Training for Life: How the Lessons Learned in the Gym Prepared Me for My Cancer Battle

Training for Life: How the Lessons Learned in the Gym Prepared Me for My Cancer Battle
In the gym, we find more than physical fitness; we train for the resilience to stand tall against life's darkest and most challenging moments.

Brad is a university lecturer with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He has competed as a drug-free bodybuilder, is a cancer survivor, and a 21 year veteran of the Air National GuardBrad has been a Primer contributor since 2011.

Cancer is a heck of a thing. From diagnosis, treatments, doctor and ER visits to recovery and remission it’s one wild ride. Life will throw curve balls our way when we least expect it. I remember just getting back from a tour in Afghanistan and weeks later being told I had Hodgkin’s disease–a type of immune system cancer. It had spread to local areas in my chest and abdomen. I was instantly thrust into another world of chemotherapy, pain medications, sedation treatments, and bone marrow extractions. It was a lot about me, but not in a good way.

There was a lot to navigate during my nine month treatment and beyond, but I took a page out of my training journal and applied a similar mindset in order to tackle my cancer journey. My mind raced after diagnosis, but once a plan was in place I knew that I could take my years of toiling away in the gym (read: discipline) and apply them to fighting this unwelcomed foe.

Below are a few of the principles I forged in the gym and used to beat cancer. Yes, doctors, nurses, chemotherapy medications, and much more are all important and necessary players in the physical fight, but it also takes a certain unique mentality to push yourself to the other side.

1. Patience

When it comes to changing your physique for the better, time should be your best friend. Toiling away, workout after workout, week after week, and month after month takes boatloads of patience. You’ll have great days and bad days. Some days you’ll feel like you can conquer the world while others feel like you’ve moved a few steps back. The key is consistency and patience. Changes in muscle mass, fat loss, endurance, and strength come slowly and those who possess the secret weapon of patience will ultimately succeed.

Cancer treatment is no different. Good days, bad, days, steps forward and backward all amount to having patience and trusting the process.

Battling a health problem is a long process and most days you feel like you’re not making much progress. The key is to keep the end result in mind.

One day you’ll be done with treatment, you’ll be able to once again do things you weren’t able to do during chemotherapy. There will be an end to all of the means you’ve been working so hard on.

2. Obstacles

There’s probably no other better daily example of overcoming obstacles than training and dieting for a better, healthier body. Obstacles are just a regular part of the process. From daily schedules, family obligations, diet challenges, and overall life stress, obstacles are built in. Your training can be another obstacle. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t, garnering motivation, and trying your best to avoid injuries is a lot to consider. But that’s the landscape–that’s how the gym game is played. If you want results, get used to overcoming obstacles.

Cancer treatment is an obstacle in and of itself. Compounding that with declining health, sickness, pain, constant nausea, and the challenge of trying to stay in some sort of a routine can turn overwhelming.

But taking on these challenges, these obstacles, is a necessary mindshift. Tackling these things head on will make the journey more tolerable and accepting. Once that’s established you can focus on staying the course and becoming mentally stronger because of it.

man laying on a hospital bed in recovery

3. Pain now, reward later

One of the most important and most misunderstood principles of training is the necessity of pain. If you want to change anything in your life, no matter if it’s a college degree, a better body, or developing more focus, it will take pain–being uncomfortable. Instinctually, humans try to avoid pain as it’s an issue of survival and vitality.

But experiencing pain is a requirement for shaping your physique or getting stronger. Now, I’m not speaking of the “bad” pain such as hurt joints or torn muscles. I’m referring to the discomfort of training and the process of putting in the reps and sets and reaping the rewards for later.

There’s nothing comfortable about cancer. Everything from throwing up, aching bones, four hour treatments, bone marrow extractions, and the endless number and array of medications and chemotherapies, pain is a huge part of the process.

However, very early on I took on the mentality of accepting the pain for the reward later. Every time I went in for another treatment, had a sleepless night, or couldn’t eat for a day I kept the end result at the front of my mind.

