The Gym Saved My Life

by Samantha MartinSurvivor, NeuroblastomaApril 6, 2020View more posts from Samantha Martin

This is how the gym saved my life after cancer treatments.

A year before my cancer diagnosis I found my one true love—the gym. I went through a bout of depression and I was not sure where my life was headed or what I truly wanted to do with my life. I had dropped out of university because I knew that type of schooling was not for me. I felt like a failure while all my friends pursued their degrees. Overall, I was just stuck in a rut. I didn’t know what to do with my life. Looking back, I was just an eighteen year old girl who was searching for herself.

At that time, I joined my local gym and instantly fell in love. My days weren’t complete until I finished my workout. I fell in love with weightlifting and for an hour or two a day, the mountain of depression that was on my shoulders was lifted. I became strong, both physically and mentally.

Ironically enough, it was because I had gotten into such good shape and had lost a substantial amount of weight that my doctors found out I had a cancer called neuroblastoma. I was having all the classic symptoms of gallstones and gallbladder attacks—excruciating pain whenever I would eat fast-food or anything greasy or fried. This is a common side-effect with weight loss. The pain would start in my ribs and shoot all the way up my back and into my shoulders. My family doctor ordered an ultrasound for me, and sure enough, there were gallstones, but there were also tumors in my abdomen. Thanks to my weight loss triggering my gallbladder, my cancer was found.

It’s cliche to say the gym saved my life, both from my depression and cancer, but it truly did. The gym has become my safe haven—the place where I can escape all of life’s uncertainties, even if only for a brief period of time.

I had to go through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. After treatments, it took years of getting back on my feet. I became so weak throughout my treatments that I could not even stand or walk to the bathroom without assistance. I could barely lift my head in the morning, let alone lift weights in the gym. I was heartbroken that all my hard work to build up my strength and to build a strong body had been taken away because of my cancer. I was weak and frail…

Once I was given the green light to start weight training again, I had one mission in mind: to get stronger than I had been before my cancer treatments. I started from the ground up of teaching myself how to balance and walk again without much assistance. At first, I could barely lift a 5-pound dumbbell without getting winded. Week after week and month after month, I trained. I spent countless hours back in the one place where I felt safe. The gym was my home. 9 years has passed since I first stepped foot in my small hometown gym and I am more proud of myself now than I was before my cancer journey. I can squat and dead lift over my own body weight. I can run so many kilometers without stopping for a break. I hike every summer. I ride my bicycle again. I may still feel broken most days because of everything cancer has taken from me, but when I step foot in that weight room, I feel more alive than ever. I am strong and cancer will never take that away from me.

Sammi Martin working out

Samantha after treatments working out

I often get asked from other survivors how I got back into fitness despite the challenges that we often face after treatment. Here are some tips:

  • Start slowly!

    • It’s important to remember that your body has been through a lot and in most cases, you will not have the same stamina and physical ability you had pre-cancer treatments. It may take a while to build up your strength again, but you will get there.

  • Don’t beat yourself up!

    • You are brave for even wanting to become more physically active! Make small goals and achieve them one at a time. Be gentle with yourself.

  • Find an exercise regimen that you enjoy and works within your limitations!

    • Perhaps treatments have created some obstacles for you where you cannot perform certain activities—try finding other forms of physical activity that work within your limits. Or perhaps, maybe, you do not like the same type of exercise or workouts you did pre-cancer—try something new that you will likely be able to stick to and enjoy.

  • Put your health first!

    • If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Exercising is a priority.

  • Weightlifting is beneficial for so many reasons!

    • As a woman who has undergone chemotherapy and radiation, I was put into premature menopause which is the case for many women. Weight-bearing exercises can have many benefits such as strengthening your bones which helps during menopause where bones can become brittle.

  • Be mindful of what you consume!

    • It is important to be aware of what foods you are putting into your body. Exercise is only a part of living a healthy lifestyle—the rest happens in the kitchen. Try to heal your body from the inside-out with nutritious foods.


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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