threatening Illness." Check out her website, Fitsurvivor.com. She can be reached via email at swordfitness@gmail.com.

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