By Robb Bolton ’96
In my 18-year career as an athletic trainer and strength coach, I was fortunate to work with very successful Olympic, professional and collegiate athletes. It was a rewarding experience and something I always wanted to do. But I have never had an encounter with true strength like I did with one incredible woman, the first time we offered an adult cancer survivor exercise class through our newly formed nonprofit, Cancer Fit Inc.
Peggy, who was in her 80s with advanced lung cancer, started my class after months of severe chemotherapy treatments. She always came in with a smile. Brightening my day like that, she did more for me than I ever did for her.
She had discovered her cancer while training for a half-marathon. She could have given up when she found out the disease was spreading, but she had this amazing spirit, so she enrolled in a clinical trial that required hours-long chemo treatments daily.
When I first met her, she told me her cancer story and told me her new goal was to do a 5k – walking, running or crawling. And she did, two months after completing our 12-week exercise class. Unfortunately, Peggy succumbed to the cancer and passed away a few months after completing her goal.
No feat of strength by any athlete I have trained could top what Peggy did. I’m sure about that.
The crazy thing is that my own cancer led me toward this new vocation in the first place, not even knowing I had it. One of the reasons I resigned in 2011 from my job as director of operations for a sports performance training facility in Westlake Village was that I was feeling run-down.
I thought my problem was hormonal, so I set up an appointment with an endocrinologist. But before I went in, I found the mass in my neck. Everything I had been feeling, it turned out, was a sign of the cancer attacking my thyroid.
My cancer was curable and the treatment went well. I did my research and was never very worried about serious complications from the disease.
What surprised me was just how tough the recovery was and the repeated mistakes I made along the way. During six months of having my hormonal balance completely out of whack, I had no energy and lacked mental acuity. I would read a page five times to understand what it said.
Then, as soon as I felt energetic enough to exercise, I would try to do way too much and would be sitting out for days.
What finally got me out of it was focusing on slow, steady progression back to an active lifestyle. You can read about recovery from cancer in books: OK, people with cancer have challenges. To become physically active again, you have to start slow. But just reading about it didn’t get me better, and I’m grateful now that I can share my experience.
Our nonprofit was born as I was exploring options to help child cancer survivors, when my wife, Elle, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer for the second time. That’s when I decided to put my personal savings into launching Cancer Fit Inc. to honor my wife and follow the purpose that God had presented to me. The mission of our organization is to use exercise and wellness intervention programs to improve the quality of life for adult and child cancer survivors. We have started working mostly out of Ventura County, but our goal is to serve all of Southern California.
Years back, while I was serving as a board member for Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation in Santa Barbara, which supports families that have a child with cancer, we noticed that there were no programs to help kids who had been treated and cured to become active again. To help solve this problem, I started to offer free training at my gym in Santa Barbara for any local childhood survivor.
For me, this was a very meaningful project to work on. It went beyond physical training. For example, two teenagers I worked with, a boy and a girl, had each lost a leg because of cancer. I had to look at how their prosthetic limbs affected their gaits and how an exercise program was going to impact their safety along with everything else.
I fully believe it was God’s plan for me to have cancer. The label of “survivor” allowed some people to trust me who otherwise would not have. And the experience of recovery allowed me to better understand and ultimately help some of the strongest, most remarkable people I have ever known.
A graduate in biology and sports medicine, Robb Bolton is director of operations and founder of Cancer Fit Inc. Learn more at www.cancerfitinc.com.