Stronger Together

After she had breast cancer surgery, Lisa Feldman hired a personal trainer. She had no idea the woman who would be helping her was on a mission of her own.



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EARLY ON, Carter told Feldman how she feels about workout clothes. “My whole idea is: You look the part,” says Carter, who wore leotards and leg warmers in the 80s while working out to videos in her basement. “You want to dress up because it makes you feel better.” She and Feldman like a similar look: practical, but chic.

When they started, Carter encouraged Feldman to buy a couple more cute outfits at Lululemon. She believes in retail therapy. “Make sure you get some pink,” she said. When Feldman told her she wore lymphedema sleeves when she traveled to prevent her body from swelling, Carter suggested she get the fun neon style.

“It’s a comfort to have somebody in your regular world—not your cancer world—that can help you,” Feldman says. “That made me feel like: OK, I’m getting back into my life.”

When Feldman started training with Carter, five months had passed since her diagnosis. Her 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, was terrified—cancer, to her, meant death, no matter what her parents said. Sometimes Feldman found herself crying in the shower. “You’re diagnosed and you’re shocked, then you start getting super mad about it, then you go through: Why?” she says. “I knew I was going to survive—I just needed to take the right steps to go through it as healthy as possible.”

Doctors had told Feldman that she had stage II invasive ductal carcinoma, a cancer that forms in the milk ducts of the breast but grows through the duct walls and into the surrounding tissue. The cancer, on her right side, was contained to the breast and had not spread elsewhere.

She decided to remove both breasts: Too many people she knew had decided not to have a double mastectomy and the cancer came back. She later found out that she would not need chemotherapy; doctors put her on tamoxifen, a drug that can be used to treat cancer after surgery and prevent recurrences.

Feldman had tested negative for the genetic mutations known to increase breast cancer risk, but that didn’t mean the cancer wasn’t hereditary. She wondered if it was environmental, maybe bad water or the aluminum in her deodorant. She thought about the stressful year she’d had. Before her diagnosis, she’d been going back and forth to New Jersey to move her elderly parents out of her childhood home. Her older brother was dying of bladder cancer—he’d had symptoms and waited too long to see a doctor—so she decided not to tell her parents about her illness. “They were devastated over my brother—if I’d told them, I think it would’ve killed them,” she says. She talks to her mom, who still doesn’t know, nearly every day. “She will always remind me: Did you get your mammography?”

When Feldman’s husband brought her home from MedStar Georgetown University Hospital after her mastectomy in September 2013, she had trouble walking up the stairs to her room.

She had surgical drains near the incisions to remove excess fluid. He offered to carry her, but she wouldn’t let him. “She wanted to control it and not let it control her,” he says.    

A friend had told Feldman not to heal in bed, that it isn’t good for the psyche, so before her surgery she set up what she calls a “Zen room” in her house. She put a small couch in her sitting room, which looks out over her backyard, and added soft blankets, lavender oil, books and magazines, and candles. A sign on the wall read: This too shall pass.

Despite the pain she was in, she flew to Los Angeles for parents’ weekend at USC at the end of October. “Some of my friends thought I was crazy to go,” she says. “I felt like it was good for Brittany to see me.”

Soon after that, Feldman started working with a physical therapist and a massage therapist, both of whom specialized in breast cancer patients.

One of her physical therapist’s clients had talked about Carter. “There’s this great woman over at Equinox,” she’d said.

FELDMAN WAS ANXIOUS TO start going to the gym again—it still hurt when she hugged someone, or tried to put dishes away in high cabinets—and she felt better knowing that Carter was certified to work with people who have cancer, that she knew what she was doing.

Feldman’s surgical oncologist, Dr. Eleni Tousimis, director of the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center and chief of breast surgery at Georgetown Hospital, had told her she could start working out three to four weeks after surgery if she felt up to it. She started off by walking one time around her cul-de-sac, but her heart rate would go up when she got to the steep hill. Slowly, it got easier. “Exercise is a really important part of rehabilitation after breast cancer surgery,” Tousimis says. “Some women develop more scar tissue than others, and by doing physical therapy and exercise you can actually help reduce the amount of scar formation and improve your functional abilities and the range of motion of your upper extremity.”

At times, Feldman’s chest felt like a rubber band that needed to be stretched. Carter had learned about the breast reconstruction process, including implants and tissue expansion, during her training to become a cancer exercise specialist. “I’m gonna push you, but you gotta tell me if things don’t feel right,” she told Feldman.

Carter’s supervisor, Greg French, had invited Andrea Leonard, the founder of the Oregon-based Cancer Exercise Training Institute (CETI), to host a weekend workshop at the Bethesda Equinox in the fall of 2013. Leonard, a Rockville native and 30-year cancer survivor, has trained more than 4,000 people over the past 10 years, including staff at Washington Sports Clubs, Fitness First and the YMCA. French, Equinox’s personal training manager, watched his best friend battle leukemia when they were kids and remembered feeling helpless. After earning the CETI certification online, he told colleagues about the opportunity and invited them to the workshop. Carter signed up right away.

She spent two days in the Equinox yoga studio learning about different types of cancer and their surgeries and treatments. Leonard went through stretching techniques and case studies, and talked about muscle imbalances and fatigue. Carter, who began working at Equinox three years ago and also sees clients in their homes, had already trained a woman who was going through chemo—a 39-year-old who came into the gym with a buzz cut—so she’d seen the way treatment could strip the body of energy. “Some sessions are just me listening, encouraging, supporting,” says Carter, who lives in Laurel. “Exercising here and there, but focusing on the person and what they need at that point. Being in the moment.”

