The Body Issue: Karen Pierce
shot on location at CrossFit Jääkarhu
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
The former CrossFit Games competitor and coach at CrossFit Jääkarhu said she’s been conditioned to "be prepared for the unknown,” ever since she found the sport of fitness in 2009.
Little did she realize, eight years ago, that she’d actually be training for a different type of “unknown.” Instead of anticipating a random WOD (workout of the day) in the gym or competition floor, she was preparing to face cancer.
And while no one wants to expect that battle, Pierce turned it into a different type of competition—ultimately coming out on top in the process.
“You have cancer.”
Three words no one wants to hear, yet three words that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will hear at some point in their lifetime.
Pierce was one of them. Cervical cancer to be exact—a disease that 1 in 3 of those diagnosed do lose their life.
At age 29, Pierce was feeling on top of her game.
“I was in the BEST shape of my life when I was diagnosed. I looked great and felt even better,” she says, adding that her fitness was a silver lining in her disease, “I entered my cancer battle in the best health condition possible which I'm sure has a lot to do with the fact of why I'm still in remission three years later,” Pierce says.
The diagnosis came to Pierce in early 2014, when she began experiencing bouts of random bleeding. Her annual trip to the OB-GYN resulted in an abnormal pap smear, and a few weeks later she was back for a biopsy of the abnormal cells. The next week, Pierce’s care-free life was turned on its head.
“My nights quickly turned into internet searches of any word combinations on anything dealing with ‘endocervical adenocarcinoma in situ.’ In other words, I had Stage 0 cervical cancer—the cells were acting up. Once they passed through a certain membrane they would be considered cancerous cells,” Pierce says.
The doc referred Pierce to consult with a gynecologic oncologist to dig deeper into the diagnosis, but since they did not take her low-coverage insurance, Pierce figured she’d get by the best she could until she really needed the appointment or could figure out other funding options.
In true inner-athlete resilience, Pierce did her best to get on with her life, as usual.
“I was eating clean. I was pain free. And the CrossFit Open was coming up in March and that was really my focus. Can you say ‘denial?!” Pierce says.
Pierce ended up placing 4th in the region and 68th in the world in the Crossfit Open, while trying to deal with and suppress the bleeding symptoms.
“It was nothing a tampon couldn’t save,” Pierce said. She continued to train and prep for the CrossFit Regionals.
Come May, however, on the cusp of the competition, Pierce’s body had a different agenda—the bleeding ensued—in a much heavier and frequent manner—and didn’t stop. She forced herself to fight through the big event, but knew that even the Stage 0 cancer was bigger than she could handle alone—even though it seemed no doctor would still take her insurance.
“I was miserable. I couldn’t stop bleeding to save my life. This left me tired and very fatigued mentally and physically, resulting in a horrible placement at Regionals. Even after all the hard work I had put in,” Pierce said.
After the competition, all the pieces Pierce had tried to hold together seemingly fell apart, and she found herself at MD Anderson in Houston being told she’d progressed to Stage 2b cancer, and that she’d never be able to get pregnant. In that time frame, she was also informed she would need to have a hysterectomy, on top of radiation, chemotherapy, brachytherapy and IVF treatment to preserve her eggs.
“By this time, everything came to a halt. My ‘competition’ became cancer. Everything I did now revolved around cancer and my treatment. I was very limited in my abilities...even the simplest of actions were hard. I was taking multiple naps during the day, even on gym floors and a lot in my car,” Pierce recalls.
Despite her zapped energy, Pierce stayed connected to her fitness and fitness community. In fact, she believes it’s one of the things that kept her sane.
“Some days were better than others, but the idea of stopping or quitting training never crossed my mind. I was at the peak of my fitness levels going into battle and I wanted to get as close as I could back to that as soon as possible. I knew what I had to do—I preach it to my athletes on the daily. I had to take care of my body on and off the training field, surround myself with a strong community, stay positive, and be strong in my faith,” Pierce says.
Pierce did just that, making one hell of a comeback—even qualifying with her CrossFit team the following year for the 2015 CrossFit Games.
Three years later, she is cancer-free, and back to training and coaching for the love of the game. She also started her own nutrition and meal prep business, as well as blog and brand Living Amped to spread the same positivity and healing that her health and fit lifestyle has given her. Additionally, she is currently becoming fluent in sign language in order to coach the gift of fitness for those who are hard of hearing
“Fitness gives you freedom,” Pierce says. Adding, “Living a fit lifestyle gives me opportunity to see and do many things others are unable to. It’s never a question or worry of my physical ability.”