One year ago, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I had a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery two months later. My breast cancer diagnosis was a big shock, but once I got over that, I was ready to go on the offensive.
I realized that while I couldn't control having cancer, I could certainly control my journey. I decided I was going to be positive, and I truly believe that mindset played a significant role in my recovery.
For a lot of women diagnosed with breast cancer -- whether they get reconstruction or not -- their womanhood is challenged, and they wonder if they'll ever be able to get back to their former selves. I admit that I asked that of myself, and a year later, I can say with conviction: "Life does not end with a cancer diagnosis."
The experience that cemented this mantra for me is one I'll never forget.
How preparing for a bodybuilding contest gave me support and confidence
A co-worker had recently participated in a bodybuilding fitness contest and, on several occasions in early 2013, encouraged me to compete as well. I politely declined.
During follow-up visits with my physicians, though, they routinely mentioned how well I looked. In response, I joked that I had been urged to enter this competition. I was pretty shocked when they said, "You should totally do it." Hearing that planted a seed, and I actually started to consider it. I spoke to my family and friends, who also encouraged me to enter, and I ultimately decided to go for it.
I admit that I originally thought of the competition as little more than a bikini contest, but once I started training, I realized it is much more than that.
Training was hard work and required extreme dedication. I jogged three miles a day and did strength training exercises four days a week. I completely eliminated fast, fried and processed foods and sodas, and dramatically reduced my sodium and sugar intake.
Another surprise came after meeting my fellow competitors. Officially, we were rivals, but they were remarkably -- and genuinely -- supportive of me and each other. It was as though everyone wanted everyone else to be the best version of themselves they could be. They offered support that I very much needed, and because of this, I was able to be extremely focused.
I was becoming stronger not just physically but also mentally, and I soon felt that anything was possible. I was ready.
Putting cancer behind me
On May 18, 2013, less than a year after my double mastectomy, I went on stage at a bodybuilding competition in Galveston, Texas, along with more than 20 other women. Initially, I was nervous. I was afraid I was going to trip or that any number of things might go wrong.
But as I got prepared, reason prevailed. I told myself, "The work is done. Now I just have to go out there and show them."
There was a theme portion, and for my "costume," I chose a camouflage outfit to signify that I am a survivor. I put a pink ribbon on the back to say that cancer is behind me. Cancer was a part of me, it played a part in who I am, but it's behind me -- that's where it belongs. After this portion, I was approached by a lady who said, "You were my favorite. When you turned around and I saw that breast cancer ribbon, you became real to me." That was a highlight. In the end, I was officially honored with a second place win in the 35-and-over category and fifth place overall.
"The best thing you ever did"
This competition became so much more than one-day appearing on stage. Preparing for it was a huge mental and physical challenge, and through the experience, I felt more empowered than I ever had before.
What's more, I learned a lot: Namely, that besides faith, being physically fit is the best possible thing for you. If you take care of your body, it makes your healing process go faster.
Doing a fitness competition less than a year after treatment isn't for everyone, but if you can identify something further down the road to look forward to, go for it. It could become the best thing you ever did.
Sonia Byrd is a marketing professional and mother of two. Following her cancer treatment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, she's a one-year breast cancer survivor who finds encouragement in her faith, family, friends and sense of humor.