Colon cancer? At twenty-one? How one young woman let fitness, not cancer, define her life after treatment.
For Katrina Polivka, the summer after she graduated from college was a dream. She spent her time traveling in Europe with two of her best friends, trying new foods and visiting places she’d only read about in history books. The food didn’t always agree with her, but she shrugged it off, instead focusing on the sunshine, happiness, and picture-perfect moments she was creating with friends. The cherry on top was learning, during the trip, that she had been accepted into an international marketing master’s degree program in Austria. Everything that summer was absolutely blissful . . . until it wasn’t.
“I’d been experiencing stomach pains and digestive trouble, which I’d attributed to the exotic cuisine I’d tried in Europe,” Katrina recalls. “At first I didn’t want to go to the doctor or deal with it. But with the time sensitivity of knowing that I had only a month at home before studying abroad in Europe for two years, I decided I really needed to get this checked out.” Doctors said her symptoms were consistent with an array of gastrointestinal issues and tested her for everything from Crohn’s disease to appendicitis to parasites. But the diagnosis was something nobody saw coming: Stage 3 colon cancer.
September 2011: Treatment
Her doctor was dumbfounded. Not only had he never seen colon cancer in someone her age, he told her that colon cancer is most common in people in their 70s. “I couldn’t help but think of the irony,” says Katrina, wryly. “Those who know me know I tend to do things at a young age. I graduated high school at 16 and college at 20. And then, at 21, there I was being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.” Katrina deferred graduate school and instead geared up for two colon resection surgeries and six months of chemotherapy. “I dealt with my cancer and health issues by learning as much as I could,” she explains. “Despite cancer often being portrayed as an evil entity invading your body, I actually learned that cancer is a result of your body’s systems not doing and monitoring what they are supposed to. That was probably the hardest thing for me to grasp: The cancer was my body, and my body had failed me.”
2012 to March 2014: A New Normal
By the time Katrina was on the other side of chemo, she’d become a different person. Physically, she was no longer the strong, elite swimmer that she had been. Emotionally, she was simultaneously frustrated with her body for betraying her with cancer and grateful to it for withstanding the weeks upon weeks of poisonous treatments to which she’d subjected it. And though she’d been able to defer her enrollment to her graduate program in Austria, by the time Katrina was ready to attend, her priorities had shifted. “I didn’t want to go spend two years away from my family and friends who had just dropped everything to take care of me during my greatest time of need,” she says. Instead, Katrina took things slowly, regaining her bearings by taking on a variety of part-time jobs that allowed her the flexibility to attend her many follow-up oncology appointments. “I never went to support groups after treatment, probably because I knew there wasn’t a huge community of 20-something-year-old colon cancer survivors out there,” she says. “I just wanted to get back to normal. I didn’t want to be labeled with that scarlet C anymore.” Eventually, she enrolled in a graduate degree program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where she earned her master’s in public health with a focus on cancer research. But despite her health-centric studies, she struggled to maintain her own healthy lifestyle. “Like a typical grad student, I let late night snacks, excess caffeine, and minimal sleep become my norm,” she says. “And when I gained weight, I didn’t notice too much. After my cancer battle, truly, the last thing I was thinking about was six-pack abs or a bikini body. Those things were not even on my radar. After all my body had survived, I didn’t want to critique it.”
April 2015 to Today: From Participant to Coach
By April 2015, Katrina was ready to get back in shape. As a former competitive swimmer—both on the Georgetown High School varsity team, as well as on club teams—she remembered what it was like to perform at her peak. But the body she had now was very different from the body she remembered. “My abilities, strength, and stamina were completely different. I didn’t want to join a master’s swimming program because as much as I loved the water, everything had changed. The way I moved through the water, the way I felt. I didn’t want to compare myself to the glory days of my pre-cancer body. So I tried to find other fitness outlets that could create this new normal for me,” she says. After seeing friend and former GHS classmate Brittany Crosby post on Facebook about online health and fitness accountability groups she was running, Katrina signed up to be one of Brittany’s participants. The group offered support, motivation, and tools for a healthy lifestyle, while focusing on daily 30-minute home workouts, clean eating, and meal planning. It was just what Katrina had been searching for. After Katrina had participated in the groups for three months, Brittany asked her if she’d be interested in coaching her own groups. “I was hesitant at first because I was still in the middle of my own journey, and I still am—I’m not a finished product at all. But that’s kind of the best thing about these groups,” says Katrina. “You’re not being coached by a fitness or nutrition expert. You’re learning skills from a real person, just like you, who is simply a little bit further ahead on their health journey.” By August, Katrina was leading her own groups with family and friends from all areas of life who were looking for health and fitness support. By September, she’d lost more than 20 pounds, bringing her back down to her pre-cancer weight. “For me, it was such a cleanse to wipe away four years of weight and baggage. Ironically, I’m probably even more fit than I was at this weight, pre-cancer. Now I’m able to do 20 push-ups with ease and hold nine-plus-minute wall sits—when I first started, my knees were wobbling and buckling at two minutes. But best of all, instead of being known as the young freak colon cancer patient, I’m becoming a kind of healthy status symbol to those around me, which is a much better legacy, if you ask me.”
For more information on Katrina’s online health and fitness accountability groups, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.