FEATURE | Posted Nov. 10, 2015

Triumph over cancer through fitness

Sacramento survivor trains others toward physical, emotional healing

Photograph of Eddie Salazar, Sacramento cancer survivor and Triumph Fitness physical therapy instructor, works with a participant on new exercise techniques.
Cancer survivor Eddie Salazar

At just 21, “you have cancer” were the last words Eddie Salazar expected to hear. A fitness devotee, Salazar grew up spending more time at the gym than at home, and looked forward to his 20s as “the prime” years of his life, he says. Instead, a lymphoma diagnosis in 2012 launched a whirlwind of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, radiation treatments and devastating side-effects, and he was forced to put his dreams and the best years of his life on hold.

“I never thought my early 20s were going to be filled with doctor appointments left and right,” says Salazar, who received his treatment at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I struggled with my image the most,” describing how difficult it was to see his bald, pale reflection in the mirror. “It was the lowest point in my life, and I have never been so depressed or angry.”

Rebuilding physical strength

Today, with four years of cancer behind him, and his 26th birthday around the corner, Salazar says he’s never felt better, happy to be physically fit, energetic and truly living in his prime.

“Cancer was the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “Before my diagnosis, I had little faith in myself and what I was capable of, but for the first time in my life, I’m happy and content with the person I’ve become. I know I have the strength to overcome anything I set my mind on.”

Salazar credits the Triumph Cancer Foundation for helping him regain his physical well-being, and also for rebuilding his confidence and helping him heal emotionally.

Photograph of Pam Whitehead, creator of the Triumph Fitness program“Exercise was the one thing that helped me feel like I was regaining control over my life again."
— Pam Whitehead

”During treatment, I had the best care anyone could ask for,” he says. “Afterward, it felt like I was simply let go. Where do you begin after several months of inactivity? That’s where Triumph played a key role. The program filled a void in the journey to full recovery.”

A specially tailored exercise program makes all the difference

The Triumph Fitness program, created by Sacramento cancer survivor and fitness enthusiast Pam Whitehead, has been empowering cancer survivors through physical fitness since 2005. Whitehead was inspired to start the program after discovering her own way back to health and vitality through exercise, cycling to raise funds for the Livestrong Foundation.

“Exercise was the one thing that helped me feel like I was regaining control over my life again,” she says.

The fitness program, offered through the non-profit Triumph Cancer Foundation, is available at no cost to adult cancer survivors who have recently finished cancer treatment. During the 12-week fitness program, participants train with exercise specialists to build strength and stamina, reduce the severity of cancer side effects, and improve energy and self-esteem. Specifically trained to help cancer survivors, Triumph instructors tailor regimens to each person’s individual needs and limitations.

“After treatment was over, I was eager to get back to the gym,” says Salazar, but after a few short sessions, he quickly learned that his body was not the same. “It was frustrating to believe how long it took to recover from a workout.”

He recalled meeting Whitehead at a UC Davis National Cancer Survivor Day picnic, and signed up for Triumph Fitness. In a small class led by instructors Joe and Dre, Salazar recovered his physical abilities at his own pace. He learned proper warm-up and stretching techniques, as well as how to select appropriate exercises to meet his goals.

Eddie Salazar, Sacramento cancer survivor and Triumph Fitness physical therapy instructor, works with a participant on new exercise techniques.
Shortly after completing the program, Salazar was eager to help other cancer survivors. Changing his major from business to kinesiology, he now works as an instructor for Triumph Fitness.

“There’s something magical about the experience,” Salazar says. “I did not feel alone going through the program. I had the support and guidance of my instructors but, most importantly, I had the support of my peers. I felt welcome, like I was part of a family, and we were all in this together. The change that happens—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally—is truly beautiful.”

Shortly after completing the program, Salazar was eager to help other cancer survivors. Changing his major from business to kinesiology, he now works as an instructor for Triumph Fitness. “I feel like I have come full circle,” he says. “Participants are more inclined to put their trust in me after they see that I’m living proof of the program’s success.”

On a mission to rebuild more spirit

Having served hundreds of survivors over the years, the Triumph Cancer Foundation in October celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Triumph Fitness, and what started as a 16-week program available only twice a year has grown into a 12-week program offered at multiple locations. Classes meet twice a week for 90 minutes and are purposely kept small (no more than eight participants per two instructors) to ensure one-on-one training. In addition to Triumph Fitness, the organization also offers the Triumph to 5K Walking/Running program, designed to help participants stay active after completing 12 weeks of Triumph Fitness training.

Whitehead plans to expand the program to more locations and add more classes.

“My dream of dreams is to see this type of program in every community and part of every cancer survivor’s recovery process,” she says.

She is grateful to share in the many joys survivors experience, otherwise taken for granted, such as watching a participant lift a bag of groceries again, pick up their child, cook Thanksgiving dinner or rake leaves in the backyard.

“Participants enter our program basically broken in spirit,” she says. “To see their spirits uplifted and bodies strong 12 weeks later is incredibly rewarding. There’s a lot we get to celebrate.”

The Triumph Cancer Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization based in Sacramento, California. For more information on the Foundation and Triumph Fitness, please visit www.triumphfound.org.