When Leonard talked about the challenges of getting close to a client who might not survive, Carter couldn’t help but think about her mother. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, don’t do this,’ ” she says. “I started bawling.” She once had a client who was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer after they’d trained together for a few months. The client, an older woman, told Carter about it in an email, not realizing how much it would affect her. Carter was too upset to respond right away.

I promise to be positive and keep my tears quiet as well. But, I must let you know that the fight against breast cancer is super, uber near to me. I have an aunt (my favorite) who is now going on being a 14-year survivor as well as former and current clients who have beat the hell out of it, Carter wrote in an email a few days later. So I am 100% positive that we will get through this victoriously with buns of steel!!”

DURING A RECENT training session, Carter told Feldman she’d been married once, briefly, a long time ago. “I was twenty-dumb-one,” she said. “I thought I was grown. I was in love. ”

“Was your mother around for that?” Feldman asked.

Carter said no, that her mother was gone by then. “She wouldn’t have let you do it,” Feldman said.

“I wouldn’t even have tried.”

Feldman talks to Carter the way she talks to a friend. It’s strange, she says, how you can have these meaningful relationships in life with people that don’t connect with the rest of your world. She tells her family about Carter all the time, though they’ve never met her. Feldman recently posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook, which Carter then shared with her friends.

My Warrior Princess Rockstar Client!! Carter wrote. #kickingcancersazz

From the beginning, Feldman says, something clicked. She admired Carter’s passion and saw the way she wanted to make her mother proud. “She didn’t handle me with kid gloves,” Feldman says. “She was like, ‘OK, let’s get to this.’ And I needed that—I liked that.”

Carter encouraged Feldman to start walking on her own to get ready for the Avon walk—1 to 2 miles the first day, 3 to 4 miles a few days later. At the gym, they focused on the range of motion in Feldman’s shoulder, where a buildup of scar tissue around the joint was making it harder for her to move her arm. One day, while Feldman was working out, Carter called her a survivor.

“Not yet,” Feldman said.

Every week, they did planking and bridging exercises to strengthen Feldman’s core. “If the core is strong, the rest of your body can be strong on top of that,” Carter says. “It’s the foundation.” Carter showed Feldman how to use a lacrosse ball, while standing with her back against a wall, to massage tight spots along her shoulder blade. Now Feldman keeps one in her car. For months after surgery, it hurt when she turned the steering wheel.

Between sets, they talked about their families, vacations they’d gone on, their jobs. Feldman vented about her frustrations with the breast implants. She asked Carter if she’d been tested for the BRCA gene mutations, which increase a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. “You should have it done,” Feldman said. Carter hadn’t thought about genetic testing—her doctor never mentioned the idea—but she started looking into it. She’s planning to have the test done soon. “I listen to the people close to me,” she says.

Carter is one of three certified cancer exercise specialists at Equinox in Bethesda. So far, she has trained three women who have breast cancer, and wants to work with more: “I see a piece of my mother in them.”

IN OCTOBER, Feldman asked her oncologist what defines a survivor. She’d passed the one-year mark and finally was starting to feel like she could take a deep breath and say, OK, I got this. But she had always heard that five years was the big milestone, when you could really say you’d beaten cancer.

“The day you’re diagnosed, you’re a survivor,” her oncologist told her. “You’re fighting it.” Feldman had asked other doctors the same question and heard the same answer. But she’s not sure she’s ready to own the title of survivor yet, she says. As times goes on, she’ll get more comfortable with it.

Not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about the cancer coming back. Doctors have told her that the chances of breast cancer recurring after a bilateral mastectomy are very low, but it happened to a friend of hers. Over time, Feldman’s gotten better about staying hopeful. She used to wonder when she’ll get cancer again; now it’s if.

“You can choose to bury yourself under a rock or you can choose to empower yourself and say, ‘I’m gonna beat this beast,’ ” she says.

She wants to train with Carter three times a week—if she didn’t have to work, she’d be a gym rat, she says—but it’s hard to keep up with the weekly appointments they have now. Her work schedule is erratic. Her girls play soccer and basketball; one is filling out college applications. They rarely get to sit down for family dinners. “Tomica still jokes that I should be doing more—and I should,” Feldman says. Carter encouraged her to get a foam roller, which helps loosen muscles and relieve tension, so she could work out with it at home. For months, she would ask: “Did you get it? Did you get it?”

Feldman is planning to do the Avon walk again this spring. Last year, a friend recruited more walkers, formed a team and named it “Lovin’ Life with Lisa.” The walk was cathartic,

Feldman says, and the closing ceremony was particularly moving: “It was all these survivors and people that were in treatment, in all kind of phases, and there I was right in the middle.”

She walked 26 miles, a marathon, on a Saturday, stayed in an outdoor “wellness village” overnight, then woke up early and did another 13 miles on Sunday. “I felt like I was totally prepared,” Feldman says. Carter, who’s not the camping type, had warned Feldman not to sleep in a tent. “The tent was the toughest part of it. I was tired. It was cold,” Feldman says.

“Tomica and I laughed about it.”  

“Next year I’m doing it with you,” Carter told her, “but we’re staying in a hotel.”

Senior editor Cindy Rich can be reached at Cindy.Rich@bethesdamagazine.com.

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