Beyond Strong: Two breast cancer survivors share their fight
After battling breast cancer three times, you might think Marlene Wexler wouldn’t have any fight left to give. But you’d be wrong. This 72-year-old Brooklyn Park weight lifter is anything but down on her own luck. “I always say, ‘You can give up, you can give in, or you can give it all you’ve got,’” she says. Marlene, who survived her first cancer diagnosis in 1999, began training with Jason Burgoon about a decade ago after she spent a “miserable” stint in a nursing home following knee replacement surgery. Marlene admitted she was skeptical about hiring a personal trainer, but says after meeting and talking with Jason, she knew she was in the right place. Jason recalls their first meeting: “I saw a motivated woman who knew what she wanted, but she had no idea how to get there or what she could do with her body,” he says. Within six months, Marlene had lost 50 pounds with regular exercise, training, and better eating habits.
As if that wasn’t encouragement enough, Jason encouraged Marlene to up her game by introducing her to deadlifting. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I got used to being strong and once I started lifting, it was like a big high, like finishing a marathon.” She began competing locally in 2010, but soon advanced to national and world competitions, where she often came home with trophies.
When she was diagnosed with cancer again in 2013 and underwent surgery in June, she was betting her doctor wouldn’t allow her to lift for the rest of the year. But just three weeks later, she competed locally. Then just a month after weeks of radiation, she traveled to Las Vegas for the World Association of Bencher and Deadlifters’ competition. At 68, she lifted 275 pounds—more than she ever had before. An emotional reward came soon after when she became the first recipient of the Joe Pablo Courage Award during the meet. The announcer praised her for her accomplishments—fighting breast cancer twice, losing 80 pounds since working out with her trainer, and her lifting achievements. He also applauded her strength, both mentally and physically, “She kicked butt,” the presenter said as he gave Marlene the award.
Then, in 2017, Marlene again was diagnosed with cancer. She had a mastectomy, but just a few months later competed in a local lifting meet. She credits Jason, now her bench coach, and Aldon Tibbs, who trains her in deadlifting. “They keep me going,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I keep both of them active.”
Marlene also keeps the medical community on its toes. During a routine bone exam, the technician thought there was something wrong with the machine because it showed Marlene’s bone density had improved so dramatically. When she had her knee replaced, she was close to the 2.0 mark, which is considered as significant bone loss. During her exam, she registered .8, even better than the 1.0 normal range. “It shows how much lifting can improve bone density,” she says.
Despite the third cancer diagnosis, plus ongoing medical issues with skin cancer removal, Marlene has no intention of giving up. There’s no room for pity, she says. In fact, there’s barely enough room for the awards she continues to rack up. When pressed on the number of trophies and medals she has, Marlene estimates it to be about 50, which she keeps in a curio cabinet at home: “People who come over for the first time assume the trophies are my husband’s,” she laughs. “He gets a kick out of that.”
A gallon of milk weighs about 9 pounds. That doesn’t seem like much when you’re hauling groceries to and from the car, but for Erin Raiolo it was a discouraging reality to hear it was more than her doctor said she could lift following breast cancer treatments and reconstruction surgery. Eight pounds was her limit.
Numbers have played a large role in Erin’s life since the diagnosis, but statistically speaking, the numbers were in her favor when she had a mammogram last year after a lump was detected. At 33, she was considered too young for concern and she had zero history of breast or ovarian cancer in the family. She also breastfed her two kids, didn’t drink in excess, and didn’t take a hormone replacement. But following the exam, her radiologist scheduled a biopsy that confirmed what Erin was bracing herself to hear: The C word. She had Stage 2 breast cancer, which called for chemo, radiation, surgery, and reconstruction. “I was in shock. I was devastated. The wind was knocked out of me,” she says. “I immediately thought it was a death sentence.”
Last February, Erin, who is an emergency room nurse, started chemo, then in June had a double mastectomy, followed by two months of radiation and this May, she had her final reconstruction surgery.
Erin’s diagnosis came about a year after she began training at Bodies By Burgoon. “At that time of my life, I was feeling down and I hated what I saw in the mirror,” she says. “I had tried everything—every fad diet, food program, other gyms, and I often got discouraged when I didn’t see change so I’d quit and try something else.” Erin says she remembers immediately connecting with Jason during her first gym visit. “We shared stories and there were no judgments, just listening and acceptance.” Jason adds, “Only when you make someone feel comfortable will they let their
walls down. Only then will they accept support.” Erin’s routine training got her active again and she loved working with the Bodies by Burgoon family, who she says became her community.
But during her cancer journey, exercise meant just walking up the stairs to her bedroom, and even that made her physically weak and dizzy. “It was humbling,” she says. “Before cancer, I was walking an hour a day or going to Bodies by Burgoon, and during treatment, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. Humbling.”
Coming to terms about why and how cancer happened to Erin has also been a journey, which she is documenting by writing a book. “I started seeing a therapist and she encouraged me to write down my feelings because my mind was full of fleeting thoughts and what-ifs,” she says. “As I progressed through the process, I found it easier to accept the fact that I had cancer.”
Erin is still cancer free…and spends time taking care of her health and her family, while inspiring others to do the same (including volunteering to help other cancer patients).
In addition to her nursing work, Erin is paying it forward with her side business as a photographer. She plans to offer free photo sessions to cancer fighters and survivors. “My family gets me through it all,” Erin adds. “From the day I was diagnosed, I knew I wanted to fight. Fight for my kids, for my husband, for my family, and for myself. Giving up and quitting was not an option. This is just a chapter in my life, not the whole story.”