Real Life

Bodybuilder Lisa’s bowel cancer nightmare

Lisa’s strength in fighting cancer is inspiring others
Photos: Paula Brown

Standing on stage in the best shape of her life for the 2021 Southern Regions Bodybuilding Championships, Lisa Maxwell felt fit, healthy and vibrant. And after battling stage four bowel cancer and suffering heart attacks caused by a rare reaction to chemotherapy just one year earlier, health is the best prize she could ask for.

Although Lisa admits that taking out first place in three categories, including the overall women’s prize, was also a highlight.

“I couldn’t believe it – I have never won anything like that, it was such a rush,” says Lisa, 55, who’s excited to share her story for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this June in the hope it will inspire others to be proactive with their health.

“It’s an embarrassing cancer to talk about – it’s not glamorous at all. But you can die from this, so I’m not afraid to speak about it. It’s important to normalise it.

“I remember so clearly the day I discovered something wasn’t right in August 2020. I had just finished work and was about to head to the gym. When I went to the toilet, something felt weird. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what was that?’ I looked at it and there was this big blood clot on the toilet paper.”

Lisa’s dad died of bowel cancer in 2008, so she knew to take the symptom seriously. Three weeks later, Lisa was undergoing an awake colonoscopy and mid-procedure the surgeon told her it looked like cancer.

“We got you!” With hubby Dean and sons Michael (left) and Logan.

“My husband Dean and I left the hospital like a couple of stunned mullets,” remembers the Invercargill mother-of-three. She booked in for surgery soon after.

“They cut me from my belly button to pubic bone. I had a third of my bowel and 14 lymph nodes removed. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I was so swollen, like I was seven months pregnant.”

Next, doctors recommended 12 weeks of chemotherapy to make sure no cancer remained. Eager to return to life as normal, Lisa agreed.

“All I could think about was it will be great to get back to work and get back in the gym getting stronger again,” she tells.

But just days after her first IV chemo treatment, Lisa was experiencing significant chest pain. This was a potentially serious side-effect she was warned about.

When the pain persisted, Lisa called the hospital and was told to get there as quickly as possible.

“I jumped in the truck and by the time I got down the road, I was clutching my chest doing 70km in a 50km zone and couldn’t breathe,” she says. “I was praying a police officer would pull me over and when I arrived, I just collapsed on the ground.”

Devoted Dean has been Lisa’s rock.

It turns out that Lisa was experiencing rare chemotherapy-induced heart attacks.

“The oncologist told me, ‘If you continue with chemo, we think it will kill you.’”

Without other treatment options available, Lisa is hopeful the surgery got everything and relies on three six-monthly blood tests to monitor her levels.

“It’s always in the foreground, but I just try to carry on,” she says.

A pivotal step in Lisa’s recovery has been a very meaningful ta moko tattoo covering the large surgery scar. The Māori symbolism acknowledges her parents and brother, who have passed away and her own health battle.

Lisa takes a breath and starts to cry as she explains how powerful the tattoo experience was.

“To look at myself in the mirror and see my story interpreted and feel cool is amazing,” she enthuses. “It’s really a battle scar now.”

The life-threatening experiences have inspired Lisa, her devoted husband Dean, and their three sons Jake, 23, Logan, 22, and Michael, 16, to take every opportunity they can while they have the good health to do so.

Back in control: Lisa says her sport gives her so much confidence.

For Lisa, this meant quitting her hairdressing job of 16 years to start a small home salon, while also studying to become a personal trainer.

Now qualified, she balances the two professions with motherhood and intensive body-building training six times a week for the competitions that bring her so much joy. Since her bowel surgery, she has won back-to-back regional competitions and placed second at nationals in the over-50 category.

“I know it’s an extreme sport, but being able to control what’s happening in my body has and continues to help me,” she shares.

“I didn’t think in 100 years I would ever be on stage in a bikini. However, my confidence has really improved as I age because of it.”

Take action this Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – check your symptoms and get involved at bowelcancernz.org.nz

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