Guest Post: From Cancer Diagnosis to Powerlifting Records

Sometimes, health gets pushed to the back burner. We take our bodies for granted, not noticing on a daily basis that they function the way that they “should” – we lament our belly fat or problem areas, without taking time to appreciate our body’s magnificent capabilities.

But Eileen Brzoska, a friend and training colleague of mine based in Austin, Texas, got a wake-up call in 2011 that has completely rearranged her perspective on health – and has inspired her to transform her body and her mindset in the process.

powerlifting records

Eileen Brzoska

I met Eileen over breakfast at a Residence Inn in Dallas, TX, and then we happened to sit next to each other on the shuttle to the fitness conference we were both attending. I knew right away that Eileen was an incredible person – and as I learned her story, I realized why.

Eileen agreed to guest post this very personal and moving essay for the blog, and I so admire her articulate and soulful approach to talking about her journey. She’s a mom, a strength coach, a cancer survivor, a record-holding powerlifter, and most of all she’s an inspiration. I hope you’ll read every word of this post, literally take notes, and walk away with action steps that you can take to up-level your appreciation of your body – whether that’s stepping up your strength training, dialing in better self-care, or simply taking a daily moment of gratitude to appreciate your body’s miraculous potential.

Guest Post: From Cancer Diagnosis to Powerlifting Records

Eileen Brzoska

Author: Eileen Brzoska

“I placed myself last, as I thought it was supposed to be”

Prior to 2011, my life felt like I was operating off of an average, typical checklist of things I was expected to accomplish within a certain timeframe. High school, college, first job, changing jobs, moving, dating, marriage and children.

Once I was married at 26 and with three boys by 35, I was so busy taking care of others and supporting my husband while he traveled for work that awareness of myself and how my body felt was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just in it. At the culmination of the checklist – married with kids and doing all the things – I placed myself last, as I thought it was supposed to be. 

On occasion, I would go for a walk or attempt a run when I was feeling poorly about my physical appearance. Health, what my body looked like, how I felt inside my body and how I performed were not things in my awareness (even though both my parents were in the medical field).  After all, I was a smaller person, I was not terribly uncomfortable with my weight, and I was not aware of how impactful what I chose to eat and how I chose to move my body could be. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know, and honestly (and thankfully) was healthy enough not to really need to know. At 5’1” and an average of 125 pounds, I was a bit overweight, but not uncomfortable enough and with not enough knowledge or awareness to make a change. After all, I identified as an academic – and sports people were just those who couldn’t cut it in the classroom, right? 

“You May Want to Get That Looked At…”

A normal visit to my optician would start a journey that continues 13 years later.  At the end of my eye exam, the doctor commented on a small cyst which looked like a stye on my left lower eyelid. He mentioned that I may want to get that looked at. It was small and unlikely to be of concern but, was something he wanted further information on, so he made a referral to a local ophthalmologist in Austin.

After a biopsy, I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma with “added features.”  These “added features” concerned this doctor who referred me out again – and this continued through four local Austin doctors until finally I self-referred to MD Anderson (MDA) for a diagnosis. On November 1, 2011, I was finally diagnosed at MDA in Houston with adenoid cystic carcinoma.

My ophthalmologist at MDA had even more terrifying news – this was unlikely to be the main tumor. I needed to return for full-body scans to locate where this tumor was lurking inside of my body in order to determine treatment. This is a very rare cancer literally described in the literature as “indolent but relentless.” It would be incredibly rare to not find another tumor. On November 11, 2011, I was cleared of further metastasis and was crowned as only the 9th person in the world diagnosed with ACC as a primary tumor on my eyelid – “Primary Cutaneous Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma” (PCACC). Couldn’t I just win the lottery? Actually, maybe I did.

From “I Have To” to “I Get To”

ACC is a cancer without many treatment options. It is a reality check when your oncologists look at you and tell you they can’t tell you how much time you have left, they aren’t sure what treatment looks like, and they have no data to help you decide what to do because the disease is so rare and can be so aggressive that many do not survive. This was when the reality set in that medical practice is just that – “practice” – and sometimes you are the guinea pig. The 5-year survival rate is about 75%, and while that sounds fantastic, the 10-year survival rate is only 20%.

How does this happen to a healthy 35-year-old with three young children who has no other diagnoses to speak of? After Googling and crying and Googling and crying for about a week, I knew there was no genetic risk to my children, but the prognosis for myself was grim. 

That night, 11/11/11, when I put my 6-month-old to bed, I worried that I wouldn’t be there to see his first birthday. When he woke at 2:30 AM to be held and fed, I sat in his nursery and was thankful that I got to feed him – that I got to be awake with him, that I got to be there.  It was no longer “I have to” – it was “I get to.”  At that sleepless moment, I knew I had to advocate for myself and take control of my health and my journey. 

