“Chemo Took Care of My Cancer, I Took Care of Me!”

Get up and get a glass of water. Go outside for a little fresh air. Walk to the end of the driveway and back. When overwhelming fatigue following chemo threatened to keep Leslie Spencer on the couch, thoughts like those kept her going.

Yet just a few months earlier—before breast cancer was in the picture—the 44-year-old professor of health and exercise science at New Jersey’s Rowan University had begun working with trainer Domenick Salvatore toward a special goal: to compete in a physique competition.

Leslie refused to let her breast cancer diagnosis put a halt to her plans. “I wanted to take care of my body,” she says. “I found it helpful to not let cancer have the final word. I had something to think about, plan for and work toward.”

Leslie underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction, surgery to remove additional lymph nodes, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy and, later, a full hysterectomy. With her doctors’ approval, she and Domenick tweaked her workouts through it all.

The key? Doing only what you can safely do, says Leslie. Some days, “training” entailed stretches and easy movements with exercise bands. Feeling a bit stronger, she’d use light hand weights.

Here, Leslie shares the practical tips that helped her stay motivated and positive during treatment—and that enabled her to eventually get up on stage with pride:

Target your weak spots
“Cancer weakens your body. I wanted to see if I could get to the end of treatment and be strong and fit.” After her mastectomy, Leslie worked with a physical therapist to ease the upper body tightness she felt.

Listen to your body
“It took me, usually, 11 days before I started to feel back to normal after each chemo session. During that time, I did what I could, never pushing my body to where it felt uncomfortable.”

Find something fun to think about
“To compete, I had to do a lot of research—like finding the right suit for the show and learning how to pose. Plus, I enjoyed talking with Domenick about my progress. Psychologically, it helped a lot to envision my life after cancer.”

Join the world—cautiously
“I didn’t work during this time. My energy was spent on coping with my symptoms and my treatment. But I made myself get out of bed every day. I needed to join the world, at whatever level I could.”

For more tips, visit Leslie’s site at strongandbuilt.net

Photo Credit: Donna Marie Bailey

Published September 2013

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