Surviving breast cancer: Ilaria Montagnani

Ilaria Montagnani, 51, group fitness instructor at Equinox locations in New York City

“People in the fitness world often think they’re immortal, invincible. I’m vegetarian. I don’t smoke. From a health perspective, I do everything right. But cancer does not discriminate. 

In 2016, I found two lumps. At first, I disregarded them, thinking they must be fluid or calcium build-ups. After about four months, they didn’t go away, so I got them checked out. The doctor called me just over three years ago with the biopsy results: I had invasive stage two breast cancer. 

Fitness is my entire life. I started teaching 23 years ago, not long after I came to New York from Italy. I always felt I was lucky to do what I love, teaching programs of my own to classes full of people. Fitness does more than work the biceps and legs; it strengthens your spirit. But I always wondered, what if something happened to me? Would I have the fortitude to teach? 

Once I was diagnosed, I couldn’t sleep. I was angry and sad. After one week, I thought, I’m a martial artist. (I’m a black belt in karate.) I have to pull out my secret weapons and inner strength. 

I knew I had to keep teaching, so I only told my brother, my mom, and a couple close friends about my diagnosis. I never wanted to walk into my safe place, the fitness studio, the place where I tell others to be strong, and break down. During the three weeks between diagnosis and surgery, I was like a gladiator walking into the coliseum every time I taught class. I put on my metaphorical mask and fought back tears. 

Two days before my mastectomy, I taught five classes. One day before, I taught four. That night, I shared on Facebook and Instagram that I had cancer and would take time off to fight my biggest fight and train my mind, spirit, and body in a very different way. The support my community sent back was amazing. I never realized the amount of love around me until then. 

That Monday, September 19, 2016, I went into a seven-hour surgery. I had the mastectomy and reconstruction at once and went home 24 hours post-op. It was brutally painful, but the advantage of always being physical is that you’re able to push through, to process pain. 

The surgeon said, ‘I don't know if you're going to be able to lift your arms over your head. We took the lymph nodes out. The cuts are very deep in your ribcage.’ I said, ‘I will definitely get there.’ But inside I recognized that it would be harder than I thought.

My career was both a curse and a blessing. If I had a desk job, I would have been less affected by the aftermath of the procedure. Going back to the gym and seeing everybody else doing the routines I created was humbling. On the other hand, if my job was more sedentary, it would have taken me much longer to return to my normal routine. 

Now, three years later, I’m about 90 percent back to my baseline on good days. It’s been a struggle because I can see my new physical limits and I’m like, come on, push five percent more. It’s my new reality. I’ll take it. 

I’m a private person but I decided to film my recovery for a documentary titled Stronger for Life. My community supported the project with funding, for which I’ll always be grateful. We screened the film at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City this summer for supporters. We’re hoping to raise the money needed to screen it at festivals within the next few months.  

Filming was a cathartic way for me to show the people I have told to be strong for all these years that it’s my turn to face a serious challenge. Now that they can see that I’m human and vulnerable, they share more stories with me. Building these emotional connections with people has changed me completely. 

Fitness didn’t prevent me from getting cancer but it did empower me through recovery, physically and mentally. I believe movement is the way to a better life. Without it, you will never feel truly fulfilled.”