The Long Journey Back

As I was browsing social media one day, looking for someone in the fitness industry, preferably running, with a unique or inspiring story, I stumbled across a page that caught my attention. I reached out to this woman to find out more about her story and was intrigued. I knew that this was a story that a lot of my viewers, and people who may stumble across my page, as I did hers, could relate to. Olivia has always been passionate about pushing her body and her limits in all aspects of her life. She has always loved living outside the conventional box so to speak. She believes that nothing good happens while we remain in our comfort zone.

Olivia was very fit in her 20's but then she got a traveling job in her late 30's and it got more and more difficult to work out. As she got older she noticed that it got harder and harder to stay in shape. She kept putting off going to the gym until in December 2011, someone tagged her on social media at a Christmas party and she felt that she looked so out of shape, that she checked herself in to a CrossFit gym on January first. It was then that she had decided to get fit before her 40th birthday. She originally had just intended to lightly work out enough to maintain her shape, but she found that she enjoyed CrossFit and the intensity of the workouts. Olivia was seeing the rapid changes in her body and how strong she was becoming that she stayed the course and eventually became a trainer.

Olivia then became a member of two running group's. She had always been a long-distance runner since high school but after college she stopped running and took to rollerblading because of the physical impact running had on her body. After joining the national running group “Black Girls Run” and a local group called Snellville SNOBS (sisters nurturing our bodies) it became quite addictive for Olivia. She remembers them getting up every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 in the morning and doing 3 to 4 miles. On Saturdays they ran 6 to 16miles and they also had runs on the alternating days for fun. During this time in her life, she felt like she was a beast. CrossFit had made her legs very strong which helped her smash the morning runs. She was in the best shape of her life.

Olivia was getting ready to participate in her first body building competition when she got this irritating cough that she could not get rid of. She then realized that there was a small lump next to her clavicle in her neck area. After a couple of misdiagnoses for several months she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A scan revealed that the cancer had spread to her lungs and that is why she was experiencing the persistent cough that wouldn’t go away. The diagnosis came as a shock because she was just 43 years old at the time. She was in the best shape of her life and was living a healthy lifestyle. Her PCP referred her to her Oncologist, Dr. Aldemar Montero, that is still caring for her to this day, and the Director of Trauma Dr. Massoud who performed all 3 of her biopsies.

After her diagnosis, she struggled to understand how this could have happened to her when she was so healthy and active. Olivia’s mantra to everyone was that if you take care of the body you are in, you'll be healthy for life. In the beginning she constantly questioned what was happening and wondering what it was that she did wrong for this to happen. Having cancer didn’t seem even remotely possible. She was ashamed, scared, confused, and felt like she was living a nightmare. Under Dr. Montero’s care, she underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy from February to September of 2016. The nurses had briefed her on the possible side effects of the chemo, but nothing could prepare me for how truly awful it was. She suffered many of the common side effects such as hair loss, sickness, tiredness, severe nausea, neutropenia, hospitalizations, and about 90% of every side effect there was to be had. She’d always been quite feminine, so it was very difficult for her when she started to lose her hair. It only got worse when she experienced waking up with eye lashes in her eyes. This was as hard, if not harder, than losing her hair as she felt like her features were slowly being erased and her identity was fading along with her confidence.

“You literally wake up look in the mirror and can't recognize who the person is staring back.”

Olivia didn't think she would make it, but she did. The months of torturous treatments were effective, and she was declared NED (no evidence of disease) at the end of the initial 16 months. She was then told to do an additional 7 weeks of radiation because of the aggressiveness of the cancer. She cooperated under the impression that this would be successful but during the last week of radiation, the cancer came back. She was referred to the doctors at one of the local Blood Marrow transplant centers in Atlanta at Northside Hospital. Under the care of Dr. Morris, a transplant specialist at Northside Hospital, she received an autologous Blood marrow transplant in 2017.

During that time, she was devastated when her mother, who had also found out that she had uterine carcinoma, passed away suddenly due to a stroke, post cancer treatment. It was devastating for Olivia because she was her primary caregiver at the time and her best friend during her cancer journey. It made the transplant that much harder on her. She was now in isolation and couldn't see her daughter during the whole month she was in the hospital waiting for her new immune system to kick in. Her transplant team was confident that the procedure would be a success and their confidence gave great comfort to Olivia and her family.

