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Meet Our FHITspiration Jackie

November 17, 2023

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re featuring our inspiring FHIXer, Jackie in our FHITspiration Series. Jackie has been living FHIT since 2015! Today, she shares her journey through breast cancer, offers advice for those facing health challenges, and emphasizes the paramount importance of early detection. Join us in honoring Jackie’s resilience and her valuable insights plus an organization you can support.

How long have you been taking classes at Fhitting Room?

My first class was in 2015. Before then, I hated kettlebells. They were starting to appear in more gyms, and most trainers had no idea how to use them, let alone teach them. It wasn’t until my first Fhitting Room class that I realized how fun they were—and how they primed you to be more capable in everyday activities, like carrying groceries up a fourth-floor walk-up!

Can you share a bit about your breast cancer journey, from diagnosis to where you are today?

I was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ last fall. It was my first mammogram, and I had no symptoms at all, and yet I had six centimeters of cancer inside my left breast. At that very first appointment, before I ever even had a biopsy, the radiologist told me, “You have cancer.” It was that evident. After about a month of tests and other procedures, I underwent a double mastectomy. I was lucky that the surgery got all of the cancer out. I had my second reconstructive surgery in the spring, and today, I am cancer-free and feeling great.

What motivated and inspired you to stay active and maintain your fitness during your breast cancer journey?

Fitness has always been a huge part of my life, so I was devastated at the idea of being physically impaired for a significant period of time. I knew getting back to any form of exercise would be integral to my mental health. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few resources for post-mastectomy recovery beyond a handful of basic physical therapy exercises. I decided I needed to work with a fitness professional who already knew what I was capable of, so I called Mel, one of my favorite Fhitting Room trainers. She really put the effort in for me, doing the research and helping me gain back my mobility and strength in a safe way. I was frustrated often—and Mel had to tell me to back off more than a few times!—but I kept an image of a chart in my mind: the lowest point was the day of my surgery, and every day after that was a chance to move a tiny bit upward. Even if there were days where I felt I had to take a step back, the overall trend was improvement, and that kept me motivated.

Were there any particular workouts or exercises that played a role in your recovery?

Mobility was such a huge barrier for me—I couldn’t even raise my arms over my head for several months! As a former gymnast, dancer, and runner, that was just so foreign to me. I often felt caged inside my own body. Of course, I was eager to get back to the exercises I love most—push-ups, burpees, snatches—but Mel helped me understand that I had to first relearn fundamental movement. Early on, she emphasized warm-up exercises I would have rushed through in the past: cat/cow, good mornings, and planks were all massive milestones. I laugh now because after training with Mel for a while, I would automatically start each session in cat/cow pose—and I still do now! Once we finally got that mobility back in place, the more intense movements came much more quickly than I anticipated.

How did the support of your fitness community, family, and friends impact your journey?

Recovery can feel very lonely because no matter how many people are in your corner (and luckily, I had many!), you really have to do the work by yourself. Still, Mel was integral in lending physical and emotional support. I often told her that our sessions were better than therapy. We laughed together, I told her about my frustrations and worries, and each of my successes felt like our successes. We really did it together and I’m forever grateful for that.

Can you offer advice or words of encouragement to others facing breast cancer or health challenges?

Two things kept me going. The first was a mantra I developed: You cannot be brave if you are not scared. I repeated it to myself countless times during those very difficult and painful days. It reminded me that I could cry and feel powerless and still be strong and courageous—all of those things can be true at the same time.

The second thing that kept me going is the fact that our bodies have a truly awe-inspiring ability to heal. I continue to be overwhelmed by what my body was able to overcome. There was a time when I did not know if I’d ever be able to do so many of the things that I love again, and I’m so proud to say that today I can do every single one of them. Paired with determination and a positive attitude, our physiological ability to heal is truly astounding.

How has your experience shaped your perspective on health, wellness, and life in general?

The biggest shift for me was the realization that what looks healthy on the outside is not always healthy on the inside. For a long time, I couldn’t get over that paradox—I kept thinking, “I do not look like someone who has cancer.” I think I had a very superficial understanding of what health was back then. Now I understand that the real strength you get through a commitment to fitness is mental—it’s resilience. Being strong couldn’t stop me from getting cancer, but having a strong will was the key to my recovery.

Are there specific initiatives or organizations related to breast cancer awareness that you’re involved in or would like to highlight?

We are so lucky that breast cancer research is so well funded, and we are even luckier that because of that, breast cancer has the highest survival rate among all cancers. That said, the one area that I felt was lacking was the more nuanced elements of recovery. My doctors were amazing at getting rid of my cancer, but they had a pretty major blind spot when it came to helping me navigate the body issues that come with having a mastectomy. I was very fortunate to learn about Livia, a boutique in Chelsea that is kind of like a clubhouse for women battling breast cancer. It’s a community space—there are lectures and social events and even volunteer therapists to talk to—as well as a store, where you can buy things like mastectomy bras, products to help with lymphedema, wigs—a lot of which are actually quite hard to find. It’s filling a really important gap.

Can you share any personal goals or achievements related to your fitness journey post-treatment?

One of my biggest goals was to get back into the Fhitting Room studio! Six months after my mastectomy, I hosted a Signature FHIX with all of my friends—I even flew Mel up to teach it. It was really special for me to have my first time back surrounded by the people who had supported me through the hardest time of my life, and to be able to show off how strong and healthy I felt!

What message would you like to convey to individuals about the importance of early detection and breast cancer awareness?

There is a sign at the Breast Center at Mount Sinai that says, “early detection saves lives.” Thinking about that sign still makes me tear up a little because it’s so true. Breast cancer is so curable, and we are so lucky for that, but it’s up to each one of us to take that step to get screened regularly.