I was handed this diagnosis and my reaction to it was going to determine whether this journey was miserable, or an opportunity for growth. Inside, all I wanted was to survive for my boys.

I Wanted to be the Strongest Version of Myself…

When you are handed a diagnosis with no clear path toward healing or a cure, you can sit back and allow things to unfold as they will, or you can contribute and advocate for your journey. There were many things I did on the medical side of this journey which could be an entirely different post – from researching my diagnosis to collaborating with my doctors to advocating for the treatment I wanted (and what I did not want). I got second and third opinions from other major cancer centers, and even considered traveling to Korea for treatment (as this cancer is more common there).

My treatment consisted of one excision surgery where two-thirds of my lower left eyelid was removed and a portion of the inside of the upper eyelid used to construct a new lower lid. My eye was sewn shut for about a month to allow the cells to revascularize. I didn’t even know this was possible, but how amazing! A second surgery gave me a mini eye lift so my eyelid functioned correctly. Then I received both a heavy dose of proton and x-ray radiation therapy. Once through the first two years, I was handed orders for a 15 year watch. Fifteen years! That’s how serious the rate of recurrence is.

While all this was important, the most impactful action I took was deciding I wanted to be alive and present for my family and myself as the healthiest, most fortified version of myself I could create. I wanted to be the strongest version of myself for this journey and whatever cancer – or life – would lead me to next.  I knew I had to get my health in order and the only way I knew to do that was a change in nutrition and exercise. 

Going All In…

I tend to go all in when I start pursuing a goal. I started running even though I was terrible at it. I would run one minute and walk for two until I completed a mile, and I did this three times per week.  I started strength training with a short program written by a friend and did this six times per week.  These weren’t long sessions, and I would spend perhaps 90 minutes a day focusing on movement. Texas is hot, so I would run in the early morning and lift in the evenings.  While doing this, I chose a high-protein diet with a focus on whole foods.  If it came in a box or a bag or had a barcode, it was out. Fast forward a year, and I had lost 30 pounds, was able to run a 5K straight through, and had become comfortable in the weight room where I never felt I belonged. 

Growing up, the weight room and this thing called strength training was reserved for boys and men – in my hometown, the weight room was only for the high school football players. I was never really exposed to fitness as something for myself other than seeing Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda on TV advertisements. Was I becoming one of those meatheads? 

My rule for myself was that whatever was on my training plan needed to get completed that day, but it didn’t matter how or when – so I fit it in wherever I could, because – make no mistake about it – with three boys under five years old, these workouts were usually interrupted. In the laundry room waiting for the dryer? I’ll finish a set up of push-ups. 10 minutes waiting in a room for a CT scan? Perfect, I’ll do some squats. I have literally done push-ups on the bed of an MRI with an IV in my arm, I have done handstands in my laundry room, and I have even attempted embarrassing pull-ups at the playground and have been immediately humbled.  I have failed more times than I succeeded. I JUST. KEPT. GOING… no matter how silly I looked or crazy I felt. I did not care. I just wanted health and survival for myself and my family.  This wasn’t driven by aesthetics or weight loss – it was survival, in the most basic, human way I knew how.

I Needed a Change to Reignite that Spark…

However, after a year, I was tired. I was training six days a week, and my treatment and diagnosis became more accepted and familiar.  I had reached a weight and body composition I felt comfortable with and I was suddenly realizing that I needed to do this FOREVER – as in, I needed to keep doing this to stay healthy. After all, this had to be sustained long term, because that 10-year survival rate was only 20% and decreased from there. I was suddenly faced with having reached what I thought was a goal and realizing there was no end. I needed something to train for that was larger than myself that provided a side benefit of health and wellness. I needed another goal and a change to reignite that spark.

Enter powerlifting.

I took on this endeavor because a good friend suggested it, and I wanted more focus in my training. And to be completely transparent, I was tired of running and needed something new. So I jumped in and gave it a shot. 

In August 2019, I started a more focused strength training program. I lifted five days per week for under an hour each day and followed a typical powerlifting program that undulated from reps of 8 one week to reps of 1 four weeks later.  I pulled back on my running and conditioning to devote more energy to heavy lifting, partly because I did not enjoy it as much as lifting.

In November of 2019, I entered my first rookie powerlifting competition in San Antonio, Texas. I went simply for the experience and had no expectations and knew nothing of what I was getting into other than what I had read in the USAPL (USA Powerlifting) Rulebook.  Everyone there was lifting in competition for their very first time so there were zero expectations of any athlete knowing anything.  This was comforting, but by that time, I didn’t care. I had pushed myself so far beyond my knowledge and comforts that my confidence in myself had grown to a place of just asking anyone anything if I didn’t know. 

