Two Cancer Scares, Double Mastectomy, Hysterectomy Doesn’t Stop Michelle Ritter from Breaking Nine State Weightlifting Records
Michelle Ritter admits there are days where the fear of her cancer coming back causes her great anxiety.
“Especially when I have an upcoming doctor’s appointment. I usually have trouble sleeping…But I try to tell myself that I have already beaten the odds twice,” said 49 year-old Ritter, who was first diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2013, the same year CrossFit helped her get into the best shape of her life.
After eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, a full hysterectomy (a precaution because her mother died of ovarian cancer), and multiple reconstruction surgeries in the following months, Ritter was cancer free. And through all of her treatments and surgeries, she continued to train at CrossFit GSL in Salt Lake City, UT.
“When I was diagnosed, I was in the best shape I had been in since I had my children, and maybe even better than before, and I didn’t want to lose that. So my goal when I started chemo was just to keep moving as long as I could,” she explained of her mindset at the time.
So five to six days a week, Ritter continued to workout with a community that never stopped supporting her.
“I remember going to the gym and doing a WOD with double-unders, and it was right when my hair started falling out, and there was hair everywhere on the ground when I was done. After the workout, one of the coaches just quietly got a broom and swept it up without saying anything.”
One of her mantras became, “If I can do chemo, I can do this CrossFit WOD, and if I can do this WOD then I can do chemo,” she explained. “When you’re working out and you feel like you can’t do another round, I’d tell myself, ‘I did five hours of chemo, I can do this,’ and when I’d be in chemo and I’d be like, ‘this sucks,’ I’d remind myself about the WOD I made it through. CrossFit just helped me feel really healthy.”
“I never even really worried that first time around that it might kill me…” she added.
And Then it Came Back
In June 2015, Ritter’s cancer came back. This time, however, it was Stage 4, triple negative, metastatic cancer in her lymph nodes and pelvic bone. In other words, it was in one of the most advanced stages.
The diagnosis led to seven more rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation, and by January 2016, she was, once again, cancer-free. Again, she credits her mindset with helping her pull through.
“I think I’m just an eternal optimist with pretty much everything. I kept telling myself, ‘I can be upset and scared and sad all the time and have cancer, or I can be happy and have cancer, so I choose happy,” said Ritter, who has also never stopped working as a high school teacher since her first diagnosis.
And just like her first experience with cancer, Ritter took comfort in keeping her body as fit as possible, only this time, she stepped it up a notch and began competing in Olympic weightlifting. In fact, she competed in her first weightlifting competition two weeks after receiving her diagnosis.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I can be upset and scared and sad all the time and have cancer, or I can be happy and have cancer, so I choose happy.”
Once she was cancer-free, Ritter went full-steam again, and in recent years has accumulated nine state records for her age and weight class.
Ritter holds Utah’s clean and jerk, snatch and total in the women’s 45-49 year-old division in two different weight classes, as well as the clean and jerk, snatch and total for the 50-54 year-old division, a record she achieved just last month.
Currently, Ritter is training for the National Championships in April, 2020, to be held in her home town in Salt Lake City, and where she hopes to improve upon her best competition snatch of 53 kg and clean and jerk of 72 kg.
When Ritter was diagnosed with cancer a second time and was told her odds weren’t good, she decided to write a dozen birthday cards for her two children to open each year in case she wasn’t around. But as each year goes by, Ritter has used their birthdays as a chance to say “a big F you to cancer and rip the card up and get a new one,” she said.
“You will never be the same after a cancer diagnosis, but it doesn’t have to be the most important thing to you. It never leaves your mind, but it makes you stronger and more resilient…Being able to have this mindset about everything is because of CrossFit. After you have kids, you get into the state where you put on the mom weight, and had I gotten cancer then, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to keep moving. But because I had that routine in place already, and because I was fit, it has made a huge difference to me.”