When Derina Wilson competed in the Fitness International at the March 2018 Arnold Sports Festival, she knew it would be her last time onstage for a while.
The hottest rising star in her division, Wilson took sixth at the prestigious competition thanks to her fitness routine, a crowd-pleasing turn to Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire." The performance was inspired by Wilson's late father, often described by friends and family as a "phoenix rising." Ironically, it's Wilson herself who's now rising from the ashes.
Wilson was onstage at the Arnold Sports Festival when she revealed her diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer. At the same time, she announced that she would be having a double mastectomy in the coming days—and that she was determined to return to the stage as soon as physically possible. Eight months and two surgeries later, the 38-year-old yoga and Pilates instructor from Islip, Long Island, is making good on her promise. Fully aware of the challenges posed by her recovery, Wilson is heading back to the gym with a goal of competing at the Fitness International in 2019.
It will be an arduous journey, but if anyone can do it, Wilson can. A former elite child gymnast, Wilson got into fitness competition just four years go. She found nearly instantaneous success despite her age and the fact that she was not a bodybuilder. She did have a long and varied sports history, including volleyball, dance, cheerleading, fencing, diving competitions, and gymnastics. She also coached gymnastics for years.
For years, friends had been telling Wilson that she would make a perfect fitness competitor. When she left her gymnastics coaching job and found herself at a career crossroads, she realized she was ready to compete, and quickly proved her friends right. After only two contests, she earned her pro card. She proceeded to compete twice in the Fitness Olympia, finishing 13th in 2016 and moving up to eighth in 2017. Getting an invitation to the Arnold Sports Festival remained on her to-do list until 2018, when that came to pass as well.
Unfortunately, Wilson's fitness career wasn't the only thing that was advancing during this period. Six years before, she had consulted a doctor about cysts she found in her breasts. The doctor told her they were benign, recommending a follow-up visit for six months hence. Only she never made that second appointment. She lost her job and her medical coverage when she moved back home to help care for her ailing parents. Wilson's mother was a longtime cardiac patient, and her father was on dialysis. As with so many full-time caregivers, Wilson didn't have enough time to take care of them, let alone take care of herself. After her father died, Wilson didn't want to add to her mother's stress by revealing her own medical issues. She just kept her troubles to herself.
"I had [cancer] symptoms for more than a year and a half," she admitted. "I had a pain. I had a lump. I had bloody discharges from one of my nipples. But I hid it. I didn't want to add any more stress to my mother's life. As it was, she'd lost her husband—my father—and was struggling to pay her medical bills. I didn't want her to have to deal with me being sick and not having medical insurance, so I kept it very, very quiet. Even after my mom passed away last summer, I kept it quiet until I had medical insurance again."
In January 2018, Wilson was happily preparing for the Fitness International when she received the official cancer diagnosis.
"The first thing I asked my doctor was, 'Can I compete at the Arnold?'" she recalled. "It was my dream, and I had to do it." The doctor said yes, "but he also said that once I competed, I needed to stop because my particular cancer had the potential to spread quickly."
Prepping for Competition and Surgery
As Wilson continued to train for the contest, she made several changes in her diet and lifestyle.
"I did a full-on ketogenic diet with lots of high fat, some protein, and low carbs—all organic," she said. "My coach, Lena Squarciafico, introduced healthy foods like beets, apricot kernels, and blueberries into my diet. And I started drinking filtered water and teas."
With the surgery scheduled for right after the contest, Wilson was unable to dehydrate to cut up for the physique round, which is the bodybuilding portion of the competition: "My diet wasn't exactly going to get me in the best physical shape for the contest, but it was going to keep me healthy for my surgery."
Heading into the Fitness International, Wilson's goals were modest, considering that she was ranked eighth in the world at that point.
"I just wanted to get top 10 at my first Arnold," she says. She started experiencing fatigue as she trained for the contest, "but as an elite gymnast, I'm used to pushing myself. I also rested a lot more and just tried to listen to my body," she said.
Despite a low placing in the physique round, Wilson's strong performance in the routine round elevated her to sixth place overall—a better outcome than she'd dared hope for.
After the contest, Wilson took time to reflect. She realized that years of constant stress had contributed to her condition.
"My body was in attack mode because I lost my father, and then lost my mother. I was competing internationally, working full time, training full time, and living on my own for the first time in years," she said. "I wasn't eating well or sleeping enough—the basic things you're not supposed to do. On the outside, I may have looked like a healthy person, but I wasn't taking care of myself."
In response to the diagnosis, she began drawing on a variety of stress reduction techniques. "After having so many stressors," she said, "I started doing yoga, Pilates, and practiced mindfulness."
Surgery and Healing
Stage 1 breast cancer is a frightening diagnosis, but it can be treated, and Wilson's prognosis was good. Despite her delay in following up on her original doctor's appointment, the tumor was still relatively small and had not spread to her lymph nodes by the time she prepared to have it treated. She had known from the start that, should it be necessary to stop the cancer from spreading, she would opt for a double mastectomy.
Wilson began a course of treatment that required two surgeries. First, she would get reconstructive surgery, and then a second surgery to introduce the breast implants. The process did not start well: During reconstructive surgery, which took place immediately after the Fitness International, Wilson had a serious allergic reaction to the muscle relaxer used in the surgery. A month later—and with appropriate precautions taken—the doctors tried again and deemed the surgery a success.
Her recovery from the first surgery went well. The doctors thought it would take her six months to come back, but her body did it in three. Even so, Wilson was out of work for four months.
She admitted that it became financially difficult. She was helped along by scholarships from her oncologist and a GoFundMe campaign started by fellow fitness pro Sally Williams, who had undergone a double mastectomy herself. Eventually, Wilson had to get food stamps, but only briefly.
After the second surgery this past September, everything seemed to be going smoothly, until she developed an infection.
"Three days after my surgery I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and I was throwing up. I had a fever, chills, a headache, body aches, and pains," she said.
Multiple doctor visits and a strong course of antibiotics later, Wilson was ready to begin her journey back to the fitness stage.
Returning to the Gym
In October, Wilson received the OK to start training again.
"I can do legs and abs, but I can't lift more than 20 pounds over my head yet—and I can't do any chest exercises," she says. This will be her gym program for the rest of the year, at which point she plans to begin her contest training.
Wilson understands that preparing physically for a demanding fitness routine will take time, especially given her history of spine issues, which have been aggravated by her recent illness.
"First and foremost, I need to get my back strong," she said. "My spine doctor prescribed a mix of physical therapy, active-release therapy, massage, and acupuncture. He's all about getting me ready—safely—for the March 2019 competition date."
A Fortunate, but Not Flawless, Journey
In hindsight, Wilson admits, she might have done things differently.
"If I could do it all again, I would have listened to my oncologist and gone to that second appointment," she acknowledged, "and I would have researched ways to be treated when I didn't have medical insurance. I would've told my friends and family, too, so they could've helped me—instead of keeping it a secret to spare them from hearing the c-word."
It has been an exceptionally rough ride for Wilson, but if all goes well, she said, she'll be up on the stage at the Fitness International in March 2019—and she'll do it with a new version of her Phoenix Rising routine.
"When I start competing next year, I'm going to bring that routine back again, because this phoenix is definitely rising again," she said.