I am the Girl with the Football Sized Tumor : Believing and Achieving

If there is one thing I know in life, it’s that although we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we react to circumstances and what we take from them. I truly believe that every experience offers us the opportunity for positivity and growth, regardless of how adverse the circumstances may seem. I have lived this over and over in my life and most recently, when I underwent major abdominal surgery to remove a ten pound tumor.

It wasn’t until I went from having a flat stomach in August 2011 to looking three or four months pregnant six weeks later that I really started to worry that something was terribly wrong with me. By November, I looked 7 months pregnant. By the date of my surgery (December 20, 2011), the tumor was, in the words of the surgeon, “larger than a football”. Although it was suspected to be malignant, the Universe looked kindly upon me and an intra-operative biopsy disclosed it was benign. This was later confirmed by a full laboratory biopsy.

In hindsight, I was sick and suffering for a long time. However, I had just moved across the country all alone (from Toronto to Calgary) in April 2011 to start work as a senior associate in commercial litigation at my law firm. I chalked-up my feelings of un-wellness to stress. When I moved to Calgary, I was 12 weeks away from competing in the WBFF Alberta Championships. Who had time to feel sick?

The truth is, I was constantly suffering from extreme fatigue for many moths, starting around the Fall of 2010. I was actually afraid to admit this not only to others but also to myself. A small part of me feared that I was suffering from clinical depression and/or a damaged system due to over-training and over-dieting in 2010. In any event, I now understand that I was severely anemic. The tumor, which had likely been growing inside of me for years, was attached to my blood vessels and becoming increasingly parasitic. As it grew, it impinged upon and “squished” my uterus, bladder and intestines, which resulted in a slew of unpleasant symptoms.

In addition to the fatigue, I suffered a constellation of other symptoms that I was unable to piece together and in some instances, I wasn’t really aware they were as bad as they were. For instance, I had severe digestive issues, I had dizzy spells, I often felt a throbbing sensation in my abdomen and I had severe menorhagia. Due to the effects of the tumor, my hair started falling out, my skin looked “dead” and my muscle started to atrophy…basically, I was unwittingly suffering from malnutrition and toxicity.

Obviously, had I known that I had a parasitic tumor, I would not have gone ahead with competing at the WBFF Alberta Championships in July 2011, followed by the WBFF World Championships in August 2011. Part of the process of getting ready for this kind of competition involves functioning at a calorie deficit for the last few weeks, so that the body leans out for the show date. In essence, I was fighting a parasitic tumor for every nutrient that my blood carried and these were limited somewhat by a “competition” diet.

In spite of my exhaustion, I forced myself to get up at 4:20 am every day to train. That was followed by a 13-16 hour, high stress, work day and back to the gym at night for session two. There were nights when I was so exhausted that I was literally in tears on my way to the gym but I did it anyway because I don’t believe in excuses. I knew that something wasn’t right; my body was not responding the way it had in the past. I kept losing muscle mass, especially up top but yet, my mid-section looked “thick”. I had always had a small waist, so I couldn’t figure out what was causing this transformation. I now know that the tumor was growing and because I am a relatively small person, it was pushing things outward, causing a “thick” appearance through my core.

Well, I competed in both the WBFF Alberta and WBFF World Championships and placed very well in spite of my challenges. I recall on the day of the Alberta Championships, I woke up and my stomach was severely distended. I was in tears….months and months of hard work and sacrifice, only to wake up looking 6 months pregnant!! Nonetheless, I wiped my tears, headed to the venue, put a smile on my face, held my head high and did my best to rock the stage! I actually had a lot of fun and made new friends too! I was no better by time I competed at the Worlds, but placed in my class and had a really great time!

As I got more ill, it became increasingly difficult to concentrate at work. By October 2011, I was unable to get through a full day. I had to leave to work early a number of times because of dizzy spells, extreme fatigue and other symptoms. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes except one dress and a few pairs of sweat pants. One morning, I recall lying on my bed and seeing my stomach, extensively distended, pulsating up and down to what seemed to be the rhythm of a heart beat. I placed my hand on my stomach and felt a large, hard mass and indeed, it was pulsating up and down…up and down… up and down… in the rhythm of heart beat. I knew I could not possibly be pregnant and I was completely at a loss as to what this “thing” inside my stomach was.

After seeing a number of specialists, I finally fell into the right hands and was diagnosed with a large tumor, which had grown to the size of a football. The tumor was sitting on top my aortic artery, thus the “hard pulsating mass” I felt earlier. Of course, I was subjected to the “talk” about the Big “C”. The specialist suspected cancer because the tumor had literally blown up over the course of about five weeks which is highly unusual. Once they suspected cancer, I was admitted into the care of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and scheduled for surgery which took place on December 20, 2011. Throughout this entire experience, I kept my sense of humor, jokingly referring to the mass in my stomach as my “alien baby’, which was quite fitting since I was sent home on Christmas day, cancer free and ready to heal and recover. I continued to exercise when I could since I believe in the healing power of exercise.

I was back to the gym within eleven days of the surgery. At first, I was only able to do the recumbent bike for about twenty minutes. Admittedly, it was difficult for me to be limited since I was used to intense training. A laparotomy (major abdominal surgery) is severely traumatizing to the body since every layer of skin and muscle has to be cut. My incision was over one foot long, extending from my pubic bone to above my belly button. I guess it’s more accurate to say what used to be my belly button. As a result of the surgery, I lost my belly-button. However, they did reconstruct one for me, although it’s very different from the one I was used to. The surgical trauma simply compounded the effects that the parasitic tumor had on my body overall. I wasn’t just recovering from surgery but also from the damage the tumor had caused over a long period of time.

After more than two months of no weight training, I was back at the gym. I returned with more determination and drive than ever. Almost everyone told me to forget about competing in 2012. Everyone told me not to get my hopes up about it. That doubt and pessimism simply added to my motivation. I’ve never let anyone tell me that I couldn’t do anything and I wasn’t about to start. I believe we control our own destiny.

At first, training was extremely difficult as the things I used to be able to do with ease, I was no longer able to do. I was back at work too, working extremely long days, preparing for a major arbitration. I had to be especially cautious about not causing myself a hernia or damaging the incision site. I was in the worst shape I had been for many years. I didn’t care what anyone else thought, said or believed; I believed in myself and knew form past experiences what I was capable of.… I was going to do it!

I went to the gym every day, five days a week. I wore a weight lifting belt to protect myself. I pushed myself as hard as I could in the circumstances. Now, four months later, I know my hard work, perseverance and determination has paid off. I know that I will be ready to hit the stage again this year… better than ever!
Facing these challenges propelled me to a new level and I accomplished much more than I originally thought I would! I’m excited to get back on that stage and show people what we are truly capable of achieving once we stop telling ourselves that we can’t…or stop listening to those who tell us that. If given the chance, I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. I have come out a better, stronger, wiser, more determined, happier and grateful person at the end of the day. Even my twelve inch scar is a beautiful reminder of my journey and so for the people who think having it is a terrible thing… I say the opposite. It is a part of me- my legacy. It is part of my story.

Of course, I didn’t take the journey alone. I am grateful to my close friends and family who have given me moral support throughout this ordeal.

When we believe, we achieve. That’s a simple truth!

Cecilia Hoover