The competition was an all-day event with both male and female lifters of all ages from 8 -88+.  The event was amazing.  All the lifters had family and friends in the audience and many had a coach already, but I was running my own show.  I have never experienced the level of support and camaraderie as I did in this sport. Everyone wants to see you succeed, even your competitors.  I took first place for my age (43 at the time) and weight class (103 pounds) that first competition, but I also took last as I was the only master’s lifter (40 years old and above) in the 47 kg (103.5 pound weight class). 

I thought this was the peak of my powerlifting endeavor.  I was healthy, comfortable with my weight and muscle mass, felt good in my skin, confident in my mobility and my cancer scans continued to return clear.  I was dancing with NED (“no evidence of disease”).  

But about 3 weeks later, my husband called me on my way home from work and told me I had set all the Texas and Regional records for USAPL at that event. I did not believe him.  This wasn’t a goal going into this experience. In fact, I had no idea what the records were.  I just went and performed as best as I could.  When I confirmed I did indeed set the records, I was hooked! Now there were metrics I could train for and established baselines to compete against, all within a community of support and encouragement – with the added benefit of keeping my nutrition and fitness on track and cancer (hopefully) out of my body.  If ACC was going to be relentless, so was I in the pursuit of health and thriving WITH cancer. Game on, cancer!

Setting the American Powerlifting Record for Bench Press

Since this first meet in November 2019, I have competed in several national level competitions, been to the Arnold as an elite bench press competitor 3 times, set an American record in bench press, been a member of the IPF world bench team, and received my pro athlete card with USAPL.

While I hold the American record for bench press, I am still working on securing the squat and deadlift American records for Masters 48 kg female lifters.  Currently, the American record for squat sits at 226 pounds and for deadlift at 297 pounds.  My bench record stands at 154.8 pounds as a 103 pound lifter. I have been working on these lifts for three years now, and have failed three times on the platform with both the squat and the deadlift. 

It can be incredibly frustrating as I only need a 5-pound increase on squat and a 20-pound increase on deadlift – overall not much.  However, being able to perform these lifts once in the gym is typically not enough to confidently step on the platform and ensure the lift will be a success.  More typically, if you can lift something for three reps, you can be pretty sure you will have it for one. They are slowly coming along and I have another attempt lined up in the fall of 2024.  

What My Training Looks Like Week to Week

Many people think I train endlessly to achieve these goals. But the reality is that my training is more focused, but is actually of similar duration to when I started on this journey.  I went from training six days per week down to four. Some weeks I need to do all my training back-to-back with no days of rest in between due to scheduling conflicts with work and balancing family activities.

Ideally, if I have the flexibility, I prefer to train Monday (all things bench), Tuesday (all things squat), Wednesday (rest and mobility), Thursday (all other things bench – its my special lift), and Friday (all things deadlift). Saturday and Sunday are recovery days with maybe some walking, light hiking, or a family activity. Most of my training lasts between 1.5-2 hours, but quite frequently this is not in a single block of time. Similar to when I began this journey, I still follow my rule – if it is listed to be completed, it gets completed that day regardless. 

If something major comes up, like a boy needing a trip to the ER (yes, real life experience here), grace and compassion are in order and that day’s training will get pushed to another day and may bleed into a weekend, but for the most part the goal is to get it completed that day even if it is piecemealed together and held there by bubblegum and duct tape. This has been working so far!  

How I Structure My Training Overall

Training intensity varies depending on my season and goals.  Recently, I pulled myself from competition to focus on building more power on a 12 week program. I had gotten myself into a cycle of competing every 3-4 months and wasn’t allowing enough time for my body to recover from each event. I was constantly in a peaking cycle and forever undulating between training and competition weight (my weight can fluctuate by up to 10 pounds from training to competition ready). 

I recognized I needed a change and in order to reset, I needed to remove myself from competition for a while. It can be addictive! 

My training phases vary between power and building (12 week blocks) and competition ready (also 12 week blocks).  In the power program, the reps start high with lower weights (70% of one rep maximum) and then the reps drop with weights increasing  (105% of 1RM).  Rep ranges are from 10 at lower weight to 5 at higher weights and every exercise ends in an AMRAP. Focus here is on maintaining good form under high weight (fail with good form) and speed in movements to build power. 

In the competition ready block of training, we focus on higher weights with less reps, overloading, and central nervous system training.  The CNS training looks like loading a lift heavier than you can actually do (for me loading, for example, 255 on a bench press) unracking the weight and just holding it for 15-20 seconds and then re racking the weight.  This trains the CNS to accept and be ready for a heavier load once it comes. 

