Body & Fitness

How beating cancer turned this Auckland mum into a bodybuilder

When scarring from melanoma got her down, Catherine got pumped up.

Flaunting her chiselled body on stage in a barely there bikini, Auckland body builder Catherine Spalding appears to have all the confidence in the world.

But behind her tanned and toned physique, the 43-year-old mother has battled crippling self-esteem issues after a gruelling fight with cancer left her with deep scarring.

“My face looked like a patchwork quilt,” remembers Catherine.

For an entire year, she was afraid to leave the house and felt imprisoned by her own scars.

Her ordeal began in 2014 when she noticed a small red scab on her cheek, which wouldn’t heal. She assumed it was another basal cell carcinoma – a treatable cancer that appears as a small red growth in the skin’s basal cell, which she’d first had several years before.

With Lance, her husband of 22 years, and twins Noah and Taige.

But after having the red mark cut out, she was hit by the devastating news that it was melanoma.

Within a week, a shocked Catherine had her first surgery, but doctors struggled to remove the cancer. Multiple operations saw layer upon layer of skin removed from her cheek.

“For the first surgery, I had 36 local injections,” says Catherine, shuddering at the memory.

It took a total of five procedures to remove all of the cancer and each operation was more distressing than the last. The final step involved grafting skin from her neck to replace what was removed from her cheek.

“They marked a big square on my neck and took the skin out and stuck it on my face. It was scary and just so traumatic.”

Skin from her neck was used to replace the area affected by the malignant tumour.

Throughout her teenage and adult life, Catherine had always felt self-conscious and she still remembers being bullied in school.

“I’m a very vain person,” Catherine admits. “Having my face hacked apart, I felt stuck on the cancer train and had no control. It really shakes your self-confidence.”

But early last year, the mother of 13-year-old twins Noah and Taige decided to take control of her life and start training as a body builder to boost her confidence.

“I thought if I have a good body, they’re going to look at that and they’re not going to look at my face,” she recalls.

So she started training, never expecting to compete.

“I wanted to look like a body builder, but without getting on the stage. I didn’t think I had the confidence to do that – to stand there, scars and all,” confesses Catherine.

But as her muscles began to build, so did her confidence – and with some encouragement from her nutritionist, she decided to enter the INBA South Pacific Natural Body Building Championships in Taupo.

“There were more than 100 competitors. It was big. It was just frightening – I was shaking so badly, I almost couldn’t stand in my heels!

“Because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I didn’t think I’d done well,” she laughs.

But, in fact, a “liberated” Catherine couldn’t have done any better. She was amazed to be placed first in the senior 40+ class and Noah and Taige, who once thought their mum was too muscly, were “super-proud”.

A few weeks after the competition, she was invited to represent New Zealand at the Natural Olympia Body Building Competition in Las Vegas – the largest body-building event in the world.

“I rang my nutritionist and said, ‘I think they’ve got the wrong person!’ I just couldn’t believe it. I honestly wasn’t ever planning on competing again after Taupo.”

But going to the US was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down. And again, she came home a victor, with a bronze medal in the women’s novice physique class.

Before she left, Catherine was sure it would be a one-off experience. But after tasting success, she is determined to go back next year.

“My next goal? That’s to place first next time.”

Flying the flag in Las Vegas after winning a bronze medal.

She adds, “I know my scars are there and, to me, they still stand out. But most people don’t even notice. It’s helped with my self-esteem and now I feel like I’ve got control again.”

Words: Ellen MacKenzie

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