We’re all warriors.
The baby born with a heart condition, the woman battling obesity, the mother who beats cancer. And these are also the people we train with and love, whether we’re aware of one another’s struggles or not. Here at Hers, we know that fitness is not just for the fit, and that a healthy lifestyle can change lives.
My story, in brief: With a maternal and paternal history of autoimmune disease, I was only a little shocked by my Hashimoto’s diagnosis in early 2017 at age 36. It’d actually started with an initial misdiagnosis of lupus but landed at Hashimoto’s after additional testing by a functional-medicine doctor whom I’d reached out to for a second opinion. In Hashimoto’s, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland until it’s useless, if left unchecked. It can (and did) zero out my energy and create heart palpitations, cold sensitivity, muscle weakness, joint pain, “brain fog,” and anemia that was unexplained for months, probably years; it can also lead to miscarriages and worse. All I knew, I was losing myself by the day.
From a dark place of unresolved doctor visits to my own deep dive into nutrition with the autoimmune Paleo (AIP) diet, I’ve greatly improved my symptoms by diet, fitness, and lifestyle alone. It’s an amazing feat considering that the first doctor’s misdiagnosis was accompanied by a prescription of an anti-malaria drug that can cause partial, permanent blindness. Being my own advocate, listening to my body, and staying active have been my lifelines, the open channels I don’t ever want to close.
Here, other fit women share their stories of triumph over tragedy. When the going gets tough, they dig deep despite the odds.
Battled: Colon cancer
The Hers team met Saunders through Ashley Sica (ashleysicafitness.com), a transformation coach based in Delray Beach, FL. “I had just turned 42 years old. I had some severe symptoms for years but never thought anything of it,” says Saunders. “I had a colonoscopy when my friend’s doctor convinced me to have one. On Christmas Eve I found out I had two large malignant tumors in my colon, which had invaded the wall of my colon. I needed surgery as soon as possible. I lost 15 inches of my colon to resection surgery. They put me on a fluid diet and then soft foods. It took several months for my body to adjust. I was so weak and nauseous from everything.”
Saunders also had over whelming depression; she was consumed with fear and anxiety. After a few other complications, she was forced to have additional surgeries, which put her into full menopause at age 42.
“I started bioidentical hormone therapy to balance my hormones. At my weakest point, after gaining 50 pounds, IknewIhadtocleanupmy diet. I started seeing Ashley as my personal trainer. At first, we met two days a week and then three to help guide me physically and nutritionally. We started with weight training and cardio to build my strength back. I’m now in remission; my recovery took about a year, but mentally it was much longer.
“Fitness has been an unbelievable source of healing for me. My stress is reduced. I feel stronger than ever. Also, with dietary changes, I am in the best shape of my entire life now.” Saunders works out six days a week for an hour a day, including high-intensity interval training five days a week (cardio, weights, strength, core) and one pure cardio day. “Basically I’m on a clean diet, and I’ve learned to prep meals in advance to make life easier. I eat mostly fish, chicken, eggs, and greens and drink lots of water.”
Overall, these changes were hard, but her motivation was clear throughout: “My only option was to fight for my life!” And there can be no better motivator than that. Her advice: “Stay focused. Get rid of bad habits, and don’t let negative thoughts get the best of you.”
Battled: Cancer, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia
“At 47, I was a shadow of the person I am now. I had low selfesteem, panic attacks, and an unhappy marriage coupled with a daughter who was secretly using drugs. I’d been running my own business, having a lot of sugar and fast food and eating emotionally,” says Dolan. Before she knew it, this chronic stress took a toll on her health. “I was very scared because my weight dropped to 97 pounds, and I was soon diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.”
Those were dark days, Dolan admits. But she knew it was up to her to change her circumstances. “I found a coach who introduced me to foods that helped shift my health and mindset. Just having a connection with my coach helped adjust the way I looked at the world.” Even the basics of exercise helped her feel empowered. “I started lifting weights and getting healthier and found the courage to leave my marriage. I took my life one step at a time. Then I came across ISSA [International Sports Science Association], and it was the catalyst for my new life.”
Now 61 and fit and strong, Dolan says, “We are always evolving.” In other words, we need to work daily on creating the life we want to live. “I’ve had cancer since then, but I was lucky to have the inner strength I’d developed to see me through the tough times.”
A focus on physical health led her to become an ISSA-certified trainer specializing in women’s health and weight loss. “When I started ISSA I was still introverted. My coach helped me open windows, but I had not yet opened the doors. I didn’t even know what I was capable of.” Today she still considers herself to be a student of health. “I started out by helping people lose weight, but that wasn’t enough; I found I was excellent at helping others be more productive by building in powerhouse workouts, food prep, morning meditation, and meal planning. This helped me complete the circle.”
As we work to make behavioral changes, “we don’t often see what’s on the other side, so it can be daunting,” Dolan says. “But I hold a vision that opens doors to possibilities. It’s normal to want to stay comfortable; it takes courage to change. I was able to make a change, but I had help with a dynamic coach, so I want to pay that forward as long as I can.”
Battled: Congenital heart defect
When Wilhelm was a small child, her parents were told that she had a heart murmur, a common condition in children and one that generally doesn’t amount to bigger problems, according to the American Association of Family Physicians. But Wilhelm wasn’t so lucky. “Mine developed into three holes in my heart.” There was no choice but to perform a very invasive, full sternum opening with open heart surgery. She was 4 years old.
