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From Breast Cancer To Bodybuilding

Joey Lovato
Mena Spodabalski posing inside EVOKE fitness

Every year a group of women gets together to begin the journey of taking back their physical and mental health, after battling breast cancer. They work out nearly every day for six months to prepare for a bodybuilding competition called Breast Cancer to Bikini. KUNR’s Joey Lovato has more.

You can hear the grunts and clangs of a typical gym when you walk into Evoke Fitness on any given day. There are classes going on, music is blasting, and when you first walk in you’ll see pictures of Breast Cancer to Bikini participants, bronze and incredibly toned, hanging on the wall and two mannequin busts sporting sparkly bikinis.

“I was 80 pounds overweight from all my treatments and so all I could focus on was the bikini and how horrifying it is to be on stage in a bikini in five-inch heels,” says Jen Pokorski, one of the first participants of the program. “But I realized it was really more than the bikini. It just kind of helped me realize that I wasn't the only one that was in this situation. You kind of feel isolated.”

In 2012, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.

“The initial diagnosis, I had a ten-centimeter tumor. In my situation, they were not sure I was going to live. So when I was done with that, then it came back again in my lymph nodes, then I had another tumor on my ribs over on the other side, and so, then I had to do more chemo.”

Mena Spodabalski is the owner of Evoke Fitness and trains these women. Mena became close with Jen when Jen first started and helped her overcome the obstacles of her recovery process.


“She was one of the most reluctant ones to do it. She was also one of those who couldn't do push-ups, couldn't do anything because she had the lap band surgery,” said Spodabalski. “She had her breasts taken down all the way to her chest wall, so they had to create a chest wall with her lats, so there was a lot of movements where she was really restricted.”

Spodabalski says everyone comes in shy and timid, but by the end of the six months, they want to get on stage with these women who they have grown so connected to and show off all of their hard work.

“And the nice thing for them is that they work out altogether, so they motivate one another.”

The concern with working out after cancer, especially at this level of intensity, is causing harm to the body during the recovery process.

“Obviously, if you have a breast cancer, one of the considerations is if they remove all the lymph nodes in your arm, that if you're lifting weights with your arms, that maybe your arm is going to swell up because you don't have the normal lymphatic drainage,” said Mark Stovak, who is a family physician and sports medicine physician at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“The sooner you can start to exercise or continue your exercise program, I think probably the better you're going to feel through your recovery, and the studies do show that one, you might recover faster. I think it helps with your confidence. You know, it helps with your body composition and your appearance.”

Many of the women grew in strength both physically and mentally when going through the program. Spodabalski recounts one of the more powerful transformations.

“And one of the ladies was like, ‘That day, before I walked in there I wanted to commit suicide,’ and she said, ‘I just wanted to die; I was done; I didn't want to live anymore.’ And she said not two or three weeks into the program, she started to feel like she was getting her life back, and starting to feel like, ‘I'm going to be okay.’”

“We put too much emphasis on the scale and too much emphasis on what our body looks like,” Said Spodabalski, “and not necessarily what's happening internally, and that's really what's important.”

More than just the scale was the confidence these women had gained to get up on stage.

After the six months of intense training--going to the gym six days a week, working out three or four times a day, subsisting off of chicken and spinach--these women were ready to show the world the progress they made.

Pokorski said, “So I was so terrified going up those stairs. I wasn't quite sure I was going to make it onto the stage, and I had a friend of mine just push me and say, "Get on there." So once I got off the stage I realized that it wasn't as bad as I thought, and then I kind of wanted to do it over again. I needed a little more time up there.”

This week the next group of women starts training with Mena. Many of the past participants will be there, too, to encourage the new group of survivors.

Joey Lovato is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Before taking over the production of multimedia content at The Nevada Independent in 2018, Joey was their first intern, serving during the 2017 legislative session. He helped launch The Indy's two podcasts, IndyMatters and Cafecito Con Luz.
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