Cancer survivor Wendy Chioji has found a richer life rooted in fitness

Cancer survivor Wendy Chioji has found a richer life rooted in fitness

As reporter and news anchor at NBC affiliate WESH-TV, Wendy Chioji was a reassuring presence in Central Florida for more than twenty years. During that time she won journalism awards, including an Emmy, and was lauded for her many volunteer activities. She also developed close ties with the local LGBT community as a member of the Hope & Help Center’s advisory board. 

WChioji_377279238.jpgBut in 2001, and just days after running the Boston Marathon in less than four hours, the fitness buff was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer. She continued to exercise during months of brutal chemotherapy, and famously attended the Headdress Ball wearing a platinum blonde wig to cover her shaved head. Eventually Chioji emerged cancer-free and with a new perspective on life. In 2008, she quit her coveted anchor job and moved to Park City, Utah, where she reinvented herself as a fitness and yoga instructor, freelance journalist and spokesperson for cancer survivors.

“I plan to do everything I can to make the most of this second chance, both for myself and the people I might be able to help,” she told Runner’s World in 2007.

In April, Chioji will join former WESH sports anchors Marc Middleton and Bill Shafer as a reporter for the nationally syndicated Growing Bolder television show, which appears on most PBS affiliates.

With typical enthusiasm, Chioji jumped at the chance to talk with Watermark readers about fitness.

WATERMARK: It’s a new year and everybody wants to get fit. You exercised while you were going through chemo! Any tips for getting and staying motivated?
WENDY CHIOJI: In a word: Go! The hardest thing about any workout is getting out of the house and doing it. If you’re just getting started, have reasonable goals. Run for 15 minutes, or work out at the gym for just 30 minutes at first. Also, have a program! If you’re just heading out with no plan, it’s easy to overdo it or get bored or just not make any progress. Set goals.

You have friends and fans that have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Do you see any parallels with your cancer battle?

The disease may be different, but many parts of the experience are the same. The diagnosis will take your breath away. It will reprioritize your life and force you to make big choices.

The treatment can be harrowing and daunting. We’ve made lots of progress, but both diseases still have a stigma; that’s definitely something that HIV/AIDS and cancer advocates need to work on. There’s no need to whisper “cancer” or “HIV” any more.
Do you have gay friends with HIV who, like you, have used what many would see as negative in positive ways?
There are two big ways you can react when you’re diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Fear will keep your life small and limit your experiences. Not only will you not help yourself, you are missing the chance to help others. On the other hand, you can face the challenge with a positive attitude, coming from a position of strength, and make a difference.

You really have lots of control over what’s happening, even though it doesn’t feel like it. Live fiercely and openly. Trying to make a difference in other people’s lives will make a difference in your own.

You’ve shared that your cancer diagnosis caused you to reestablish your priorities and stop putting things off—great lessons for all of us. How can people who are not facing illness tap into that energy that comes from sensing that life is finite?  
Isn’t it the biggest shame that most people need a crisis to put their life into perspective? Life is finite. None of us has enough time to do all the cool things we want to do.

When I was slogging through my cancer treatment, airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. None of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day got to say a final “good bye” or “I love you” to the people in their lives. I realized then that even if my disease killed me, I’d have time to put my affairs in order and say what I needed to say to people I loved.

After I was done with treatment, I started doing pretty much everything that I’d put off for “a better time.” I went on a photo safari in Africa. I bungee jumped over the Zambezi River. I shaved my head and went platinum blonde to the Headdress Ball.

There’s no guarantee there will be a tomorrow. You have to live for today.
In making life changes, you’ve described it as “following your heart.” Can you talk about the difference between a fantasy and change driven by heartsong?
People constantly tell me that I made a brave decision to come out here to Park City. To many it seems a lark, but that’s hardly the case. It was a calculated risk. I had planned my “escape” for years. I saved money. I researched where I wanted to be. I think it’s critical to happiness that you follow your heart, but you have to take responsibility as well. Set it up. Make it happen.
Do you meditate? Do yoga? How would you describe your spirituality?
Like everyone’s, my spirituality is individual and unique. I do yoga—in fact, I teach it (Anusara-inspired training) and run the yoga program at the Westgate Resort and Spa here. Most of my family is Buddhist, and though I didn’t go to temple often, I like the peaceful, live-and-let-live philosophy of the religion. Do no harm. Leave this place better than you found it. That’s my spirituality.
Are your fitness goals changing as you get older? What adjustments have you made, physically and intellectually?

My fitness goals haven’t really changed much. Living in Park City among elite athletes and former Olympians, there’s lots of motivation to be fit and healthy. My biggest athletic goal is still to qualify for the World Championship Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.
Do you count calories? Take any supplements?
I don’t count calories. I am the world’s worst dieter. I’d rather run an extra hour than deny myself a piece of pumpkin pie. I do take some supplements because I don’t always eat as well as I should: fish oil, iron, a multi-vitamin and glucosamine-chondroiten.
Body types vary. How does someone know when they’re at a healthy weight?
There are all kinds of charts measuring BMI [Body Mass Index] and height-to-weight ratio, blah blah blah. It’s enough to make your head spin. How do you feel? Do you like the way you look? That’s my best indicator.

Do you have any dieting tips?    
Get off the couch, even if just for 10 minutes. Then reassess. Like I said, getting out the door is the hardest part of a workout.

Think diet, not dieting. Eat different foods with lots of colors; green is particularly good. Its okay to eat a cookie, just don’t eat the whole freaking box. Its okay to binge once in a while, just don’t link big fat food days together. Remember that restaurant portions are almost always too big. Eat slowly. Think about how great half of that piece of salmon and that leftover rice would be for lunch tomorrow.

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