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Cancer survivor: CrossFit saved my life

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-15 09:07:25-05

Some people stay fit to feel good and look good. Stacy Crawford credits her athleticism with life itself.

Crawford, 43, was diagnosed with rectal cancer in January of last year. A CrossFit trainer, Crawford said she had been feeling fine but had blood in her stools. She didn’t think it was a big deal. When she’d reached her insurance deductible, she decided to have a colonoscopy, though she felt and looked good and was young for the procedure.

The results were a shock: cancer that had spread from her colon to her liver and a lung. It was stage 4, typically a death sentence.

But Crawford’s story is not typical. A year after her diagnosis with stage 4, after two rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries – which removed parts of her colon, part of her liver and a lobe of her lung – she said she is, at least for now, NEC, “no evidence of cancer.”

Crawford, who lives in Hebron, Ky., said her doctor told her, “I don’t think you understand what kind of patient you are. This doesn’t normally happen.”

She has kept training and coaching, which she continued even during chemo treatments.

A mother of two children, ages 12 and 14, she said the day after she started chemo she was in the gym, Ft. Wright CrossFit, where she’d been a trainer for the past two years.

“Going through the chemo process,” she said, “it was very important for me to keep my routine of what I was doing every day the same and knowing if I came in and had just had a chemo treatment… as long as I made the attempt, I tried. I put forth that effort. I physically got out of bed. I came in here today and I just did what I could.

“Last year at the end of January I was diagnosed with cancer… and chemo treatments started on a Thursday. I came in and did the workout on Friday and the effects of chemo were immediate as far as my hand. I had a cold sensitivity, like freezing cold. The drugs make everything so much more intensified to cold so grabbing onto those bars are cold, the barbells are cold it just feels like needles piercing. It didn’t matter if you put gloves on.”

Now, after two rounds of chemo and two surgeries, after coaching at the gym, she said, “I go home … sleep for a couple hours, get back up. The kids are getting off the bus. Your daily things don’t stop. Kids still go to school. They still have homework, they still have activities, sports.”

Her trainees supported her with purple T-shirts that say, “Stacy Strong.” Church congregations in three states have prayed for her. And through everything, she kept showing up at the gym, far behind the place where she’d been before treatments began, but she was there nonetheless.

“The number of people that were praying for me was incredible… I have no doubt in my mind that the power of prayer got me through to where I am now.

“From February until September I had chemo,” she said. “I worked out that entire time. Oct. 29 was my first surgery. My first surgery they had to remove a portion of my liver and my colon at the same time.”

With surgery, for the first time, she had to take a break from working out. But, she pointed out, it was working out that lengthened her life, allowing her to survive aggressive chemo and surgery.

“Every single doctor that I spoke to -- and I had many, many surgeons -- said, 'If you were not as healthy as you are you would not have been able to and will not be be able to sustain these surgeries and the chemo that we’re getting ready to throw at you. We would not even put you through this if you were not in as good a shape as you are.' ”

In December one of the lobes in her lungs was removed. Now, she is back in the gym coaching.

Crawford may be a blip in the statistics. But Dr. Nagla Karim, an oncologist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, says Crawford’s case is not unique.

“I would really press on this, that being active during treatment is very important, except of course if someone is on pain medications.

“Being active during treatment is a very important aspect” in longevity and fitness, she said. “In fact, it makes people even do better (in treatment). The patients that remain functional usually do better. They tolerate treatments better. And also having positive thoughts, wanting to live (helps overall).”

Karim said she has had three patients who, like Crawford, beat the odds. All three kept active before diagnosis and during treatment.

“It’s also about spiritual support, plus also having a positive attitude, positive energy.” Karim said. “There are other things that we see in real life that do stand out and do help patients do better, live longer, and have a better quality of life and enjoy family, enjoy friends and things around them… these things do make a difference.”

At the Ft. Wright CrossFit gym where Crawford has been a trainer for the past two years – including the year after her diagnosis – she tells her story. There are pull-up rings hanging from crossbars, obstacle boxes, and all the equipment that commercial CrossFit gyms use in their military-inspired training, which is designed to tone the body, increase flexibility and avoid specialization.

She was born in Pennsylvania and as a child lived in Georgia, Texas, and Kentucky, where she went to school, graduating from Dixie High in Edgewood, near Fort Mitchell. At Northern Kentucky University she got a degree in recreation fitness and athletic training. She was strong and athletic, but did not play team sports.

She has sparkling violet eyes and a thick head of short blonde hair – despite warnings she would lose her hair, she said, it stayed in place.

“The second round of chemo I had my hair was supposed to fall out. And I had really long hair," she said. "So I cut my hair because the chemo was supposed to make my hair fall out. Well it didn’t. Everybody reacts to chemo differently.”

After graduating from NKU and getting married, she worked in leasing for a bank for 13 years. She came to CrossFit in 2009 as a trainee interested in being fit, eventually becoming a trainer. In the meantime, she and her husband started an infrared thermal imaging company for manufacturing applications. She does the marketing, billing and other administrative work.

Physically, she had worked her way to a place where she could encourage others to follow. And then she found she was back to square one.

Her hands hurt from the cold of gym equipment. With surgical staples in place, she could not lift weights or do any exercise other than aerobic. For weeks she would ride an Airdyne, a CrossFit exercise cycle.

“So at one point,” she said, tearing up, “I was the person doing the muscle-ups, and I am now the person that comes in and picks the lightest bar in the gym, and I’m starting from scratch again to build myself back up.”

“She was down for a little bit right after surgery, but she was immediately texting me and my husband, ‘I’m ready to come back and coach,’" Stephanie Stark, who owns Ft. Wright CrossFit with her husband, said of Crawford. "She’s picked it right back up. She still works out all the time. She has definitely been a role model. She is just a boss lady. She is a true inspiration.”