How Cancer Saved My Life

I was a “social exerciser” – meaning I would go try out the latest exercise trend with a friend followed by laughter at a coffee shop or shopping at the local mall.  It was good I exercised regularly, but it wasn’t great.  There was no real commitment, and a sale at Nordstrom could definitely knock a workout of the schedule for the day.  And don’t even get me started talking about the holiday season!  Workout?  When do you fit that in?

But then it happened.  A routine mammogram in 2013 was followed by another and then there was this:

I lay on my side and watched the needle on the ultrasound screen penetrate my body and then, slide into each of the solid masses, one after another. My silent prayers started as pleas to help me accept and face the outcome, but the pleas soon became more desperate as I watched the needle prod the dense, white spots on the screen.   Finally, at a loss for how else to beg, I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, in an audible whisper.  I later wondered what my radiologist thought, but he stayed focused on his work.  I’m not sure how many times I got through the Lord’s Prayer, but I know it was more than twice.  The radiologist completed his work and before leaving the room, leaned over me, looked into my eyes, squeezed my hand, and said, “I hope everything turns out okay. “

He knew.

I knew.

But even though I thought that I knew at that moment, I still wasn’t prepared to hear it.  After you hear the “c-word” come through the phone, the rest is just noise.  Family and friends later peppered me with questions – “What stage are you?”  “How many tumors are there?”  “How big are they?”

I couldn’t answer any of their questions because all I had heard was just a bunch of noise.

The days to follow were the loneliest moments in my life because despite all the love showered on me by friends and family, despite the flowers that arrived at my door, and the cards in my mailbox, despite all that – this cancer was in MY body.  The love, the flowers, the cards – none of that could destroy the cancer.  It was MY battle.

It’s been said you never know how strong you are until you have to be.  I uncovered herculean strength over the next year.  After a bilateral mastectomy that March, my sister-in-law (and as I have three brothers, she is really a sister) came to stay with me for a few days.  She undressed me and gingerly lowered me in the bathtub to take my first bath after surgery.  I sat in shallow water and looked straight ahead, afraid to look down at what had been taken from me.  When I was ready to emerge, I stood facing away from the mirror, stepped over the tub and lowered my head as my body turned toward the mirror.  I was trying with all my might to work up the courage to look at what stood before the mirror.  I took a deep breath and slowly raised my eyes to meet those looking back at me.  Another deep breath and my eyes moved down the torso.  What I saw was not what I expected.  My upper body was covered with black lines drawn by the surgeon to map out his work and yellow and purple bruising filled in the white spaces between the grid lines appearing as a sort of impressionistic painting.  There were steri strips covering incisions that appeared to be battle wounds.  My shoulders appeared to point more rigidly and capped off the limbs beneath them which were defined by slight curves hugging inner strength.  What I saw was not the vision of a victim, but was every bit a warrior complete with war paint black, yellow and purple.  I gazed at the figure in the mirror and pushed those shoulders back a little farther and stood a little straighter.  A resounding deep breath.  All I could see was power and strength.  A survivor. A victor.

It was at that moment that cancer saved my life.

I wish I had taken a picture of what I saw that day, but I did not, and maybe it is better.  Maybe that vision required the lens of woman whose breasts had only just been amputated.  Nonetheless, it is indelible in my mind.

I knew then, how very strong I am.  I knew then how very strong I would become.

More surgeries and procedures followed – reconstruction, but I viewed it as the making of the $6 million-dollar man.  “We can rebuild her.  We can make her better.”  Food was no longer just enjoyment and social (though it is still that, admittedly), but it was now fuel to power this corps I inhabit.  Exercise was no longer just social (though it still is that, too), but it was now the means to strengthen the body and sweat out toxins.  Nordstrom could no longer derail my workout (there’s time for both).  I am healthier than I have ever been, and oh, yeah, I did have cancer.

In fact, I became so devoted, I got certified to teach spin classes.  I now teach at an indoor cycling studio which focuses on personal empowerment.  I motivate our clients as they motivate me by their very presence.


I am not a victim.  To be a victim, one has to be harmed.  I was strengthened by cancer.  I am a warrior – each and every day.  Though no one can see my war paint, I did and I do.  It is permanently etched on that figure in the mirror and in the corners of my soul.  That is who I am and will always be.

Shelley Chatfield is a  Carbon38 #Team38 Trainer and an attorney by day and a motivator/instructor for CycleYOU Lexington nights and weekends. Find her on Instagram and Facebook, and use her #Team38 personal link or code SHELLCHAT50 for her discount when you shop Carbon38.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed