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‘I Thought My Body-Image Issues Were Behind Me. Then I Was Diagnosed With Thyroid Cancer.’

Women's Health logo Women's Health 6/13/2019 Erica Lugo as told to Emily Shiffer

© ERICA LUGO I'm a personal trainer with a large fitness following on Instagram, and the owner of FitLove Studio in Centerville, Ohio (plus a former Women's Health Next Fitness Star finalist, back in 2016!). My mission in life? To help other women feel confident and strong. But when I was diagnosed this past November with stage 2 thyroid cancer, my world changed-and I no longer could feel the sense of confidence and strength I spent my life trying to help people find within themselves.

In January 2019, I had my thyroid removed and underwent radiation through March 2019. The aftermath was rough; I called it the radiation hangover. The hardest part was feeling miserable and isolated at the same time. I couldn't have my son or pets around for about a week, as you don't want to expose other people and animals to radiation in the first four to five days, my doctors explained.

I let the tears fall when I got home after surgery and saw myself in the mirror. I hadn't worked out in days, I was bloated from the cocktail of IVs and medications I was on, and I had a huge scar across my neck.

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A post shared by Erica ⬇️ 150 Lbs SW: 322 Lbs (@ericafitlove) on Jan 17, 2019 at 2:57am PST

I cried not because of my battle, but because I thought I looked terrible-and that's something I regret.

When I sobbed to my boyfriend at home, he kept telling me, "Erica, the scars and symptoms will go away," and, “You're beautiful.”

All of the ups and downs I was going through gave me flashbacks to the confidence problems I overcame long before my health issues arose. A little background: I dealt with weight and body image issues my whole life. And in 2014, I decided to embark on a personal weight-loss journey to transform my mind and body and to be an even more active, present mother to my son.

Within two years, I achieved the personal weight-loss goals I had set and continued to set new ones. I felt unstoppable, strong, self-assured. So my cancer diagnosis was totally shocking and disappointing.

I felt as if the cancer and the surgery had wiped away my femininity. I didn't feel like the person I worked so hard to be anymore. Deep down I knew that my body had survived so many hard things, yet there I was, judging myself based off what I thought "great" should look like.

On top of everything, I also lived my life on social media, trying to maintain a specific motivational image, someone who radiated confidence. When I shared my diagnosis, many followers would tell me they just wanted me to get healthy and take time to recover. But some people would pounce or feel bold enough to comment the moment they saw me put on weight or witness my body evolve.

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A post shared by Erica ⬇️ 150 Lbs SW: 322 Lbs (@ericafitlove) on Jan 22, 2019 at 2:27pm PST

But the thing about the cancer is, you have no choice but to allow the body time to heal and not worry about how your illness might set you back or affect your health or weight-loss progress. And in that sense, cancer humbled me, to say the least.

After my surgery and radiation, when I had so much time to sit alone with my thoughts, there were moments when I would just sit cross-legged in front of my mirror and speak the words to myself, "You are enough as you are"-with tears rolling down my face. I don't think people always realize that, for some people, a cancer journey can be more of an emotional fight than a physical one.

Up until getting a cancer diagnosis, slowing down to me meant falling behind.

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A post shared by Erica ⬇️ 150 Lbs SW: 322 Lbs (@ericafitlove) on May 17, 2019 at 2:24pm PDT

In today's society, and in the world of "fitness Instagram," some people seem to view taking a break or reducing your intensity in life as weakness. We look at business owners and influencers with huge followings, and they make it seem like if your calendar isn't booked, or you don't have content for days, or sexy photos with carved abs, then you aren't working hard or successful enough. And honestly? There was a time I believed that. I was always so clouded by doing enough and being successful that I let my life slip away. Thanks to cancer, in a strange way, I had to learn to actively steer myself away from that type of thinking.

I have also been so grateful to have my social media platform and community, which helped me cope and feel supported. I even created an Instagram TV segment, during which I forced myself to be completely raw and honest. I cried on camera and shared that I just didn't feel like me anymore. It's still my most-watched episode-the amazing outpour of positivity from my followers blew my mind.

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A post shared by Erica ⬇️ 150 Lbs SW: 322 Lbs (@ericafitlove) on Oct 29, 2018 at 6:08pm PDT

I'm back in the gym. But I no longer think of my life as one long fitness and weight-loss journey.

A few weeks after I was released post-surgery in January, I revisited my health and fitness routine. The gym and my workouts were my safe space, my comfort zone. I craved being there. But when I returned, it felt different. It was no longer about how awesome can I look? It was about let me show you that cancer doesn't define you and doesn't have to stop you.

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A post shared by Erica ⬇️ 150 Lbs SW: 322 Lbs (@ericafitlove) on Mar 25, 2019 at 2:07pm PDT

I am no longer so hard on myself. But at the same time, I've accepted that it's still okay to want to achieve new health and fitness goals even through tough times. Do I want to stay in shape and possibly even lose more weight at some point? Yes. Do I want to show people that life after thyroid cancer is tough, but we are tougher? Absolutely.

I'm also making a conscious effort to look forward at all of the amazing things in my life: I have been able to focus on growing my business more since ending my radiation treatment. I actually got diagnosed with cancer the week after I signed the lease on a brand-new retail space and put down a giant check to remodel it. And my new studio is thriving, with over 45 contracted members and 30 personal one-on-one training clients.

I have also launched an online membership that includes full-length workout videos from me each month, lifestyle calendars, and "mindset homework." At my studio, we also now host a meeting once a month for all clients where we discuss a mental health topic. I have always been a huge advocate that getting healthier starts in your mind and heart. And despite having cancer, I live by that the same message.

I like to say I am a "piece" warrior, because all of the pieces of life that challenge me just make me stronger. So, I try not to look at my health journey as a drag or a chore or a must-do anymore. I view my fitness and health as an opportunity-to enrich my life, to make me the warrior I am meant to be. The emotional road is not perfectly linear, but I'm on my way.

Gallery: These subtle symptoms are red flags you could have a serious thyroid problem (Prevention)

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