The pain was worth the reward: to live a normal life again.

borland standing outside of treatment center

4. Planning

I’ve always been a notetaker when it comes to my training and diet. When I was competing in bodybuilding it was imperative that I track everything. A few months leading up to a contest I would record exercises, sets, reps, weight, mood, calories, protein, carbs, fats, and anything else I felt important to my success. This all formulated into a plan of action. And that plan would evolve over time according to what worked and what I needed to throw out. Without a plan I would feel lost.

When I was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease it was not only a sucker punch, it was also an extremely frustrating time. It would be around a week until I had an appointment with my oncologist. In that time leading up to the appointment I became frustrated, uneasy, and lost. No plan was in place.

I felt like I was in the dark on my next step in this unfamiliar territory.

Finally, once I did see my doctor and we came up with a game plan I felt much more at ease. It was as if I had at least a little control because I was able to look at the plan and start to formulate what I was going to do, how I would schedule my days, and what to expect in treatment. I had to trust the plan.

5. Recovery

Of course mindset is one of the most powerful tools to have in the gym. Without the right mindset you’ll be lost with no real vision of your best self. But a close second are the tools you use to get to your goal. What I mean is how important the tools of proper recovery can be such as nutrition, sleep, rest, and certain supplementation.

Going to the gym and training with intensity every day takes a toll and because of that you’ll need to take your recovery habits very seriously. I would make sure my protein, carb, and fats were there for growth. I would prioritize sleep and rest to support those tough workouts so I could go back the next day stronger and better.

Recovery is also all-important during cancer treatment. The goal there is to get a treatment then recover as much as possible before the next treatment. Now, with chemotherapy you’re not actually growing or gaining strength. It’s more of a compounding decline in health because it kills the good cells with the bad and you hope the bad cells are killed off before too many of the good are.

But recovery habits from bodybuilding helped get into that mindset of making recovery a priority. Nutrition, sleep, and light exercise.

6. Support

Training in the gym as a teenager was a very unique and magical time. I remember meeting a handful of friends after school and we would all train together, spot each other, and rib on each other. It was an atmosphere of support, brotherhood, and positive vibes. I would not have pushed myself without their help, I would not have been obligated to show up to the gym each day, and I would not have had so many fond memories of how I started out training.

From camaraderie to finding new and exciting training techniques to try, the support factor is one of the most important things you can experience.

I was very lucky to have a small cadre of support during my treatment as well. From parents to friends to coworkers, I definitely felt as if I wasn’t alone in the battle. I would always have someone there during treatment and to take me to and from the clinic. I had great support from work by having coworkers rally around me, asking how I was doing, and always offering if I needed anything at all. To be lucky enough to have support and acceptance of it is priceless.

borland receiving treatment in a clinic bed

7. The long game

Finally, one of the most important perspectives to have is one of the long game. Training, dieting, recovering, building, and growing never end. There are no shortcuts or overnight miracles when it comes to changing your physique, making it stronger, and living a healthier life. You have to think long term. You have to create positive habits and put them into practice daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

They have to become a part of your daily routine–a part of your life, not just seen as an add on or burden. Once you convince yourself of this it instantly becomes easier to put into practice.

Being diagnosed was a shock, but I quickly had to think long term once a plan was in place. At the time I was actively competing in bodybuilding so I had to be okay with taking a break from competition and do what I needed to do to survive and get healthy.

Yes, I focused on the tasks at hand like treatments, medications, and recovery, but I was also thinking about what I would do after it was all over. I thought about how I would get back into training, how I would ramp up my nutrition, and ultimately get back on stage competing. I was looking past the hardships and focusing on the long game of it all.

The gym isn’t a place just to build muscle and strength, it’s also a place to build mental strength, resilience, and a capacity to get through other obstacles in life outside of the gym. No matter what the challenge these principles can be used to help overcome life’s difficulties and come out on top.

Brad Borland

Brad is the founder of He is a consultant, writer, fitness specialist, husband and father. He earned his Master's degree in Kinesiology, is a member of the Air National Guard and is a cancer survivor.