Ellsworth woman finds fitness in the face of cancer

Sno Barry is the kind of woman who gets stuff done. She’s an accountant who just finished up a busy tax season, a wife and mom of two active kids (son Darby and daughter Kristy), and as of this week she’s lost 50 pounds. Since discovering a love of fitness last year, she’s run a half-marathon and is about to compete in this weekend’s Spirit of America bodybuilding show in Carver, Mass., in the women’s physique division.

Sno Barry with children

Sno Barry with son Darby and daughter Kristy

And in a few weeks, she’ll undergo her first chemo treatment for stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a diagnosis made in 2012. Sno, 37, of Ellsworth, says she’s facing the battle in the best shape of her life.

I invited her to share her story with everyone, as I think you’ll find it inspirational. She’s a pretty cool lady with an important message: what are you waiting for? Go chase those dreams!

In January 2012, I noticed a blister-like lump on the back of my ear that my husband said looked as if I’d burned it with a curling iron, and, a few weeks later, another lump sprouted on my neck, under the skin, that looked completely different. I wasn’t too concerned about either at the time, and as work was getting busy, I decided to make a mental note and mention it to my doctor when I went for my annual physical after tax season and I had more time to think about it.

When I went to the doctor in May, she noticed that the lymph nodes in my neck were enlarged and thought that maybe I had been fighting off some kind of infection.  She put me on antibiotics and wasn’t sure what the lump on my ear was, so she decided to be cautious referred me to a dermatologist.  I was feeling a little fatigued at the time, but so are most women who work full-time while raising two active kids, so I really wasn’t concerned.

After a few weeks on the antibiotics I returned to the doctor for a follow up.  The lymph nodes in my neck were still enlarged and that began a process of lab tests, x-rays, scans and appointments with specialists. After several visits with an ear, nose and throat specialist and no indication of what might be causing my lymph nodes to be enlarged, I was scheduled to have one of the lymph nodes in my neck removed for biopsy. The surgery was scheduled for September, coincidentally the day before my first appointment with the dermatologist.

I remember waiting to go into surgery, with my husband David and my parents by my side. The doctor seemed so confident that we were just ruling out any serious issues. The surgery went fine and then the next day I headed to the dermatologist to have them look at the lump on my ear.  The dermatologist decided to remove the lump and have that biopsied.  In a perfect world it would have been nice to have the lump on my ear removed at the same time as the lymph node in my neck but nobody really thought the two were connected.

September 17, 2012 is the day I had my follow-up appointment with the surgeon – I’ll always remember that date as it changed my life. I went to the appointment alone because I was sure that he would just tell me that my neck was healing fine and that would be that.  Instead, I learned that I had a follicular lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The emotions immediately took over and tears streamed down my face as fear set in.  The doctor told me he would refer me to an oncologist.

I have no idea how I made it back to work that day – I should have just gone home but instead I went back to my office and cried as I started wondering how I would share this news with my family.  The next day I received a call from the dermatologist.  He asked if I had received the results from the biopsy of my lymph node.  I told him that I had, and that is when he confirmed that the lump he had removed was also lymphoma.

The good news is that follicular lymphoma is slow-growing. However, I did not know this initially!  It was several weeks before I had my first appointment with an oncologist.  I was thinking the worst because I had no information — I did my best to avoid reading about the disease on the internet as I knew that would probably make me even more worried. My initial meeting with the oncologist was terrifying.  That is when I learned that treatment for follicular lymphoma was effective but that it was not a cure.  The medical oncologist explained that the life expectancy was 7 to 10 years but also said that it was unusual for someone my age to be diagnosed as this was a type of cancer that generally presents itself in patients over 70. I was only 36 at the time, so why me?  I left feeling somewhat hopeful, I was young and relatively healthy, may be that would increase my odds of survival.

Over the course of the next few months I had various other tests and scans done so that my cancer could be staged. It was determined that I had stage IV cancer as the lymph nodes above and below my diaphragm were involved and it had spread to my bone marrow.

At this point, I was getting conflicting information regarding treatment options and decided that it was best to get a second opinion.  I am so glad that I did.  The oncologist that I met with next was very positive about the future of treatment options and immediately gave me hope based on the research that is currently being done.  She was optimistic that there would someday be a cure.  That was the optimism that I needed to start fighting.  I was ready to start treatment and rid my body of the cancer.

Unfortunately, there were several treatment options and I needed to decide what route to take.  I could start chemotherapy or I could opt for a treatment called “watch and wait.”  There were low toxicity chemotherapy options as well as more aggressive chemotherapy options. “Watch-and-wait” is just that, watchfully waiting for tumor burden to become more symptomatic.  Although I had enlarged lymph nodes in several regions of my body they were not threatening major organs and other than being fatigued I had no other side effects.  The oncologist at Dana Farber was recommending “watch-and-wait.”  She explained that studies had not shown any increase in overall survival for patients who began more aggressive treatment initially versus those that opted for “watch and wait.”

