Newswise — “I’m sorry, but you have breast cancer.”
After hearing those seven words at her desk at Rowan University, Leslie Spencer did what most people probably wouldn’t do.
She hung up the phone, went downstairs to the Exercise Science Research Laboratory in Dr. Herman D. James Hall…and worked out, pushing her body to its limits.
“I sort of felt in a little bit of a daze,” the professor of Health & Exercise Science (HES) in Rowan’s College of Education says. “I thought exercise would help me feel better.”
Exercise, Spencer says, did more than get her through the initial shock of her breast cancer diagnosis. Coupled with great medical treatment, support of family and friends, faith, and a positive attitude, exercise helped Spencer conquer cancer.
In her new book, You Can Be Beautiful Beyond Breast Cancer: The Strength Training and Diet Program That Changed My Life Post-Cancer (Meyer & Meyer Sport), Spencer shares the training regimen and nutrition program that helped save her life. The book tells Spencer’s very personal story while highlighting the specialized training program devised by her trainer, 2009 Rowan HES alumnus Domenick Salvatore.
Spencer, who has no history of breast cancer in her family, was diagnosed with breast cancer and pre-cancer of the cervix at age 44. Over the next 18 months, she underwent a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
'People who have cancer and are dying don't have personal trainers'
Holding to the theory that “people who have cancer and are dying don’t have personal trainers,” Spencer exercised throughout her four surgeries and her treatments. Save for encouragement from her nurses to walk her “fingers up the wall” and raise her hands above her head after surgery, her healthcare providers generally didn’t address the role of exercise in her recovery, she says.
“My physician didn’t really talk about exercise with me,” says Spencer. “For six weeks, while my incisions were healing, no one ever broached the subject of exercise with me.”
A turning point
But Spencer had other ideas. She decided soon after her diagnosis that she wanted to become a competitive bodybuilder. Doing so, she said, would give her something to control—something to strive for—in the midst of her treatments.
“Within a week after my diagnosis, I thought, ‘I want to do this.’ It would represent my victory over cancer. The diagnosis was a turning point. When that happens, you kind of realize that life is unpredictable and risky. It helped me get a little bolder,” Spencer said.
Salvatore, 27, who had been Spencer’s trainer before her diagnosis—and unknowingly trained her on the day she received the startling news—worked to devise a training program that would help his former professor recover from her surgeries…and thrive in the gym.
Spencer entered her first figure competition, presented by the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders (OCB), in August of 2010. She has competed each year since then, winning two trophies in 2011, including first place in the Grand Masters competition, which is for women age 45 and over.
This year, competing against women in all classes, Spencer came home without a trophy. She plans to return to OCB competition again next summer.
“I had my fourth surgery three months prior to my first competition,” says Spencer. “I knew I wasn’t going to win. Frankly, I didn’t care about that. Whether I got a trophy or not, I felt like a winner.”
'The exercise empowered her to stay positive'
In devising Spencer’s workout regimen, Salvatore in effect became an expert in training women with breast cancer.
“He researched training,” says Spencer. “There really wasn’t a lot out there for him to go on. Domenick is a great trainer. He understands exercise physiology and he’s a very good listener. He has a great intuitive sense about working with people.”
“We started low and progressed very slowly,” says Salvatore. “We began with range of motion exercises. We made sure she wasn’t sedentary. The exercise empowered her to stay positive.”
Today, Salvatore is a clinical research coordinator and exercise specialist at the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Salvatore works with Dr. Kathryn Schmitz in the Strength After Breast Cancer program, providing progressive resistance training in physical therapy settings for women recovering from breast cancer.
Turning cancer on its head
“My work with Leslie changed my whole career trajectory,” says Salvatore, who is pursuing dual MBA and master’s degree in public health from Penn. “It changed me. Before working with Leslie, I was training mostly athletes and the general population. This created a niche for me. Now, I’m able to help more people than ever, especially women, in realizing their true fitness potential and in reaching goals they never would have imagined previously.”
Spencer’s drive—and her positive attitude—were essential to her recovery, says Salvatore.
“She turned cancer on its head,” he says. “I watched it all transpire. Leslie is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s a calm and collected person. But she’s a force. She attacks life. She taught me to do that for myself.”
You Can Be Beautiful Beyond Breast Cancer is a book for all—cancer survivors, both men and women, and anyone who wants to improve their health, Spencer says.
“I want people to see that the trials they go through don’t have to determine their future,” she says. “It can be possible to have goals. People can defy the odds.
“I want people to realize what could be possible for them.”