In many ways, Crystal Silins was no different than the average person who walks into a CrossFit gym for the first time: intimidated, alone and hesitant about whether this was actually a good idea.
The 33-year-old’s internal pep talk was another matter.
“I was like, ‘I’m just going to do this’,” Silins said of that fateful day in May of last year. “It can’t be any worse than chemo. It’s only an hour.”
When you’ve already survived a bilateral mastectomy, six weeks of radiation, nine surgeries and various rounds of chemo, suddenly a room full of CrossFit athletes doing snatches and burpees isn’t as frightening as it used to be.
“Before, I put CrossFit as something I would never do because it seemed like way too much for me,” said Silins, who was just 29 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013.
“But after I was diagnosed I wanted to start doing things I didn’t think I could do.”
Silins’ chemotherapy treatments contained several potent drugs — including one nicknamed “red devil”— and following chemo, the radiation caused severe burning and necrosis.
Nearly a year removed from her last round of chemo, Silins walked into CrossFit Little Creek in Norfolk, Va. which has the slogan “Ad astra per aspera.” It translates “to the stars through difficulties.” Silins had found her home.
“I decided to try CrossFit to basically kick my behind back in shape quickly. Although, I learned, it’s not a quick process after everything I’ve been through, Silins said. “I wanted to be held more accountable, get motivated, be coached, pushed and learn new things. One of my best friends [in Florida] had done CrossFit for a few years, and I was always interested, but just scared.
After cancer I started realizing there’s much more to be scared of then working out for the health of it.”
Silins, who was hooked immediately after her first CrossFit class, admits it took some time to build up to attend 4-5 times a week, especially WODs that included Olympic lifting.
All of the drugs had done quite a number on her body, leaving her weak and easily tired.
But, slowly, things like bench press and floor press came around. This spring, Silins bought her own barbell and some plates so she can work on lifting at home or have some friends from the box over.
Silins, who recently broke through the 200-lb. mark on her deadlift, is also in the middle of her gym’s six-week weightlifting camp.
“Nobody at the gym defines me as Crystal the breast cancer survivor,” Silins said. “I’m just Crystal. I’m no different than anyone.”
The only discernible difference in Silins is a compressive sleeve on her right arm which filters out lymphatic fluid that could otherwise get stuck in that area. Silins had 12 lymph nodes removed, one of which the cancer had spread into, and the sleeve helps prevent her arm from several days of soreness.
“People will ask about that [sleeve] or friend me on Facebook and see something and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize you’re a survivor!,” Silins said.
“I can’t even believe how intimidating I thought CrossFit was before I started. It’s seriously one of the best communities I’ve ever seen in my life.”
One that Silins hopes her daughter, Brianna, will also embrace.
Due to the effects of the chemo and long-term medication, Silins faced fertility issues and adopted Brianna along with her husband, Aaron, in November 2014. Silins hopes to enroll her in CrossFit Kids classes when Brianna is old enough.
She also hopes to continue to be a role model for health and fitness, with Silins’ cancer diagnosis giving her a new outlook, and appreciation, on things.
“I try not to sweat the small stuff [anymore]. If it’s not going to matter a year from now, or five years from now, why dwell on it?,” Silins said. “Pick up, and move on. I also try not to change things out of my control, which is tough for a control freak like myself. But sometimes I just count to 10, breathe, and just shrug my shoulders with a “‘Whatcha gonna do?!”
I love life, I love breathing in fresh air, and no matter what stressor I have at the moment or day, I know there’s a new day ahead, which cancer could of taken from me. So, I try to keep that in the back of my mind to maintain better clarity that life is freaking awesome, even after thrusters and burpees.”
Athlete Daily’s mission is to educate as well as to inspire. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month and we encourage those in the CrossFit, weightlifting, powerlifting and Strongman communities to check out Barbells for Boobs for more on how to help.
All photos courtesy of Crystal Silins.