“Closet Cancer Survivor”
HOMETOWN: San Antonio, Texas
OCCUPATION: Certified Trainer
VOLUNTEER: American Cancer Society, Leukemia Lymphoma Society and the Cancer Action Network
My name is Angela…and I’m a closet cancer survivor. I never dreamed that “cancer survivor” would be a label that would apply to me, but that’s who I am and I’m proud of that accomplishment! Yet, it’s taken me years to talk about my experience – much less come of out of the closet to tell anyone I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma stage 2 when I was just 13 years old.
Believe it or not, my fitness journey really blossomed around the time of my cancer diagnosis. At age 12, I played on the girl’s basketball team then moving into high school, I lettered as a cheerleader. By the time I was 19, I bought my first gym membership and became the proverbial ‘cardio queen.’ In my early 30’s I realized that I needed help since what I was doing wasn’t working. At age 38, I met Shannon Dey and went to my first Bombshell Fitness Camp- surrounded by perfect bodies that had already been competing. A few even went on to become IFBB Pros. Despite my intimidation, I was determined to compete on stage even with a very visible six inch scar down my torso from the surgery that determined the severity of my cancer diagnosis.
This year, I celebrate 43 years of life. I’ve accomplished 6 half marathons, 8 NPC competitions as a proud Bombshell, and have also graced the stage of pageantry twice in Mrs. Texas International. I placed in the Top 10 my first time ever competing and 2nd Runner Up the second time. I’ve now devoted years of volunteering for the American Cancer Society, Leukemia Lymphoma Society and the Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) – the only governmental organization for ACS. I’ve lobbied at the state Capitol in Texas and in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill for cancer priorities. Last year I was asked to take the prestigious role as an Ambassador for the newest Congressional District in Texas for ACS CAN.
I am without a spleen, a thyroid, have a dysfunctional heart, lack the ability to have children, and have had over 30 basal cell carcinomas removed all due to the radiation I received. While I must always stay on top of my health and be my own advocate, I am alive! I’ve learned that serving others, by sharing my personal story, I can make a real difference!
My journey from a sickly child and “closet cancer survivor” to the happy and healthy woman I am today is a story Bombshell Fitness asked me to share publicly, so with a little trepidation, here it is. If it inspires just ONE women to focus on their abilities rather then their limitations, I’ll be very pleased indeed.
Read Angela Lee’s Entire Story
As a small child, I participated in Parks & Rec. soccer, I enrolled in gymnastics a couple of times but I certainly didn’t come from a legacy of athletes nor was I a “natural” one. However, I always admired my peers who were involved in sports at an early age and I, too, aspired to be a strong ‘team player’ one day. In the 7th grade I made the basketball team but was an average player – perhaps below average by some standards. My skills didn’t matter to me as much as the competitiveness of the game, the camaraderie of my teammates and my Coach. Little did I know back then, that those same things I loved would contribute to making a dream come true! Ironically, it was my basketball Coach who I asked one day after practice whether there was “something wrong” with my swollen neck – it was the width of my face. I looked like a linebacker. She gave me a look I’ll never forget and said, “Angie (as I allowed her to call me, lol) there IS something wrong and you need to have your parents take you to a doctor immediately.”
I landed in the hospital that night for a week of being stuck with needles, scanned with various radiology equipment and cut for biopsies only to reveal what no child or parent wants to comprehend. My oncologist sat with my mom and me in a hospital room one afternoon, dad was at work and my sister was still in school, and explained my diagnosis – I had Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer. My mom, as always, remained ‘grace under pressure’ – I never ever saw her breakdown…ever. I remained calm as well and after the data dump urgently asked, “Am I going to die?” Without knowing there weren’t any radiation treatment centers within a 60 mile radius, without knowing that until the 1970s the mortality rate for my diagnosis was 80% after 5 years, without knowing whether or not they were going to treat me as a child or as an adult, my oncologist sternly said, “No, no we will take care of you.” Within two weeks I would undergo a surgery that was exploratory, removed my spleen and left me with a 6 inch scar straight down my torso; I had too many sutures to count. My surgery was 6 hours and when I was gently moved onto the actual bed in my hospital room I only remember asking what time it was and screaming at my mom who must have been exhausted, “Please don’t go – PLEASE don’t go – you can’t leave me!”
For the very first time in my life – I experienced real, raw fear. I had no choice but to learn how to cope with it.