Another obstacle was the scar tissue created by the heart surgery itself, but it didn’t cause significant problems for her, at least not for a while. “I was involved in several sports as a kid. But in middle school I started fainting and blacking out. It was the most frustrating thing to not be able to keep up with everyone.” Wilhelm had to get a pacemaker in her preteens, and from her teen years through college, she was not herself, she says. Even though she was into athletics, she couldn’t push harder, mainly because she was scared, which deeply impacted her self-esteem. “After college I knew that all of this was affecting my worldview—I had so much anxiety.”
But all wasn’t lost. Wilhelm got married and moved to St. Louis for her husband’s job; she joined a running club and realized she could actually run without stopping. “It went from running 5Ks to an addiction of running half-marathons and marathons. At my new cardiologist’s office we were both shocked to learn that my pacemaker had been set for a 65-year-old sedentary male all those years. From then on I started being my own advocate.”
For years, she’d tried to overlook the need to be in a community with others with her condition, but that changed as she began training more. Wilhelm found the Ironheart Foundation (), a group that uses sports and movement to transform the lives of those who’ve been affected by heart disease. “Before Ironheart, I hadn’t had a peer in the heart disease community. And then social media struck, and I saw all of these people who had conditions that were even harder than mine. I’m so inspired by them.”
Today Wilhelm lives in Cincinnati and is expecting her first child. She is now on a new portion of this journey, approaching 50 endurance events, including 20-plus half-marathons and three marathons. Her baseline, noncompetitive training is 20 to 30 miles per week; five to six days of tempo runs, speed work, long runs in a group, and race-pace runs; and one day of cross-training (yoga, cycling). She ups that training when she’s prepping for a race.
“It’s helped that I’ve actually been able to achieve the longer distances,” she says about her previous fears. “I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. What motivates me is that there are others with medical conditions that are even more limiting than mine, so I run until I can’t run anymore; and if I feel tired I take a rest day. I don’t push myself past the edge anymore. My favorite is running with others—most running stores have a group that meets at least once a week. Training with others really helps you go that extra mile.”
Battled: Obesity, abdominal tumors
“I have always struggled with obesity and being overweight my entire life,” says Laska. “I was in a lot of denial.” However, Laska considered herself healthy because her cholesterol and blood sugar were normal. But she hit bottom when her weight topped out at nearly 300 pounds. She was also having migraines and thyroid issues. “And I ended up getting tumors in my lower abdomen related to my hormones and the estrogen imbalance due to my weight; at the time I had no idea about this condition.”
At 289 pounds, she made the commitment to change her perspective and her choices. She started walking, slowly at first, and then began running short distances and then lifting weights. She puts her weight loss at about 10 pounds a month, or a total of 140 pounds lost over 11⁄2 years by sheer will, clean eating, and countless runs, including marathon training.
But in October 2016, one of the tumors started creating an issue with her menstruation and caused lowerback pain. “I finally got an MRI, X-ray, and a ton of other tests, and I freaked out when I was diagnosed with a 10-centimeter tumor in my lower abdomen. I was sent for emergency surgery, and I had to have eight organs removed.
“I was told I couldn’t run, lift weights, or do yoga for 16 weeks. That terrified me. I’d already struggled with obesity and started to see success, so it was so scary to have those tools taken away from me.”
In spring 2017, PowerBar sent out a call on social media looking for 17 everyday athletes to be part of its Clean Start Team and get a prized invitation to run the TCS New York City Marathon. Laska was chosen after she wrote to them and told her story—from the denial to every small triumph. “The challenge helped me focus on what I could do. So I walked. I made a big chart to document my walking and put it on my fridge for my family to see. And it was kind of embarrassing to see ‘0.5 miles’ or ‘two times around the block.’ But even having my family be able to see it was good accountability.”
Modifying her goals was a challenge: “I’d run multiple marathons before surgery—not fast, but still enough to be proud of myself. So the day the doctor said I was released and ready to exercise again, I ran and walked a marathon the next day. It felt great to be back in my outfit, costume, and running shoes. There were times I cried, times I was holding my abdomen, but it was a start. The PowerBar Challenge was great for my self-esteem: It’s one thing to let your family know and another thing to publicly acknowledge it, sign up for the TCS NYC Marathon, and be on the PowerBar website. Plus, I had a support system even though surgery set me back.
“The biggest key for me has been to develop a healthy routine rather than relying on willpower—this is key as I’m approaching my 10th marathon. If you can commit to a routine, you can accomplish anything. I run five days a week; three days a week I also do weightlifting or yoga; and I have two days of rest.”
As for nutrition: PowerBar Simple Fruit Energy packs and the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Clean Whey Protein Bar are her faves. “I’m really committed to high-protein, high-veggie, low-carb eating. I’ve reduced or eliminated sugary foods and highstarch carbs. I use carbs before a big run, but I avoid fastburning carbs like corn syrups.”
Running the NYC Marathon was an amazing feeling for Laska. And she outruns her past with every step forward she takes. “If I can help anyone avoid being uncomfortable in their skin and live that life I lived, I will do what it takes,” she says. “Because I now know there is a better way.”
BY CAT PERRY