“People are telling me, my case is treatable, I’ll be fine,” begins Erica Langley, “but what if I’m not?” After months of grueling training schedules and strict dieting in preparation for her first bodybuilding competition, Langley was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 38 years old. In five weeks, she was supposed to take the stage for the first time, but her plans were derailed to make room for a rigid treatment schedule.
Langley was afraid because she had seen firsthand what cancer can do to a body: When Langley was 25, her grandmother passed away from stomach cancer. “I was praying all the time. I knew God was going to heal my grandmother, she was going to be fine,” she remembers. “I was in denial until the day I found she had passed.” More than a decade later, her grandmother’s passing was top of mind after receiving her own cancer diagnosis. “I was terrified,” she says.
Today, Langley is cancer-free and back at the gym, training for an upcoming competition in which she’ll attempt to earn her Pro Card. But her journey was far from easy. “When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t understand why I was going through this,” Langley says. “By all accounts I was living a healthy lifestyle. […] I was taking care of my body; I had a healthy diet.”
After her diagnosis in 2018, Langley stopped going to the gym. After the initial shock of her diagnosis wore off, she found it hard to accommodate work, visits from family, chemotherapy sessions and working out. “Before I knew it, I had gotten into the habit of not going,” she says.
But it was Langley’s long history of staying in shape, cultivated from an early age, that helped her thrive through cancer treatment. Before her diagnosis, and even before her bodybuilding training, she lived an active lifestyle. But she was lean, primarily due to a focus on cardio at the gym. An acquaintance pointed out that she had very little muscle tone, and she let this be her fire to switch things up in the gym and start strength training with weights. “Within 90 days, I was totally ripped,” Erica says. She realized she had a natural affinity for gaining muscle and strength, but she had reached a plateau, and couldn’t progress by herself. “That’s what put me on the path to preparing for my first bodybuilding competition,” she says.
Despite an abrupt end to her training, Langley was in the best shape of her life at the time she was diagnosed. This would become all too important when she started receiving chemotherapy treatments. “My doctors would all tell me that because I was in such good physical health that [would] be beneficial to me,” she says. She experienced many of the typically debilitating symptoms of chemotherapy, though less severely than if she wasn’t in such good shape. Langley and her friends even used to joke that her chemotherapy days were her “spa days,” because she was able to take the day off work and would often nap during sessions.
After treatment was over and she had recovered from double mastectomy surgery, she was 50 pounds heavier, and she didn’t recognize herself. “Right before chemo, I was in the best shape of my life,” Langley says. “[I] wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get back to that state.” At least, she thought, not without help.
So she started training with Daniel “Bolo” Young at Chi-Town Fitness near her home in the Chicago suburbs. She tasked herself to accomplish a formidable goal — to be competition ready within six months. She asked Young if he thought she could do it. “I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I think you can do it?’” Young says. “You just battled cancer. What is it that you can’t do?”
She worked closely with Young to create a program that would accommodate her goals as well as her unique experience with cancer. Langley is a “natural” athlete, meaning she doesn’t take steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. Many natural athletes rely on the muscle-building qualities of certain supplements, but Langley found that most supplements would negatively interfere with medicines she was taking for her cancer. “[We] wanted to make sure it didn’t interfere with my medication, or it wasn’t promoting the growth of cancer cells,” Langley says.
But Young was ready. “I knew it would be a challenge, [but] I was really excited,” Young remembers. “Knowing that she just told me her story of what she went through with chemo, I was all for [it].” Young started with a physical assessment to gauge Langley’s post-cancer strength, then got stuck into research about what supplements he could safely incorporate into her training plan. Young is also a certified nutritionist, and he created a meal plan that also reflected Langley’s unique needs.
“By being such a unique situation, working with Erica actually pushed me to be a better coach,” Young says. He learned that, post-cancer, strength and energy levels can change from day to day, and it’s not always a physical issue, but “it’s the mental hurdle that people have to get over” to perform their best and come back to the gym, day after day.
Because it wasn’t just about getting her body ready for competition — Langley would have to get her mind ready, too. Through her faith and tireless support from her fiancé, she was able to manage the emotional side of her diagnosis, without which she wouldn’t have been able to find the mental stamina required to train for — and win — her first competition. “I tried to tell myself, you can’t be fearful and trust in God at the same time,” she says. In that first competition in May 2021, Langley placed first in one category and medaled in others, competing against women who did take performance-enhancing drugs, but hadn’t just been through cancer treatment.
Standing on that stage was a defining moment in Langley’s life. “I’ve shown that I can stand next to somebody [who] is on steroids and look just as muscular and developed as they do,” she says. “I’ve done something that I know not everybody can do.”
But the pleasure of surpassing goals isn’t the only positive to come from Langley’s cancer journey. Before her diagnosis, Langley felt a little lost. During commutes to work, she would listen to Steve Harvey’s radio show every morning, which often discussed finding your purpose in life. “I would get a little depressed, because at that point in my life, I didn’t know what my purpose was,” Langley says. “I’m here, but what am I supposed to do?”
After making it through cancer treatment and finding success in her first competition, the media began to reach out to Langley to share her story. “It started reaching more and more people, and they would tell me how my story had encouraged them,” she says. “It hit me […] Maybe I went through everything [to] tell my story to help somebody else, [because] I’m not the first to go through this, and I won’t be the last.”
It also helped Erica evaluate where her passions lie. “Going through my ordeal with the cancer and continuing to maintain my health and a specific body image [has] prompted me to want to help others,” she says. She aspires to become a personal trainer and a certified nutritionist helping people like herself — those who want to regain their strength and a positive body image post-cancer. “I want to continue to be a voice or an advocate for them, and say, ‘Yes, you can. I’ll show you how.’”