I ended up spending almost two weeks in the hospital where I felt my only goals were to make sure I didn’t get pneumonia and get my intestinal tract back to its normal functions. I had tubes down my nasal passages to drain the fluid that built up in my abdomen, it hurt to breathe deeply, move, sneeze or laugh. I couldn’t event stand up straight for about a month. A few weeks after being released from the hospital – what now is my least favorite place to be on the planet – my treatments began. I endured about 50 radiation treatments 90 miles away every week day until complete. I became nearly bald and was absolutely exhausted, too tired to do anything but try to eat. That was how I spent the summer before I began 8th grade.
When I entered my 8th grade year, I was not only advised to forego daily P.E. classes, I was told “absolutely not” regarding playing any sport. My spirit was crushed. But in all honesty, I was still healing from my extremely invasive surgery and the radiation treatments; I was tired all the time and battled anemia. I just did what the doctor told me to do – “play it safe.” But that wasn’t good enough. I’m sure you’re familiar with the line from the movie “Dirty Dancing”, “No one puts baby in the corner!” Well, I refused to be the “sick kid on the bleachers!” So I did the next best thing to actually playing basketball. I became a team manager for the girl’s basketball team, the boy’s basketball team and the softball team. Yet I refused to talk about my experience. Moving forward into high school, I realized during my freshman year that my average basketball skills were now ‘below average’ compared to the girls who had played both their 7th and 8th grade years. I was fortunate enough to be a cheerleader for 3 years and lettered my senior year. But I wasn’t the athletic, gymnast kind of cheerleader, I was the bouncy, animated kind who could jump, yell and spell simultaneously with a big smile and a loud mouth. I fit in beautifully! Yet again, I was on a “team”…and I loved it!
At 19 I bought my first gym membership and have since then not been without one! I quickly immersed myself in group classes and became a cardio queen. However, 10 years later I noticed my body composition was going in the wrong direction in spite of my usual cardio routines. I got caught up in my career in my late 20’s; that continued for several years before I realized that no amount of exercise (at least the kind I was doing) was going to reverse my routine of travel, late nights out and eating out constantly. How could I stop the madness? I was living the definition of “insanity” – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!
I came to the conclusion in my early 30’s that I needed help since what I was doing wasn’t working. I worked with a nutritionist and hired my first personal trainer. That did it! I had to learn the definition of ‘clean eating’, I had to eat 5 well balanced meals daily and, most importantly, I had to use weights–resistance training became my BFF! In a span of 7 years, I had 4 personal trainers, did 3 half marathons, I learned about the various body types and decided that with all that I had learned, I wanted to learn more and then give back!
When I was 37, I made the commitment that by the time I was 40–I’d try a second career as a Certified Personal Trainer. My health was good and I wanted to keep it that way and I wanted to help others get healthier too. Now, for the ultimate challenge–what could I do that would catapult me into ‘walking my talk’ about fitness? I wanted to do something that would solidify my transformation and make me credible from the moment I had my certification. One of my trainers was a figure competitor. Although we had very different stories, physiques and goals, I knew in my heart that that was my calling. I had to compete!
There’s no doubt that my friends and family were raising eyebrows and questioning my decision to get involved in the sport of body building – it’s not exactly mainstream with only 1% of the global population ever giving it a try. Besides, I was both genetically (a skinny, lean build) and aesthetically (6 inch scar down the middle with little semblance of a belly button) challenged! But I wasn’t going to be a Cory Everson type of body builder – there were and are options for various physiques and goals. And my goal was to achieve my dream of becoming an athlete – not necessarily to get BIG! I prayed for the right help and recognized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Through my own due diligence, my prayers were answered…I found another Coach, mentor and friend–Shannon Dey! Needless to say from the moment I set foot at Bombshell Fitness headquarters in Florida for a weekend camp, I knew I’d be a ‘project’. After 14 months of completely transforming the way I trained and ate, losing 20 pounds of body fat, competing in 3 shows and coming in last (or near last) each time, I finally placed at my 4th show at the Tribeca Theatre in NYC (Oct. 2010). I was 3rd in a tough line-up in the Masters category (>35); I was grateful, humbled and exhausted. I lived a year learning what it truly means to compete against yourself, honoring a Coach’s guidance with faith and realizing the fact that transformation is not a quick fix…it’s a process. In a global poll, I was voted “Most Improved Athlete” of 2010 for Team Bombshell; a huge honor considering the company of my sister competitors for the same title. I not only got in touch with my inner athlete–I finally became one! Most importantly, once again, I’m part of a group of like-minded women. Competing is not the name of the game anymore – it’s about being healthy! Anyone can get healthy, get in their best shape as long as they believe in themselves and are willing to put in the time. NOTHING worth having is a quick fix!
Just like cancer taught me, there are circumstances in life that may limit your choices but there is nothing that can prevent your ability to try to improve yourself—except for your attitude.