Updated: Jun 29, 2020
| This is the 313th story of Our Life Logs |
I grew up seconds away from the ocean in a little sleepy town called Seal Beach in California in the 1990s. Despite my parents’ divorce when I was six, I lived a peaceful life. That was, until my life took a nightmarish turn after I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of seven.
I was shattered by the news. The weight of my diagnosis made me feel like I had to say goodbye to my childhood. Soon after, my doctors found a brain infection in the right side of my skull. It took two operations to cure it. I was homeschooled while I underwent treatments so I wouldn’t fall behind in my studies. The isolation from my friends and the pain my small body was enduring made me wish the cancer would just kill me instead of stringing me along. My hair started to fall out until I was a version of myself I didn’t recognize. I felt disgusted with my look and my situation. As I lost more weight and the color drained from my face, it felt like my innocence was being slowly stripped from me.
After six months of treatments, I was cleared to return to my elementary school. The transition wasn’t easy. I was known as “the sick girl.” Boys thought I was contagious and girls were vicious with the way they ogled me and whispered rude things loud enough for me to hear. In a way, I understood why I was being treated differently. I was as pale as a ghost and weighed no more than 50 pounds. I also donned a red bandana (more like a beacon to make me stand out) every day to hide the thirteen stitches around my head that replaced my hair. I knew I didn’t look well, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I hated being different.
Even a year after I was cured and began to look healthier, I still hated my diagnosis. I avoided talking about it and shuddered at the memory of my cancer. I dissociated myself so much from the memory that by the time I was a teenager, I made myself believe I never actually had cancer. I would get angry at anyone who dared to speak about it. I think I was ashamed of it because it robbed me of my sweet childhood and of my academic prowess. Before the diagnosis, I was always a great student. While I remained in AP courses in high school, I began to realize that academics didn’t come as easily to me after my cancer. It affected how fast I completed my schoolwork. I needed extra time to read my textbooks and instead of being the first one to finish a task, I was usually the last one to leave the classroom. I didn’t have a learning disability, but it definitely took its toll on how I learned.
I knew I had slowed down considerably and it was something I could not grapple with. I was resentful of who I had become and to cope, I rebelled. I started staying out late drinking and partying, I started skipping class, and I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. Worried about my body type, I began skipping meals at school to try to lose weight. I look back on my teen years with disappointment more than anything. It hurts to look back and see how lost I was back then. I had no way to cope with what I was feeling, except to change my hair color or get a new piercing. It was quite literally the lowest I’ve ever felt. But you must know that I didn’t feel like I had a purpose or anyone to turn to.
Then, when I turned 16, I found the purpose I’d been searching for.
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I hadn’t even really cared about exercising or taking care of myself. I was a shell, not living to experience but simply to just exist. But I knew I couldn’t continue my steady “diet” of alcohol and starvation, so I decided to make the conscious choice to join a gym.
I still remember the first time I went. It was packed with people and the machines hummed all around me. I started with leg lifts and squats. The adrenaline from keeping my body moving made me feel alive again, like before the cancer diagnosis. I decided to try lifting weights, and I was mesmerized by how much better I felt. It was like I was lifting more than just a weight in the gym. I was lifting away the negative feelings I kept inside off my shoulders. I could feel the pieces of the shell I had grown accustomed to crack minute by minute.
I decided to leave my old self behind on that first day. From then on, I vowed to be better. I had to work a little harder every day to build myself back up to the standard I set for myself, but fitness and healthy eating gave me the purpose I never thought I could find. I had found my passion.
In the next year, I built up my endurance and stamina. My workouts became longer and sprinkled with more intensity. When you decide that something is your passion, you start to set goals. My main goal? To stay on task with my fitness journey and keep myself accountable by posting informative nutrition and exercise videos in hopes that my (albeit small) social media following would follow along and ask me questions or start their own fit lifestyle regime.
The next goal I set was to be in a bodybuilding competition. Although I had only been in the fitness world for a short time, I was making unparalleled progress and I knew that I would lose nothing by simply trying it. I figured that if I could make it through my cancer diagnosis and my subsequent rebellious years, I could conquer anything.
Every single day, twice a day, for three hours a day, I was in the gym, pushing myself. While I took two classes a semester at my local community college, I ended up getting a job as a fitness instructor for intense cardio classes at 24-Hour Fitness. Teaching others to be the best version of themselves forced me to look in the mirror and realize that I had to formally say goodbye to the “sick girl” and say hello to the warrior I had become. I had to say goodbye to the old fragility and say hello to my newfound strength. I had to come face to face with the old me and tell her that it was time for a change.
After intense cardio rotations, clean eating (including no sugar whatsoever) and repeating “don’t give up” to myself many, many times, I entered and competed in my first bodybuilding competition in August 2016, where I won second place overall. I had shed every last remnant of weakness that I was holding onto. I was focused and determined, and I felt like nothing could bring me down.
Unfortunately, a week after my triumphant win in the competition, I had new issues. I began to experience intense migraines, dizzy spells, passing out, cold sweats, and feeling disoriented and extremely lethargic. I was in and out of hospitals and rushed to emergency rooms. All the work I put into my body and its health was diminished with each passing day. I had come so far, and for what? I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me.
After almost four months of questions and very little answers, doctors discovered I had complex epilepsy. Complex epilepsy is a neurological condition that affects one lobe of the brain rather than the whole brain, and unlike simple epilepsy, I’d lose all awareness during my seizures. I was back to being weak and exhausted, the old me I tried to leave behind.
Like with leukemia, I had to put school aside and focus on rebuilding my life again. Yet this time, I didn’t plan on wallowing in the hardships of my condition. As soon as I knew what was going on with me, l decided that after my recovery, I would go straight back to fitness. This time, I was going to build an empire from my ideas.
I began to see that while fitness was an emotional outlet for my pain and resentment, it was also a gateway to success and a new way of life. In addition to focusing on fitness, I would use the introductory periods of my fitness classes to speak about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, and what that has done for me as a cancer survivor and epilepsy warrior. I’m no longer afraid to talk about my experiences. I realize now that I must embrace them. In doing so, I’m encouraging my students to push themselves beyond their comfort and trust life’s process.
That’s what I have done: trust the process. I have been through every high and low, every peak and valley. I’ve felt resentment and anger, fear and disgust, both with myself as well as with others. However, I have learned that life begins when you stop existing and start living, and when life pushes you down, you look it in the face as you get back up.
This is the story of Nicole Evans
Nicole is a 24-year-old body builder, speaker, fitness instructor and fitness competitor based in Orange County, California. At the age of seven, Nicole was diagnosed with leukemia and had to endure months of treatments. This traumatic experience made her hate talking of her cancer even after she was cured, and the repression led her further down a destructive path as a teenager in search of purpose. It wasn’t until she found fitness that she found her purpose and found the courage to talk about her past. Even when she got diagnosed with an epileptic disorder later in life, she took it in stride and embraced it. Today, Nicole speaks her mind often and wants to continue to help people reach their personal goals, whether that’s in fitness or life in general.
This story first touched our hearts on August 31, 2018.
| Writer: Miranda Casanova | Editor: Kristen Petronio |