beating breast cancer

Kelly’s #UNSTOPPABLE Journey

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every week in October we will be sharing the stories of our members and staff who have beaten breast cancer. If you or anyone you know has beaten or currently has breast cancer and is a member at Xperience Fitness, email [email protected] for a chance to share your story and inspire and educate others.

Three years ago this October, Kelly Savelkoul, a fitness instructor at Xperience Fitness Waukesha, got a call that would change her life. Although Savelkoul prepared herself for days for this phone call, receiving the news that you have cancer is one you cannot mentally prepare for. 

“I had prepared myself for days, since the first bad mammogram, through the biopsies, to be ready to accept the worst case,” Savelkoul recalled. “But I was not prepared, not one bit. How could I truly be ready to face something like this, on a moment’s notice?”

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However, as the days progressed after the diagnosis, Savelkoul and her doctors formed a plan and her life began to return to normal. Savelkoul’s normal was teaching and taking classes at Xperience, activities she had been doing for years prior. 

“As a matter of fact, my Thursday morning aqua class was the first group I told, face to face,” Savelkoul expressed. “ And those people became my biggest cheerleaders!”

This fast-moving plan, diagnosis to treatment in just 30 days, had its downfalls. Savelkoul had already signed up to attend a fitness convention and she was not about to let her cancer diagnosis get in the way. So, Savelkoul scheduled her surgery for after the fitness convention and came back home energized and ready to tackle her operation. 

“Surgery was a breeze, and I was more than a little annoyed that I had to put teaching on hold for 10 days,” Savelkoul reminisced. “I mean, nothing hurt, nothing felt wrong!”

Although she wanted to get back to teaching immediately, Savelkoul listened to her doctors and refrained from teaching any classes for 10 days. Just one month later, Savelkoul underwent a second surgery to remove any additional cancer cells. Unlike after the first surgery, Savelkoul could not resist going back to the gym and was teaching her cycling class the day after her surgery. 

While cancer did not affect Savelkoul’s fitness, her activity level affected her cancer. Savelkoul did not require chemo – “something I inexplicably feel guilty about still” – but did undergo radiation treatment. 

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“[The radiation] treatment is supposed to kick your butt, burn your skin, and suck away all your energy,” Savelkoul explained. “I did not miss one workout or miss teaching one class in four weeks of treatment, or in any of the weeks following!”

Following radiation, Savelkoul began the hormone therapy drug Tamoxifen. Tamoxifen’s selective estrogen is known to cause serious side effects including, but not limited to, blood clots, stroke, and endometrial cancer. But it also reduces the risk of breast cancer coming back by 40 to 50 percent. 

“[Tamoxifen] totally messes with your hormones, but prevents the nasties from coming back, so I said what the heck, side effects be damned, here I go!” Savelkoul expressed. “ And somehow, still no side effects. I don’t understand why I was spared most of the hell others experience.”

Savelkoul’s doctors explained that because she had lived such an active lifestyle prior to her diagnosis, her ability to tolerate treatments and recoveries was probably made easier. 

From the moment of her diagnosis until now, the one thing Savelkoul cannot quantify is the support from those in her fitness community. 

“My participants, colleagues, and fellow gym rats lifted me up daily!” Savelkoul exclaimed. “In words, prayers, smiles, and simply by just letting me keep being me!”

While her physical experience with cancer could have been much, much worse, Savelkoul still has to endure the mental challenges of being diagnosed. 

“I sometimes jokingly refer to my diagnosis as my ‘lame, fake cancer’, but it was, and is anything but, lame and fake,” Savelkoul revealed. “Just because my treatment went well, and my prognosis is good, does not mean I am not forever affected by this.”

On top of five dots tattoed on her body from radiation – the only tattoos she will ever get – Savelkoul also has two surgical scars and three fewer lymph nodes. But nothing compares to having to tell those you love that you have cancer and living with the knowledge that it could come back. 

“I had to tell my husband and my children that I had cancer,” Savelkoul shared. “I take a pill every day for an undetermined number of years to prevent another diagnosis. I often wonder if this ache or that pain is something more serious. And I never hide my experience, because I never know who out there might need some support and have nowhere to turn.”

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