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When the Client Is You

Not even the strongest trainer is immune when cancer strikes.

client: Frank | personal trainer: Frank McKenna, MEd, owner, Beach Better Bodies | location: Virginia Beach, Virginia

A dire situation. In the summer of 2016, personal trainer Frank McKenna received news he never expected to hear. At age 56, he had recently completed his own physical transformation and was arguably in tiptop shape, so when his doctor told him he had stage 4 lung cancer, he was stunned. He’d trained consistently since he was 19, prioritized his health, and had never touched a cigarette or had a history of environmental exposure.

“I thought, ‘You’ve got the wrong chart; this can’t be right.’”

But his symptoms told a different story. Despite his incredible shape, he had developed a nagging cough and was easily winded. The chart was his, and he was now about to face one of the greatest battles of his life.

Even worse, the cancer had spread.

“Further scans showed a suspicious area in my left thigh,” says McKenna. “Doctors feared the bone could break [because of] the cancer. I had done squats the day earlier.”

It was time for a new wellness program.

Downs and ups. McKenna underwent a 2-week radiation regimen on his leg, followed by a daily oral chemotherapy treatment. By the following November, he had lost nearly 25 pounds and was incredibly weak. Further tests revealed that the cancer was still spreading.

“I was not myself,” he says. “I had no energy, no life to me, no motivation, and it wasn’t looking like I would make it much past Christmas—if I’d even make it that far. I couldn’t eat anything; good food like protein and vegetables had zero appeal to me. I was dying.”

But even through this difficult time, McKenna continued to train clients, often lying on the floor after sessions until he had the energy to drive home.

The ability to motivate and inspire his clients soon became an integral part of his own recovery.

When his doctors notified him of a second oral chemo treatment option, he agreed to try it. Step by step, he began to improve. He worked out for the first time in a month, and his weight slowly crept back to where it had been at the time of his diagnosis. He trained with weights, TRX® equipment, the Lebert EQualizers and sandbells to rebuild his body, strength, and mental and emotional fortitude. One year later, McKenna was back to a 5-days-per week training schedule, and he has maintained his strength and ideal weight.

“The doctors are shocked by the shape I’m in,” he says. “They all tell me to keep doing what I’m doing to the best of my ability.”

The strength of support. Aside from a targeted fitness training program, McKenna credits two very important and different support systems with his return to vigor.

“Mentally and emotionally you can easily become a wreck,” he says. “I relied on my fantastic wife, three children and four sisters to be my supports. I also listen to music on my way to and from the gym and at the gym while training and working. It helps get me up when I
get down.”

A role model of hope. Despite his progress, McKenna’s battle continues. He still receives cancer treatments and monthly infusions to keep his bones strong, but his goals have changed. He now strives to share his experience—and maybe change a life or two along the way.

“Researching lung cancer is dismal,” he says. “You won’t like the data. The 50% survival rate is 9 months; there’s less than a 4% survival rate for 5 years. I chose to quit looking and start making new history.”

Part of that new history involves the development of a program specifically designed to help other cancer patients, and he recently reached out to his hospital and is in discussions to lead a fitness class for cancer patients and their caregivers. “It’s time to give back and lead sessions to help others who may not be in the same shape as me but could use some fitness as, together, we battle our cancers,” he says.

And there’s nobody better suited to lead these classes than McKenna.

“I’m not just a trainer; I’m fighting daily, as well.”

Calling All Trainers

Do you have a client who has overcome the odds to achieve new heights in health and fitness? Send your story to [email protected], and you and your client may be featured in an upcoming issue of Fitness Journal.

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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