I initially thought that there was no way I could opt for a treatment option that would not rid my body of cancer as fast as possible.  Was I really going to decide to “do nothing” and just continue to go about each day letting the cancer take over my body?  I did a lot of research and in the end decided that it came down to quality of life.  I was feeling pretty good, maybe I needed to slow down a bit, but to me that was better than starting chemotherapy  and experiencing symptoms that were not predictable and could negatively impact my quality of life.  My family was supported that decision and so that was the road I headed down.  I would be lying if I didn’t say it was hard! I am very much a woman of action and to think I wasn’t doing anything to make myself healthy again or fight the cancer was difficult.

Sno Barry

Sno wearing her Team in Training gear

I thought that signing up to run the Inaugural Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington DC was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to myself and my children that I was strong enough to fight the cancer, improve my quality of life, and raise funds for a cure for cancer.  I had come in contact with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) after being diagnosed and had found them to be incredibly helpful and supportive.  They provided me with the opportunity to learn more about my cancer and treatment options which helped me cope with the diagnosis. Their mission is to cure leukemia and lymphoma and improve quality of life for patients and families while funding lifesaving blood cancer research.  One of their largest fundraisers is Team in Training (TNT).  TNT is basically an opportunity to train for an endurance event while raising money to benefit cancer research.  So, there I was, all signed up to run a half marathon and had no idea where to start.  I had never run any distance before and I was somewhat overweight.

That is when I decided I needed to join a gym and I needed to work with a personal trainer to keep myself accountable.  So I decided to make the call to Bangor Brewer Athletic Club.  My goal was to run the half marathon at the end of April so I needed to start getting in shape fast. I started working out with owner and trainer Sean Soucy three days a week and would walk/jog on the treadmill two days a week.  I was shocked at how quickly my body responded to the weight training I was doing with Sean.

I recall that my doctor told me every year during my annual physical that I needed to get more exercise and eat a healthier diet, but I never anticipated feeling a surge of energy from doing so.  I actually felt like I had more energy on the days that I was working out so I started going to the gym before work every day.  On the days I wasn’t working with Sean I would be doing intervals of walking and jogging on the treadmill.  I was actually enjoying it!  I was working out in the mornings and it was my time to focus on “me” and clear my head for the day ahead.

When it came time to do the half marathon at the end of April, I had lost over 30lbs and over 25 inches.  Looking back, I wish I had done a before picture as the changes in my body were impressive.  I could now see muscle that I had never been able to see before and I was motivated by the increased weights I was able to lift week to week.

I am pretty sure that most people thought that once the race was over I would be done frequenting the gym.  Heck, initially I thought I would be too!  Just before heading out to the race, I had a follow up appointment with my oncologist.  I was relieved and excited to learn that my blood counts were excellent and to hear from the oncologist that the changes I had made in diet and exercise likely impacted those results.

Sno working on her routine

Sno practicing her physique posing routine

Seeing the difference that strength training had made in my life in only four short months left me wanting to continue.  I couldn’t help but think that if I was strong and healthy that maybe my body would start destroying some of the cancer cells.  Maybe that was too optimistic but I did believe that continuing to train would ensure that I was in the best possible health when it came time to start chemotherapy.  I was now a firm believer that exercise could help fight fatigue and also build immunity.  It seemed like the perfect treatment.

Over the course of my first year at the gym, I saw several men and women training for a bodybuilding competition.  It was inspirational to see how dedicated and determined they were.  I honestly never thought I would want to compete nor did I ever think I could compete.  Watching Sean prepping for competition was intriguing, the changes week to week were striking.  I didn’t really understand what competition was like so I decided in September 2013 to go see my first natural bodybuilding show and of course cheer on Team BBAC.

If I was being honest, I left the show thinking, never in a million years would you see me wearing a bikini in public let alone one of those hide-no-flaws competition suits on stage!  Whenever Sean would ask me if I had thought about training for a show, I just dismissed it.  The more I thought about it and learned about the process the more intrigued I became.  The thought of competing was certainly percolating in my head; it was something I thought I would do at some point down the road.

At the end of October, I went back to the oncologist and learned that my tumors were continuing to grow and that I would need to start treatment in the next six months.   I wasn’t expecting this news as I had continued to work out and was eating a clean diet.  I was making steady gains at the gym and I felt invincible.  This was the moment I decided there was no more delaying.  Competing was something I wanted to do, so why put it off?   I wanted to do a show before I had to start chemotherapy so when the opportunity came to do a show in April I was all in!  It hasn’t been an easy journey but it has been fun and rewarding.  I feel honored to be sharing this experience with a dedicated and supportive group of BBAC teammates and friends.

Shortly after being diagnosed I had come across the following saying which seems very fitting for both my everyday struggles as well as my journey to the stage:
sno picSince being diagnosed in September 2012, my outlook on life has changed in a positive way.  I have a renewed sense of confidence and greater appreciation for my own endurance and strength.   I am a different person both physically and mentally and for that I am grateful.  It certainly has reminded me that we all need to learn to live each day to the fullest.


Wendy Watkins

About Wendy Watkins

Wendy Watkins is a Bangor-based personal trainer, fitness coach, studio owner, and writer/editor. She is the author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Losing 20 Pounds in 2 Months. Visit her website at thrivebangor.com.