During her first course of treatment with chemo, Olivia was quarantined and couldn't go anywhere so she ran around her subdivision. The discipline she had built from running with her women run clubs probably saved her life. Circulation is very important when undergoing Cancer treatments, it makes such a big difference in the recovery. She made sure to run about 3 miles as many days as she could get out of the house. After the stem cell transplant, it took Olivia about 90 days before she could start running again. She was so sick from the stem cell transplant and had been in bed for so long that even the simple task of walking was a daunting.

Her post-cancer body had a new normal in training and everyday life. It was a struggle to even walk. She got winded easily, was always sweating profusely, and ran out of gas on what were once simple efforts. Once she accepted that she had to get back to where she once was, and start all over, it allowed her to realize that although she wasn’t where she wanted to be, she was very lucky to be in the shape that she was in. The setback was a blow, but Olivia didn't allow it to stop her. Once she learned that she had to get her legs strong again to be able to get back to walking, jogging, and running, she implemented a plan to start walking the stairs at the hospital. Her treatments were on the 9th, 10th and 11th floors, so she made sure to walk all the flights of steps as many times as she could to strengthen her legs. Eventually she graduated to being able to walk and jog outside again. Because of the steroids she was given, she gained a lot of weight and she became determined to lose it. She did a lot of cardio at this time. But her bones at this point were very delicate due to the constant chemical treatments which rapidly depleted her calcium stores, so she decided to rollerblade which was a lower impact but effective way to get a lot of miles in. She defaulted to running when she could, but the pain was intense, and she had to balance it out with rollerblading. Eventually Olivia was back up to 8 to 12 miles every day or at least 5 days per week.

Then, in September 2017, she found out that the cancer had come back again and this time it had metastasized to her bones. Olivia had to stop running completely because the pain became so bad that she could barely walk at times. Then it progressed as she started experiencing a pain on the right side of her body, from her heels all the way up to her ribs. The doctors thought it was neuropathic pain, but a follow-up scan showed that she had fractured her hip bone. Olivia was put on bed rest and started a new round of treatment with Brentuximab Vedotin. Once again, Olivia was devastated. She couldn't run, walk, or rollerblade for a couple of months while letting her hip heal. The option for another stem cell transplant, Allogenic Stem cell transplant, came up as an option. The plan was to stop the cancer by using cells from a genetic match of one of her siblings who was cancer free, but during the 2 weeks of rigorous testing, they found out that her heart muscles had been damaged by one of the earlier chemotherapy drugs and that disqualified her from being able to get the procedure done.

From late 2017 and well into 2018, her PET scans got progressively. Her cancer spread to her abdomen and showed up in her neck. At this time, she started to add holistic and natural treatments to her existing protocol because she learned that the only way to beat cancer is using your immune system. So, she started to strengthen her immune system. At this time the cancer adapted to the drug and she had to start another drug protocol Nivolumab which was immunotherapy. It was supposed to help her body to optimize her immune system. The new drug coupled with her new treatment therapies worked and finally, in December 2018, the PET scan showed no cancer in the bones, and the tumors were shrinking. Olivia was pleased with the news and that she was finally able to start working out again.

Working out makes such a difference in treatment protocol. It optimizes everything, allowing the body to be strong enough to get treatments and recover faster from the negative side effects of the drugs. Olivia is still in treatment but thriving so much better than she has in very long time. In fact, Olivia was told that she doesn’t even look like she had cancer which is a compliment considering all that she has been through. Her current goal for 2019 is to be cancer free and to help as many cancer patients as possible. She already has a small group of patients that she shares her treatment protocols with and they are thriving and doing so well with the information that she is sharing. She helps them to transition into healthier life options to regain their quality of life back. Olivia wanted to share her story because throughout her treatment, she often received great support from a lot of people and from reading other people’s experiences. She could often relate to what other people had written and it was nice to know that she wasn’t alone. It gave her hope and she knew that if she could help other people currently going through chemo in the same way, even if it was just one person, it would have been worth it.

If you'd like to connect with Olivia and follow her journey, click here.

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