One Fort Myers resident is using her fitness to kick cancer’s ass.
She didn’t know it when she woke up that hot Saturday morning. She didn’t know it when she strapped on her running shoes and headed for a hill workout at the park. She didn’t know it as her feet hit the ground, pounding up the incline. HIIT training is supposed to kill you, she thought ignoring the pain in her lungs. She tried to push through it. She tried to ignore the lack of air she was getting into her chest. She collapsed, feeling claustrophobic in her own skin. Struggling for air.
Chelsea Sanatucci didn’t know that this would be her last workout as a healthy 26-year-old.
In the midst of the pain, frustration emerged. Is it my drive? Is it my motivation? Do I need to pick something else up? A new sport?
It was a motivation problem, she decided. Maybe allergies. Maybe both. She had no idea that the cells of her lungs were multiplying out of control, arranging themselves into large masses, blocking her breath.
Going home, she borrowed her roommate’s inhaler. Atlanta allergens were bad. They’ve finally gotten to me,she thought. She inhaled the medicine. The rest of the weekend passed. She woke Monday morning with a sharp pain in the upper left corner of her back. A muscle tweak, she thought. Athletes pull things, strain things. She was used to pain, so she got up and went to work.
It wasn’t until the next day, Tuesday, that she realized something was terribly wrong. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. unable to breathe. A pain stabbed at her back—like a knife—with each attempt to inhale. A whole breath was impossible. A heart attack. I’m having a heart attack. She started to cry.
She did what all people do when they’re in pain. They call mom. The phone rang in Fort Myers. Her mother heard her crying. Chelsea doesn’t like to cry. Chelsea doesn’t like to be sick. Her mother told her to wake up her roommate, to call 911, to get to the hospital.
But Chelsea didn’t. She lay back down, trying to calm herself. She didn’t want to bother her roommate. She didn’t want to be sick. She hated being dramatic.
When her roommate finally emerged, Chelsea said: “I need to go to the doctor.” But Chelsea didn’t ask to go to the ER; she called her doctor for office hours. She had trouble just getting into the car, clinging to her roommate, needing help.
Inflammation of the lung, said the first doctor, a primary care physician. She was nervous being in his office. Adrenaline coursed through her, helping her play off the pain as something less than it was. They sent her for x-rays and sent her home.
She decided to work from home that day.She worked at her job like everything was fine. She passed a handful of days this way, waiting for results. She called the doctor, left a message.
When the nurse called back, she said there were dense areas on both lungs. But the pain is only in my left lung, she thought. Chelsea started to panic.
The second doctor, a pulmonologist, ran her through a litany of tests. She spent a day shuttling back and forth between his office and the hospital. Somewhere between tests, her doctor asked her in for a talk, alone. She had multiple masses. There were a few scenarios: Infection. Inflammation. Lymphoma. Cancer.
At the word cancer, Chelsea felt the world start to collapse in on her. She felt like she wasn’t even standing there anymore, like it wasn’t really happening to her. She waited for Ashton Kutcher to jump out and tell her she was punked.
“You’re probably about to blank out,” the doctor wisely said. “You’re probably not going to remember what I’m about to say.”
A human pincushion. That’s what she felt like in the weeks that followed. When she wasn’t being poked and prodded at the lab, she called in sick to work, didn’t get out of bed. This isn’t me, she thought, as the energy drained from her body and her brain struggled to understand what was happening. A darkness unlike anything she’d ever known descended.
Six weeks later, she was at the doctor again. He couldn’t look her in the eye; the man that had been so kind to her through six weeks of testing now could hardly face her. She knew whatever he was going to say, it was going to be bad.
She stood behind the examination room chair while he talked. She let him see her face, but she hid her body—she felt she needed to shield herself from what he was saying. When the words came out—your life is about to change drastically. You have cancer—her crying was hysterical. She asked, over and over, if he was 100 percent sure. He was trying not to cry.
Before cancer, she went into her office five days a week. She presented to clients. She traveled for business. She hit the gym every day for two hours, sometimes training for a half marathon, sometimes doing CrossFit.
Being sick was unusual then. She ate clean food, didn’t drink heavily, took care of her body. Coworkers would roll their eyes when she turned down a doughnut or pizza at the office. Herblog in its pre-cancer postings, is populated with inspirational quotes like: “I’m making myself a fighter” and musings on how to push harder. She wanted to conquer her body, be stronger, tougher.
