Sarah: Hi Alison, thanks so much for joining us today and sharing your lymphedema story. It’s great to speak with an athlete who has lymphedema and get some insight into how fitness has helped you manage your condition. Let’s start by knowing more about when you were diagnosed with LE.
Alison: My lymphedema started when I turned 17 and I can remember it like it was yesterday. My sister was making fun of my ankles being “cankles” (gotta love family!). The odd thing was I never had large ankles… and it was only one! After what seemed to be a million and one tests and being poked and prodded by numerous doctors, a trip to my paediatrician revealed that I had lymphedema in my left leg.
Following my diagnosis, it was recommended that I shouldn’t do cheerleading anymore and just stick to light exercise. I was told I would have my leg bandaged up for about one month for treatment and every night for the rest of my life. Being 17 years old this was pretty depressing, I remember crying a lot about it almost like I was mourning the loss of a friend… but really what I was mourning was the one hope of being a “normal person.” It took me a long time to accept that I have a chronic condition that affects my life every day. It’s a fact that I’ll never have two of the same sized legs or go to the beach without a compression stocking on.
Sarah: Those initial days are definitely the hardest, particularly when you are given the wrong information from caregivers- like telling you to stop cheerleading! Tell me when your fitness journey started?
Alison: I guess it was about 3 years ago I met a girl who was a Bikini and figure competitor. I was really intrigued by how amazing her body looked and the whole process. I actually paid her to make me a meal plan and workout plan. Weightlifting totally transformed the shape of my body. I was curvy but looked so strong. Over the past three years, I played with the idea of competing but never felt like it was the right time. There is a major time commitment and I knew if I was going to do it, I wanted to be able to dedicate myself to the prep.
Sarah: Were you always interested in fitness?
Alison: I’ve never really considered myself an “athlete.” I always enjoyed working out and getting sweaty but never excelled in “real sports” like basketball, volleyball… it just wasn’t my thing but I did dance and was a cheerleader throughout my youth. I would say that I didn’t love working out at the gym when I first started it. I found it to be quite boring but forced myself to do it (at the time I was only doing cardio). I did always try to stay active in some way because if not I am more prone to weight gain and my leg just would get extremely swollen when I wasn’t being active. I continued to workout and push myself regardless of the doctors’ recommendation of light exercise. I completed my first ½ marathon in 2007, the second one in 2011, a sprint triathlon in 2009, an Olympic distance Triathlon in 2016… and my most recent challenge and accomplishment an NPC Bikini competition which I placed 2nd in Novice and 1st in Open Class E.
Over the years I grew more interested in it, I actually got certified as a Pilates Instructor a few years back! I really Iove working out now. There are so many options to keep yourself active. I try to switch things up to keep it interesting. Most of all I love the challenge it presents every day.
Sarah: Body Building is a huge commitment, how often do you work out during the week?
Alison: YES it is a GIANT time commitment. I have a coach so it takes a lot of guesswork out of it. He is amazing (Jim Caiafa with StrongerU) I called him and told him I wanted to compete but wanted to do a long prep of 19 weeks. Normally competitors do 12 weeks. We started out with moderate cardio and lifting 5 days a week, but by the end, I was in the gym 7 days and week and 6 of those days I was there at 4 am for about 2 hours and then 1 more hour in the afternoon to be sure I finished all of my cardio.
Currently, I am not planning on competing anytime soon, so I am lifting 5 days a week which takes about 45min- 1 hour, and I do 30 minutes of cardio after my lift. This is much more manageable and easy to maintain!
Sarah: How has fitness positively impacted your Lymphedema?
Alison: I’m going to re-phrase this question because I think my Lymphedema is really the reason why I have been so dedicated to fitness, and then obviously being healthy impacts my life positively! I’m not sure I would have been as motivated if I didn’t have Lymphedema. It’s given me a reason to get my butt out of bed, push for the extra mile, and get those last minutes of cardio in or extra reps. Also, something happened at the gym in the beginning of my prep, a gentlemen came up to me and told me that he was so motivated by watching me. I was shocked, but it him telling me that motivated me to work even harder and that was a huge positive impact. I am really grateful for my “lymphie” leg, it has taught me a lot about myself, forces me to be stronger mentally and helps me be a better person.
As I prepare and train I am so humbled and I think about where I started and where I am now. I’m not sure I would have been motivated if I didn’t have Lymphedema. Would I still be the same person? I really don’t think so. I’ve been given a choice to either overcome or be overcome. I choose to conquer it and live confidently. I am grateful for my “lymphie” leg, it has taught me a lot about myself, forces me to be stronger mentally and helps me be a better person. I will be confident regardless of my condition. The best thing of all… I’ve finally realized I am not normal because I am so much more than normal.
