Stronger Together

Stronger Together

After she had breast cancer surgery, Lisa Feldman hired a personal trainer. She had no idea the woman who would be helping her was on a mission of her own.

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LISA FELDMAN ISN’T used to this exercise. It’s harder than the lateral lunges she’s done before. “It feels like I’m pulling a truck,” she tells her personal trainer, Tomica Carter, as she uses both arms to extend a 7.5-pound weight out in front of her, then moves one leg into a lunge position and rotates her torso.

“One more,” Carter says.

Feldman’s come a long way since her first session with Carter last January at Equinox in Bethesda. Back then, she had almost no mobility in her right shoulder. She couldn’t lie flat on her stomach. Her core muscles were weak. Now Carter has her doing overhead pull downs and plank exercises with alternate leg lifts.

“You’re stronger than you think you are,” she’ll tell Feldman. When things get tough, she tries to make her clients laugh: “Mama never said life would be easy.”

A year after her double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, Feldman, 49, still feels a painful tugging on her right side when she does certain exercises. Her surgeon removed two lymph nodes from under her arm, a procedure that can affect the nerves, causing numbness or temporary discomfort, so she often notices her left side compensating for her right.

She’s gotten used to that feeling and keeps going. She likes working out: She gets sick of going to doctor appointments, getting blood drawn, and having pictures taken of her chest.

Most people at Equinox don’t know she’s had cancer. The gym is where Feldman feels normal, she says, like she’s finally moving on.

Feldman, who lives in Bethesda with her husband and three daughters, didn't know what to expect when she signed up for personal training. She’d never done it before. She knew she’d get pushed—that’s what she wanted. She was tired of struggling to put on her seat belt or lift a blouse over her head. But she didn’t know she’d be working with someone who understood what women like her were going through, someone who colored her hair pink and painted tiny pink ribbons on her fingernails. She wasn't expecting Carter to play such an important role in her healing. 

THERE’S AN IMAGE Tomica Carter can’t get out of her head: Her 48-year-old mother, Barbara, recovering from breast cancer surgery, tries to pick up a tray of food but drops it on the ground because she can’t lift her arms high enough. Carter, a teenager, walks into her mom’s bedroom and finds her crying on the floor in frustration.  

“I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I didn’t know how to help her.”

Carter, now 44, has thought about that moment when she’s with Lisa Feldman. She remembers the way her mother struggled to do the simple things, how the muscle atrophy made it hard for her to raise a fork to her mouth. Her mom went through chemotherapy after her mastectomy, Carter says, then the cancer spread to her liver. Now, 27 years later, Carter wants to help women with breast cancer get their strength back. That’s why she signed up for training at Equinox to become a certified cancer exercise specialist. There has to be a reason she lost her mother, she says, a purpose: “There’s no way I went through that hell to get here and not do anything.”  

When Feldman came in for personal training, she told Carter she wanted to do the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and that she had three months to get ready. As director of strategic partnerships for NBC4 in D.C., Feldman often teams up with nonprofits and corporations to create public education and awareness campaigns around health issues in the community. She’d worked with the Avon Foundation for Women before she got sick, and had done the walk in 2004 in honor of her mother, a two-time breast cancer survivor. She had been thinking about signing up again. Now the 39 miles would have even more meaning: She was on her own cancer journey.

“Think I can do it?” Feldman asked Carter. She’d always taken good care of herself—she eats well, does yoga, rarely drinks—but she’d lost some of her endurance since the surgery.

And she felt guarded, tight, like her upper body was protecting itself.

Carter, who’s spent her life in the fitness industry, was excited to hear her new client talk about having a goal, something to keep her motivated.

“Hell, yeah, you can do it,” she said.

THE FIRST TIME they met, Carter recorded Feldman’s height, weight, body fat, heart rate and blood pressure, and asked her a series of health questions. Then they started talking about their moms.

Both Carter and Feldman were 16 when their mothers were diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors in New Jersey told Feldman’s mother, Pearl, that she had six months to live. Her family went to grief counseling to prepare themselves. That was 1983; her mother had a second bout with the disease 25 years later and survived that one, too.

As Feldman got older, she always thought she’d get breast cancer: “That’s 30 years of when is it gonna be me?”

She wasn’t being negative, she says, just realistic. She started getting mammograms when she was 30, and often got called back because a radiologist needed to take a closer look. Soon she was going in for routine MRIs—if the doctor saw something questionable, which happened a few times, she’d go back for an ultrasound. Because Feldman was considered high risk, she started getting diagnostic mammograms, which meant that doctors looked at her images while she waited in the office in case they needed to take more pictures. When she went in for a mammogram in August 2013, the radiologist called Feldman back to his office and told her he was concerned about two spots on her right side.

“I can’t tell you until we do the biopsy,” he said.

She called her husband, Peter Fleck, and said, “I think this is the one.”

“If it is, we’ll work through it,” he said.

Her first thought was her daughters. Feldman’s oldest daughter, Brittany, who graduated from Walt Whitman High School in 2013, was getting ready to leave for college at the University of Southern California. Feldman didn’t want to tell her girls yet, not until she knew for sure.

She went in for her first two biopsies—she needed three—then tried to settle her mind with yoga and distract herself with work. She had trouble sleeping. “It’s a horrible waiting game,” she says. As part of her job, she visited Camp Fantastic, a camp in Front Royal, Va., that NBC4 supports for children with cancer. There, some children spent the morning swimming and riding horses, and the afternoon undergoing chemotherapy.

If these kids can go through this, I can go through this, Feldman thought.

When her radiologist called about a week later, Feldman was driving by herself in downtown Bethesda. “I think you should pull over,” he said.

IT TOOK A LONG TIME for Carter to decide she wanted to work with women who were battling the same disease her mother had. She couldn’t have done this when she was younger, she says. She was too angry—she didn’t think it was fair that her mom was gone. An only child, Carter’s father wasn’t around when she was growing up. She and her mom received government assistance and lived in a house in Lanham.

Her mother doted on her. She chose her daughter’s initials—T.L.C. for “Tender Loving Care”—before she decided on her name. She loved putting Carter in fancy outfits and styling her long, thick hair. She went to all of her daughter’s cheerleading competitions. When Carter was in sixth grade, her mom gave up a government job to open a hair salon, something she’d always wanted to do, and named it Tomica’s Hair Unlimited.

God, you’re not gonna do this to me—you’re not gonna take my mother, Carter remembers thinking when her mom got sick. She’ll have surgery and she’ll be fine. She’ll walk away from this.

Carter’s mother didn’t want to scare her, so she didn’t tell her daughter how bad the cancer was. When Carter went to senior prom nearly two years after her mother’s diagnosis, Barbara was there taking pictures. Carter convinced herself that her mother was getting better, that the chemo had worked. Denial, she says. One day her mom handed her the gold cross she wore on her necklace.

Carter left for Towson State University in August 1988. In late October, a family friend called and said, “You need to come home.” Carter drove to Providence Hospital in D.C. on a rainy Halloween night—she doesn’t know if her mother knew she was there. Two days later, she was standing in the hospital hallway when a call came over the intercom.

“One Life to Live was on the TV,” she says. “I was outside the room and I heard, ‘Code Blue.’ ”

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