Staying fit and strong: My story against breast cancer


By Kristina Cowan

My mother was a vibrant 45-year-old when she was diagnosed with an aggressive, advanced form of breast cancer. I was only 15 years old. She passed away within a year, and the tumult of that time reshaped the landscape of my life. Determined not to let my mother’s fate become my own, I began exercising regularly and developed an interest in healthy eating.

Years later, when my own children were young, my doctor called me with suspicious results from a routine mammogram. A battery of grueling biopsies and other tests revealed that I had a condition that produced atypical cells in my breasts. My risk for breast cancer was high: a one in two chance by age 60. I felt as if fate had me dangling over the edge of a cliff. Not wanting to play the odds game, I opted for breast-cancer prevention surgery, also known as a bilateral mastectomy.

Since I wanted to be as strong as possible before surgery, especially in my upper body, I signed up for personal training at the Y. I was already a dedicated member: since becoming a wife and mother, I’d placed an even greater premium on my personal health, and I wanted to instill this value in my children by modeling it for them.

The Fry Family YMCA in Naperville made it easy to exercise, even with little ones in tow. There, I could take a class, cycle or swim while my children were in child care or enrolled in their own activities. A veritable dream!

My personal trainer, Adrienne Parsons, was a godsend. She helped me get into the best possible shape for the big day, tailoring exercises to strengthen my arms and upper back. I went to the hospital believing my recovery would be strong and solid. And it was. My doctors and nurses said the regular exercise would make a world of difference. Indeed, I experienced very little postoperative pain and had a near-full range of motion in my arms right away. I was back to lifting my children within three months!

I believe my recovery wouldn’t have been half as sound had I not pursued healthy choices after watching my mom slip away many years earlier. By staying healthy and fit, I believe I have a better chance of living longer. I also feel stronger physically and mentally. I’m grateful the Y has been a part of my path toward ever better health.

Kristina Cowan started writing when she was 5. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and recently completed her first book, When Postpartum Packs a Punch. Learn more