Sarah: From a mental perspective, how has fitness impacted your life and LE?
Alison: My gym time is where I find a daily challenge, clear my head, and set my intentions for the day. I’d say I’m on an all-time high for my mental health. As far as impacting my LE leg… well, all of the support [from my fitness family] has given me a lot of confidence. It’s taken me a long time to accept my leg, and my confidence now has helped me speak out about my leg. My hopes are that my confidence in myself and my LE will help someone else struggling with their confidence.
Sarah: What is a ‘difficult day’ for you?
Alison: I struggle with food allergies and sensitives. Specifically, my allergies are to Wheat, Yeast, Eggs, and Dairy… so basically eating out is difficult. After the show all I wanted to do was eat out… so I ignored my allergies and ended up in hives, throat swelling and my leg was so swollen and uncomfortable. The days my leg gets over swollen it’s so depressing and frustrating. I try to only have a few low moments- I let myself be upset and then try to get back to normal and look at the bright side of things.
Sarah: Whats your biggest challenge with LE and how do you manage this?
My biggest challenge is maintaining the swelling. It’s an everyday thing. Its hard to always find time to pump my leg at night and if I don’t sit down and get my leg on the pump (flexitouch) at a certain time then I can’t really fit it in because I need to go to bed early.
Sarah: Tell me about your family and friends- what do they say about how you live your life with LE?
Alison: My husband is so proud of me. It’s really amazing. Knowing that he is 100% behind me it’s given me tremendous confidence. My parents, sister, in-laws and friends are also very proud. They compliment me for the most part on how I look, but they also are most impressed with my dedication to training and my diet. My mom also said to me about a week before the competition that she can tell on my Instagram how I’m positively impacting others. I was on the way to work and it basically took everything in me not to burst into tears. It’s really amazing that working hard can help others want to achieve their goals.
Sarah: What are some of your favourite workouts to do to strengthen your legs?
Alison: I workout just like everyone else. Sometimes too much pounding on my legs will make it swell more but I just have to take extra care after my workouts to wrap and use compression. I’m not that fancy with any particular workouts. I stick to the basics, squats, deadlifts, leg curls, leg press and lunges.
Aside from leg exercises, I LOVE Pilates for my lymphedema. The deep breathing and abdominal work are great for lymph flow. I would recommend doing anything to stay active and live a normal life like anyone else. Keeping your weight down also makes managing LE so much easier.
Sarah: What is your daily routine to manage your LE?
Alison: My day usually looks like this:
- Upon waking up, unwrap leg, put on compression stocking and Circaid
- New stocking and Circaid
- After work walk dog, Pump leg with FlexiTouch ( if I can sit down before 6pm or 7pm) Pump cycle takes 1 Hour with an option: 45 additional minutes which I like to do because it really takes the swelling down.
- Wrap toes and leg with compression wraps and go to bed
Sarah: Do you have a special diet? Do you find this affects your LE?
Alison: YES! Diet completely affects my leg! June 2016 I invested in a nutrition Coach (StrongerU) and this was the best decision. I’ve dropped about 45 pounds since working with them. Keeping a lower body fat helps me maintain my swelling much easier. In addition to that earlier this year I was tested for food allergies and sensitivities and from that, I have eliminated Dairy, Eggs and Gluten (wheat/yeast) from my diet. I can tell overall I am less bloated/swollen and my gut seems to function much better. Also if I eat too high in fat or too much salt, fried foods etc I can tell my leg swells more. Ohhh and alcohol! Alcohol and my leg do not get along! I did stop drinking for my prep and now I occasionally have a drink with dinner but usually limit myself to 1-2 drinks.
Sarah: What advice would you give someone looking for ways to motivated themselves to start and maintain a good fitness program?
Alison: Starting a new fitness program can be intimidating, my best advice is to stop thinking about what other people are thinking. No one is looking at you at the gym, they are looking at themselves! So be confident and if you don’t know how to do something… ask or YouTube it! Also, get a nutrition coach. It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever spent money on. I love having the accountability and checking in on a weekly basis. It’s kind of like having a personal cheerleader who keeps you on track. As much as I love working out I never saw results until I cleaned up my diet. I work with StrongerU, they coach all people from every walk of life.
Sarah: How do you define success in your life?
Alison: Life throws everyone curve balls. Some people lose everything or get cancer, or lose both of their legs. Everyone has low, terrible, unfortunate times and moments in their life. It’s pushing through those low moments that truly defines success. Success to me is the mindset to be confident and positive regardless of any circumstance.
You can find Alison here on her Instagram page: @alimahoney3