A boxer in college, Chelsea did Friday night fights with a group of girls. The first time her knuckles bled, she thought: This is awesome. Her training mantra became: If my knuckles aren’t bloody by the end of practice I haven’t worked hard enough.
The day she movedback to Florida, back in with her mom, she put a pull-up bar on the door. She’d worked hard to master the pull-up, and she wasn’t going to let the cancer take that away from her.
In the beginning, she’d do pull-ups during the day. Then she added some easy circuits using her bodyweight: Push-ups, squats, lunges. Every day she’d wake up and make a goal for how many reps she wanted to do. She only did the movements she liked doing. She didn’t pressure herself. For maybe the first time ever it was: I’m going to do whatever I feel like doing today.
When she first started her cancer treatment, she could hardly go for a walk; her heart rate would skyrocket and she wouldn’t be able to catch her breath. But finally she decided she was ready to join a gym.
She turned it over in her head for two months before walking through the doors of CrossFit Salvation in Cape Coral. She wanted to be with other people, to feel normal. Her pride had kept her away. She knew she looked normal, but the war she was waging inside her body left her exhausted.
She started with private sessions, but soon was strong enough for group workouts, training almost as normal. Some of the people at the gym know she’s sick, and some people don’t.
Cancer has become a strange motivator. She thinks to herself: Go murder it. Even though you’re sick, you can push yourself as hard as you can. You’re not going to die. If you’re still here and breathing you can push yourself.
One day, struggling through a set of wall balls, she thought back to being at the Mayo Clinic, thought about her prognosis, thought about being hospitalized for 44 hours after a particularly painful procedure. If I can get through that I can push through this. My body is an amazing machine. She works to define the middle ground where she can push herself, but not too hard.
But then there are days where she can’t keep food down or she feels like she’s on a boat as her stomach churns. She tells herself to give herself a break. I have stage four cancer and I’m not going to feel good.
Chelsea is so, so hard on herself. Telling herself not to be a wimp. Telling herself not to give up. Her friends call her a hard ass. She worries she’s making too many excuses. She is an athlete, she wants to push, push, push. She wants to have a list of goals each week like she did before and check them off, one by one.
But Chelsea Sanatucci has cancer. And it’s trying to kill her.
So she takes advantage of good days when they come. She knew her body before, now she knows it even better.
There are dark times. Times where she wants to hide in a closet and never come out. She finds a little of herself in those dark times, measures her strength against her obstacles and tells herself she hasn’t given up yet. She thinks the dark times give her life meaning, the shape and context to that meaning is evolving as she goes along. She’s always wanted to be the real deal, and cancer is as real as it gets.
She fights back by devising ways to give the finger to cancer. When she goes to the Mayo Clinic for treatments, she fills out a form that asks: “What is your quality of life on a scale from 1 to 10?” She hates the way that sounds. Quality of life is for the dying. So she circles 10, the best quality of life, and then scribbles: “Bring your worst!” next to it.
She holds on to her bucket list. Last year, she ran a half marathon, before she was sick. This year she got a motorcycle license, riding when the weather’s good. On a bike, she can escape a little.
Chelsea can’t paint a pretty picture of what the future holds. She knows her cancer has no cure. She doesn’t share the timeline with most people, but then again, most people probably wouldn’t want to know if they were in her shoes. Not Chelsea. She wants to know what she’s up against.
She focuses on prolonging her life. She defines success as keeping the cancer under control or stable for as long as possible. Her life before was spent chasing a challenge and she thrived on it. Now that this challenge has found her, she doesn’t like to think much about the future. Her life is right now. She has been training her whole life to prove this prognosis wrong. No one has given her that hope, but she takes it anyway.
She knows she represents people with cancer now too, and she takes that seriously. She wants to be the kind of story that brings hope. Her oncologist told her that no one has walked away from her type of cancer successfully. She thinks: There has to be a first person. She wants to win this battle for her own life, but also for people who aren’t diagnosed yet. So her story will have meaning, and bring hope.
And she’s holding on to the things she has right now, like her fitness, because she is afraid will be a time where she won’t be able to do what she loves.
Chelsea Sanatucci is dying without dying.
Hear Chelsea’s story in her own words at http://bloodieknucklez.com/
Chelsea, her friends and family are raising money for cancer charity. See or support their efforts at http://www.chelseasarmy.com/.