Powerlifter survives breast cancer, fights to get back to the top

Powerlifter spreads messages of positivity despite struggles

"It's not impossible, it's easier than it seems," Shelly Cannon says.

HOLLY HILL, Fla. – When powerlifter Shelly Cannon walks into a gym like Perfect Storm Hardcore Training Gym, training isn't just a hobby, it's almost like a second job.

"It's non-negotiable, it's an appointment in my calendar," said Cannon.

It didn't always start out that way. The FirsTrust private wealth managment group partner said she was always active, but she didn't start competing until she was an adult.

"I started body building and I did that for about five years, went to nationals in two different divisions for three years, so I made it that far which I think is a pretty big accomplioshment," said Cannon. "I decided on one of my off-seasons right after nationals to try powerlifting. My first time trying it, I was really incredbily strong for my frist time squatting and everyone was really amazed. And I'm like, 'Wait, a minute, I'm good at something the first time I try it? I'm totally doing this, sign me up, when do I compete?'"

Powerlifting is a strength sport where athletes compete in three main lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. At a meet, each lifter gets three attempts at each lift to successfully lift the most they can, for the combined highest possible total. You're lifting heavy most of the time, and most athletes train four to five days per week.

Cannon said one of the biggest reasons she chose to switch sports was the effect it had on her mentally.

"I think that powerlifting promotes a more positive body image, more happy with what your body can accomplish versus what it looks like," she said. "You get to set these goals and beat them, which is the best feeling ever. It's also more challenging and I like a challenge, and once you feel what it feels like to be powerful, I don't think you care so much about how you look. I feel beautiful because I am powerful and I don't think most women ever know what that feels like and that's a shame."

All that considered, it wasn't long before Cannon signed up for her first competition.

"I broke some records at my first meet and I was hooked after that for sure," she said. "I think I have done nine meets since which included all kinds of things, like I got to go to the Olympia which was super exciting, I was ranked really high overall in the world for awhile. My last meet was the Irish Pro and I did really great there... I got this 402 lb. squat which was the Holy Grail for me, I'd been working on it for years and that feeling, I can't even explain it to you."

Cannon said that was the last meet she did before she found out she had breast cancer. It's a diagnosis that for most would be devastating, but Cannon said for her, it was just another obstacle to overcome.

"I've been through so much. I have been homeless, I had an addict mother, I had a brother put in prison accused of murder, I adopted my sister as a baby when I was 18. I have been through so much real stuff that when I got this news, I was like, 'Oh, so this is a medical thing, and we'll fix it and it will be over.' I think my whole life prepared me for finding out I had cancer."

Shelly Cannon credits powerlifting for helping her overcome breast cancer.

Cannon said she knows for most people, fighting cancer is the roughest times in their lives, and she said the best thing you can do for yourself is to let those around you help you-- and to take the time you need to focus on yourself.

"This isn't a death sentence, this can be the beginning of something beautiful, your life is going to turn around and be better than it was before, this is your fresh slate, this is your restart, it's like a reset button," she said. "Athletics, and lifting in general has been the one constant in my life that has helped me through so many obstacles, this can save you, this can be your safe place."

A safe space you definitely need when faced with your own mortality. Cannon revealed her tumor was tested, and those tests showed chemotherapy wouldn't work for her.

 "If it comes back, I'm probably going to die because the tumor doesn't respond to it," she said. "I'm taking out the good dishes and using them, because why would I wait? I really like these dishes, so what if they're expensive, if they break, who cares? We all have short lives and mine may be shorter than others, so I'm going to make it better while I'm here."

It's this mentality that has Cannon getting ready to head back to the platform in just a few short months.

"So now it's a year and a half since all my surgeries are done and I'm about to compete in the Irish pro again," said Cannon. "I'm going back to the same meet. It's really cool to go back there since it was the highlight of my career."

She said one of the things she wants other women to know is anyone can do this, anyone can start powerfliting whenever they want to. You don't need to be a particular age or size, and you don't need to have had prior athletic training.

"It's not impossible, it's easier than it seems," said Cannon. "If I hadn't ever powerlifted or lifted heavy, where I would start now would be looking at local gyms, going to their social media, see what people are posting about them and find one that looks like something you'd look forward to going to. Then go and talk to people there. I know that seems really awkward but you can start by going and doing your own thing and then when you see someone that looks approachable, just ask questions. People want to help, they like to feel like they know things and they want to share what they know. There's a quote I just heard today, it goes, 'Not everyone waves, but everyone waves back.' It's a team effort and the people you meet are one of the best things about this."

Cannon is so passionate about spreading the positivity around strength sports, she's working on a new show called The Strength Experience designed to introduce folks to all aspects of training and strength. You can follow her journey by clicking here.

About the Author:

Tara Evans is an executive producer and has been with News 6 since January 2013. She currently spearheads News 6 at Nine and specializes in stories with messages of inspiration, hope and that make a difference for people -- with a few hard-hitting investigations thrown in from time to time.