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Dont Call It A Come Back

As a strength athlete, every pound or kilo you add to a lift is earned with a certain sense of pride.

  Whether it be adding a whole plate to a lift or 10lbs to a total, each is met with the sense of “I did that.  My sweat earned that”.  Conversely, nothing tastes quite so bitter as the realization that strength has been lost.  It was this very feeling I experienced in late September 2017.   This bitterness is immediately followed by a thought.  A dark and very tangible thought “Will I ever get back to where I was?  Should I try or should I just quit?”. This is the story of how I answered that question for myself.  

On July 6th, 2017  I underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction for a mass that was found in my left breast. Because of my testing positive for the BRCA2 mutation, as well as family history of breast cancer, it was deemed the best course of action to proceed with was a full double mastectomy and to do so as soon as possible. Prior to this diagnosis, I was prepping for a meet in September and a Strongman competition in early July. Neither was meant to be. After going to my doctor in March not feeling quite right, she very wisely advised me to have genetic testing done first. This way if I was positive for a mutation, insurance would cover everything. And so it was that I discovered I was positive. A battery of tests, scans, biopsies, appointments and difficult decisions followed. 

 After my mass was found, biopsied and it was deemed I required surgery and quickly, everything happened in a whirlwind.  However I mentioned to every doctor I met that I NEEDED to be able to lift again.  I decided against a reconstruction procedure that would preserve the “realness” of my breasts. This required either a) taking a portion of my abs or b) cutting out my lats to form breasts from my own tissue.  That was a hard no for me. I opted for silicon implants. All reconstruction for a mastectomy is done under the muscle to hide the edges of the implant. You first have spacers inserted to stretch the pocket to the size you’re shooting for and in a second surgery the implant is added.  I was told before my first surgery (the “big one”) to anticipate not being able to bench or do push ups for a long time if ever.  This scared me shitless.  But I didn’t have any real choices. Everything was caught before I needed chemo or any serious treatment, so it was full steam ahead.

On July 6th I walked into the hospital as a 36 DDD and left as an A cup.  I won’t lie, when I came to afterwards I vaguely remember being excited about 2 things, the recovery nurse giving me 'good ice' (pellet ice for those who don’t know) and I could see my feet while laying down.  That was something I hadn’t been able to do in at least 15 years.  The following months were painful, slow, and tedious. Each week I had to go have a needle inserted into a port in my spacers and have saline added.  This made my chest ache.  The farther we got in the process the more awkward it became.  Apparently as spacers fill they become rigid to stretch skin.  Needless to say, their inflexibility made daily tasks a new kind of chore.  I couldn’t exercise much with spacers at first  The most strenuous thing I could do was walk my dogs.  I had set backs as incisions opened, I developed lymphedema on one side and struggled not being able to reach above my head or lift more than 15lbs.

After 12 weeks, 3 miserable months, I was allowed to train again. But at a low capacity. The first day in the gym I remember the bitterness I tasted, and how badly I wanted to quit.  My legs shook squatting 135 lbs, when before 2 plates was my standard warm up. I couldn’t deadlift without extreme pain in my chest and glutes.  The spacers rigidity made it almost impossible to use my chest without pain.   A medication they gave me post op causes tendon weakness and I had pulled both of my piriformis.  I remember my first day benching and how impossible it felt. An empty bar was hard. 75lbs made me shake and feel like I’ve never benched before. I wanted to quit. That day.  Sitting on that bench, I thought back to using the same bench a few months before to hit 165.  I sat there and made the choice that day not to let cancer take away MY sport.

Brick by brick, slowly, and painfully I regained the ground I’d lost. Between PT, rehab training and relearning how to move I slowly gained back ground. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much I had gained back. Today I’m sitting a little above where I was in July 2017. I plan to compete again in December of this year and I’m very sure I’m going to hit new PRs all around

Now , I will say everything is a little different.  My pecs have been cut and moved as a result of my surgeries.  They sit higher and when I flex them my entire chest moves (fun party trick though).  I learned quickly that I COULD regain the motion for pressing, it just took work. DO NOT believe that you’re days of benching and doing push ups are gone. They aren’t.  It just takes time, patience and a willingness to put in the leg work on PT and rehab.  Also, girls panic that they will ruin fake books benching. False.  I do recommend silicon over saline for power athletes. If silicon gets a tear nothing happens. If saline implants get a tear, one boob will go flat.  0/10 would not recommend. If you do tear drop gummy bear implants they will also not 'bottom out' as some people fear they will.

If my story has one take away let it be this. Adversity and failure are not permanent.   Much can be over come just by setting your mind to it, and chipping away at little every day. I will say. If you are a person that normally takes the easiest route, don’t despair. Grit and resiliency can be developed. It’s simply the practice or facing something insurmountable and each day getting just one step farther than you were yesterday. We decide what our limits are and what will break us. 

Rachel Gifford
@urkillinitsmalls