A mysterious illness that nearly killed Krista Schaus not once but three times left her at an all-time low. The story of how she overcame adversity is one of the indominable power of the human spirit and the value of living fit and healthy, no matter what physical foe you may be staring down.
Imagine hearing news from your doctor so horrible that it would cause most to resign to the fact that there are few options left; a revelation that would make you question what you had done with your life, what would happen to your family, and a host of other issues that one tends to not think about until on the receiving end of that special brand of bad news. Krista Schaus knows that foreboding situation all too well. Two years ago, when her medical team told her that she had an aggressive form of endometrial stromal sarcoma, a piece of information that could be on par with a death sentence, the shock of this discovery was only momentary, followed by an overwhelming sense of relief. After months of treatments and theories as to what had caused a catastrophic stroke, she finally had an answer — and therefore a direction to move in, treatment-wise, as scary as that may have been.
How she got to that diagnosis and past the difficulties her ailments caused her shaped Krista as a person — luckily (and more often than not) for the better.
A TRUE ENIGMA
“My scenario is one in a bazillion – it just doesn’t happen.” From anyone else this statement may seem obtuse. But Krista isn’t soliciting hyperbole — well, maybe a tad, but it’s within reason.
The energy you feel talking to Krista is genuine and hard-won. Her health timeline over the past five years reads like the summary of an episode of House: a stoke occurs in August 2014 at the age of 41; general lethargy and weight loss appear; symptoms persist, causing medical professional after medical professional to scratch their heads. Even for doctors who had seen it all, this was a case they couldn’t quite pinpoint.
In the beginning, prior to her stroke diagnosis, she knew something was off but couldn’t put it into words. “I could barely get out of bed, barely walk,” Krista recalls. “I moved like a 95-year-old. My grandparents have been married for 73 years, and I felt on par with them.” She had no answers as to what could be wrong, but she tried to remain positive and kept putting her time in at the gym as usual. After all, being active was all she knew — she had started weight training decades before at the age of nine, and as a precocious teen in high school, she was sneaking into the football team’s off-limits weight room to train.
But her troubles didn’t stop. Her hemoglobin dropped to dangerously low levels. She was concerned with the amount of blood clots she was passing daily (three to six, by her count). Even multiple blood transfusions didn’t help. After many hospital visits and tests, doctors determined that a stroke had occurred, but why and how it happened remained a mystery.
“When the (cancer) diagnosis came, my doctor actually smiled, because it finally made sense,” she remembers — it had been this growth that led to her debilitating stroke. The symptoms had affected every aspect of her life: energy had been leeched from her body, making it difficult to move; the rate at which she lost weight had prompting friends and family to express their concern. Though the discovery of cancer was by no means good news and it meant she still had a long journey ahead of her — the survival rate was intimidating, quoted to Krista at somewhere between 20 and 30 percent — the best opponent in any battle is the devil you know. “Imagine saying, ‘Good news — I have cancer!’” she now laughs.
A gruelling three-and-ahalf hour surgery (“It was only supposed to be an hour,” Krista marvels) removed whatever cancer the doctors could reach, along with all of her reproductive organs aside from the ovaries. But though she and her family were strangely relieved, the fight for her life had just begun.
“EVERY DAY IS A GIFT.”
ONLY THE BEGINNING
During this time, there was one area in which Krista considered herself lucky. The drugs that helped control her white blood cell count amounted to $18,000 by the time all was said and done, but the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, stepped in and covered the cost, as her health condition (a stroke combined with cancer) was so rare.
While undergoing treatment, her already poor health suffered further. “You can’t eat fiber or fruits and vegetables for many months (during radiation) — your digestion is messed up,” Krista explains. What you can eat can hardly be considered the best fuel for a body trying to hold off an onslaught of both internal (cancer) and external (radiation) attacks: simple, easily digestible foods like Rice Krispies were easy on the stomach but lacked a nutritional element that Krista’s repairing body was in desperate need of.
Surprisingly, all that didn’t stop Krista from trying her best to keep up her work in the gym, and in a big way. Powerlifting became her therapy and Olympic lifts her personal nurse, tackling exercises that can cause those in perfect health to second-guess themselves. She not only survived these workouts, she thrived, both physically and mentally. “In a way,” she reflects, “it prepared and strengthened me and gave me the resolve to endure this.” Deadlifting a personal best of 330 pounds, benching an impressive 185, and competing in a North American pull-up competition were markers that kept her moving forward on the road to recovery and to rediscovering herself in a new light, post-cancer.
Krista credits the treatment she received at Juravinski with her astonishing recovery post-tumor removal, but she acknowledges that much of her rehabilitation — while no means easy — was thanks to the work she invested in her health early in life. And the work will likely never stop. “Your mental capacity is reduced by like 90 percent (following a stroke),” Krista says, admitting that her personality has changed too, leaving her less aggressive, her short-term memory weakened, and with a haunting feeling that something is just…different. Of course, she is quick to point out that she suffers no cognitive impairment – in fact, her long-term memory makes things 10 years ago seem as though they happened in 2015. Because of this, she balks at the term “disabled,” instead opting for the positive-spin label “diffability.”
“I COULD BARELY GET OUT OF BED, BARELY WALK. I MOVED LIKE A 95-YEAR-OLD.”
A LIFE REBUILT
It’s been two years from the start of her cancer treatment to this point, one-and-a-half of which she spent dressed in black as a symbolic mourning period for her former self. Big changes had to be made to her living situation in order for her to heal: her son moved in with her husband, and her parents, who live just five minutes away, were always on hand to help. Some might question her approach, but for Krista it was the obvious choice. “I had to make a decision: can I be a mom full-time, can I work fulltime, and can I take care of myself full-time?” she asks. “I opted to take care of myself.”
With a newfound lease on life and her health improving every day, Krista is back to doing what she does best, leading others to better health in her work with Precision Nutrition Inc. and as a strength coach, prescribing the things that worked for her during her toughest times: sweat and whole foods. “Helping people with nutrition is a relationship with themselves,” she says. “You don’t have to work out every day, but you have to eat every day.” Her small group training sessions include fellow cancer survivors who each and every day are overcoming their own obstacles in the gym and making major strength and confidence gains: some of her clients are 70 years old and crushing high-pulls, split squats, and numerous pull-up variations. For her own training, Krista tries to move every day but admits that she trains at about half the volume of her peak — only natural considering what her body has gone through.
“I remind my team all the time that every day is a gift,” she says. “It sounds cheeseball, but it’s not just a cliché” Though she may never compete in fitness again (she last posed on stage in 2011, and believes she just doesn’t have the personality for it any more), at 44 years old she is living life more fully — and thankfully — than she ever has before.
“I tell my husband it’s an awesome day when I can be stressed out over something stupid,” she laughs. “It means I’m normal again.” It’s that positive attitude we can all learn from, whether battling health demons or just trying to make it through another day. After all, if Krista can do it while staring down all she has, why can’t we?