Cancer is something that will touch everyone’s life at some point. For those of us fortunate not to get a diagnosis or a scare, there are friends and relatives who won’t be so fortunate. Shawn Krest has been chosen by the American Cancer Society as one of the Real Men Wear Pink ambassadors for October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each day of the month, he’ll be telling a story of how cancer has touched someone on one of the teams we root for. It could be a coach, a player, a retired legend or an arena worker. The disease doesn’t care how successful you are, how much money you have or, as we see in today’s post, whether you gave up risky behavior more than a decade earlier. To join in the fight against breast cancer, you can visit Shawn’s American Cancer Society page.
It is an eight-sided steel cage, six feet high, known to fight fans worldwide as The Octagon.
It’s where UFC fighters do business. They enter with two other people—a referee and an opponent looking to do them harm. Then the door closes with a clang and is latched from the outside, with a raucous crowd watching, waiting for someone to get put to sleep.
It’s an intimidating place for even the most seasoned mixed martial arts fighters.
For Tatiana Suarez, a fighter in the UFC’s female strawweight division, it’s the second-toughest room she’s ever been locked in.
The toughest was her own bedroom, back in 2011. At the time, she was the top-ranked female wrestler in the 55 kilogram weight class (about 121 pounds). She’d gone to the World Championships in Tokyo in 2008 and Moscow in 2010, winning bronze both times, and she seemed a lock to represent the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.
As she trained for her dream of competing for Olympic gold, she began to feel numbness in her arm. Once, she couldn’t move at all for a brief, scary moment.
Doctors examined her and found that two vertebrae in her neck were putting pressure on her spinal cord. Her Olympic dream, while not dashed, was in jeopardy.
When doctors took an X-ray and MRI, the dream died.
In addition to the disk problem, the scans showed a cancerous growth on her thyroid.
“I just remember thinking I was going to get the neck injury taken care of and see what I can do and then they were like, ‘Oh, you have cancer,’” Padilla told the Press-Enterprise. “So I said, ‘OK, I guess I gotta knock this out too.’ … “There wasn’t a point in my life where I was like, ‘Wow everything’s going wrong for me. There’s people out there who have brain cancer, leukemia and Stage 4 cancer and I had thyroid cancer. It can be fatal, but it’s something they caught quickly, so I was very grateful. It could have been worse.”
Still, there were some dark moments while dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the end of her Olympic hopes.
“I didn’t think it was going to be anything,” Suarez told ESPN. “I’m 19 years old. I’m healthy. All I do is train. How could this happen? Well, it ended up being cancer. So it happened.”
She had surgery to remove the thyroid and some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread.
Part of her treatment involved being injected with radioactive iodine. Since the thyroid, which normally absorbs iodine, had been removed, Suarez was emitting radiation. So she spent two weeks in her bedroom, with plastic sheets covering the walls to protect everyone else that lived there.
“I couldn’t be around people at all,” she told Bleacher Report. “I had to stay there for like a week. Imagine going through a treatment for cancer and you can’t be around people to comfort you. To me, that sucked.”
Doctors told her to drink lots of water to flush it out of her system, so Suarez attacked that task with a fury. She claims she drank two gallons.
“After I drank all that water, I weighed myself and I weighed a lot,” she told Bleacher Report. “So I was like, ‘This is the heaviest I’ve ever been. I have to go for a run!’”
But, of course, she wasn’t allowed to leave her room.
So she began exercising—pushups, jumping jacks, situps, various wrestling drills. Anything to sweat out the water and get back to normal.
“My boyfriend was like, ‘What are you doing in there?’ she said.
Eventually, the plastic sheeting came down and she was able to exit her room and rejoin the rest of the world. But, what would she do now?
She’d spent much of the last two years at the Olympic Training Center, preparing for London. With that gone, what was next for her?
She took a job at Pet Smart as a dog trainer, but it wasn’t fulfilling her need to compete.
“Man, I have a regular job. I’m like this … normal person,” she complained to her brother. When he pointed out that most people, including him, have regular jobs, she replied. “Yeah, but that’s just not who I am.”
Her mother helped her to refocus.
“To me, my daughter having cancer was more devastating than her losing her dream,” her mother, Linda Padilla, told the Los Angeles Daily News, “because you can always have another dream.”
For Suarez, that new dream involved beginning jiu jitsu training. For someone who points to making a boy opponent cry during a wrestling match as a five-year-old, learning a new martial art was something that clicked from the very beginning.
“I just immediately fell in love with jiu-jitsu,” she said. “It’s kind of like wrestling, but I get to choke people out and hurt them even more than wrestling. I was like, ‘Yes, this is perfect!’”
She eventually added other fight disciplines to her portfolio and, after winning two amateur MMA fights, Suarez turned pro. The UFC quickly took notice and signed her up for their reality competition show The Ultimate Fighter, which offers a six-figure UFC contract to the winner.
Suarez beat all four opponents on the show—tapping out the last three with three different types of chokes—to win the show and join the UFC. That happened in July 2016—a month before the Rio Olympics. Another female fighter would become the first American woman to win gold in freestyle wrestling, but by then, Suarez was busy working on her new dream.
She’s now 8-0 as a pro, although she’s struggled with neck and knee injuries that have kept her out of the cage the last two years, but no less an authority than UFC president Dana White has called her a future champion and proclaimed that “no one wants to fight her.”
She now considers the neck injury a blessing in disguise, since it saved her life and put her on her new path.
“Looking back, I realize God was giving me a bigger dream,” she said. “He was taking one thing away from me but giving me something even greater. … I lost my chance to go to the Olympics, but now I have a chance to be a world champion in MMA. That’s what I’m looking toward now and that’s my ultimate goal when I wake up in the morning.”
Previous stories in the series include the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stelio Mattheos, Ron Rivera, Brian Piccolo, Brett Butler, Quincy Monk, Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, Carlos Carrasco, Daniel Norris, Trey Mancini, Jameson Taillon, Eric Davis, Chad Bettis and Edna Campbell. To donate to the American Cancer Society’s fight against cancer, visit the Real Men Wear Pink campaign page.