Just Begin

Wherever you are on your journey, just begin.  By beginning, I don’t mean find a gym, get a membership, hire a coach, block off two hours of time per day, and create more stress in your life. For certain, if you feel you have arrived at this point on your journey – go get it! If you have not, then just begin. You know what to do, so make it approachable and meet yourself where your current capabilities reside. Get up from your chair and do 20 air squats. Can’t do 20? Do 10. Can’t even squat? Just stand and unlock your knees.

Exercise looks different for everyone depending on where you are on your journey. Find your entry point and take things from there. I guarantee you are stronger than you know and more capable than you may think. The key to growing muscle, losing fat and improving metabolic health is to progressively overload your training.  This is so simple – keep increasing your capacity for work. Week to week and month to month increase the weight you train with or increase the number of reps. Your strength training should be difficult enough that you may not finish the last rep or 2 on your last set.  Do not convince yourself you need large blocks of time to make this happen.

Remember the laundry room? I still sometimes finish my ab work there as I wait for the dryer (with three boys there is always laundry!). 

Consider a change in perspective as well. When I started to call myself an “athlete” and refer to my workout as “training,” a new image appeared in my head.  I have never been an athlete in any capacity at any time in my life.  However, claiming myself as an athlete who trains embedded an identity in my psyche.  An athlete doesn’t miss training. An athlete needs to fuel their body for performance. An athlete needs adequate rest and recovery for their next training session. I adopted this identity long before I entered any competition.

You are an athlete too. I encourage you to adopt that mindset. The actions you need to perform to achieve your goals will fall more easily into place. 

Find a reason larger than yourself and a societal image you want to claim. I encourage you to shift your focus to that “why”. Focus on getting stronger to maintain mobility and independence later in life and with this focus, all the muscle building, fat loss, nutrition needed, metabolic health and changes in body composition will come naturally.

Also recognize that motivation is not always present to do the things that we know we should do.  Many days I walk into training and say, “I don’t want to today.” My coach is not physically present with me (she is an online coach and I use her app for training). However, I know I need to work through what the program is on the app and submit videos so she can give feedback, and while that accountability helps, we all have days of just not feeling it.  I do as well and when they occur, I take a step back from myself and recognize that I know I will feel better after I complete the workout. I am in complete control of my effort, and at a minimum I will get some work in, and tomorrow will be a better day.

Motivation is great when it is present, but rely on that bigger “why” when it is absent.

This is a long game and I can tell you from being pushed down the lifetime continuum at far too early an age, that the prospect of our inevitable leaving this earth is a powerful motivator to embrace every opportunity to care for your body now so it can support you always.  

6 Tips for Success

Quite often, we over complicate and become stuck in the details when the reality is far more simple:

  • Strength train in a progressively overloading manner and eat enough protein to build muscle.
  • Fit in your training where it fits in your life and recognize that this can be in a piecemeal schedule.
  • Consistency in nutrition, training and mindset will result in long term strength and growth.
  • Motivation won’t always be present, so always consider the larger goal and the true reasons for your health journey.
  • Improved strength and body composition are a long game with required consistent actions.
  • Delayed gratification and grit are the name of the game and they are both worth every ounce of effort.

Looking back, that cancer diagnosis was like winning a lottery. It forced a change in my lifestyle, my nutrition, my sedentary nature, and most importantly my perspectives on health and on life overall.  It has resulted in a new career of strength and inspiration.  Whatever journey you are on, you have a choice to allow it to diminish, define or develop you. I recommend leaning in to development and turning your “mess into your message.”  

Be the inspiration for the next person wondering if they can.

Rachel here again!

Whew. Eileen, what a powerful story!

On a deep level, I hope you walk away with a quote from that last paragraph about life challenges – “you have a choice to allow it to diminish, define, or develop you.” I’ll be turning that one over in my head for awhile!

But on a day-to-day level (as a personal trainer and strength coach myself), I absolutely want to highlight Eileen’s practical recommendation to commit to a training routine, but not to commit to doing it perfectly or doing it all at once. Flexibility, creativity, and tenacity are key ingredients in improving fitness, and it is essential that we remove the pressure to do everything perfectly by the book. It’s okay if you need to move your workouts around, do half a workout and finish the other half later, or even not accomplish everything that you set out to achieve in a workout (you’ll live to fight another day). Don’t compare yourself to others or compare yourself to your younger self – just start with what you have, and get going!

As someone who does powerlifting as part of working out but doesn’t actually compete, I have been absolutely fascinated by her in-depth descriptions of her competition training. Maybe you felt the same, and would love to learn more about powerlifting in general. If you want to follow Eileen’s powerlifting competition journey, you can find her on Instagram. If you live in (or near) Austin and want to get in a workout with her in person, visit her at Kodiak Strength. She’s an amazing one to follow and I think (based on our last in-person conversation) that she also has some creative content bubbling, as well… keep an eye on her posts!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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