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Stronger Than Ever: Be Your Healthiest at Any Age

Cancer at 25. A heart attack at 34. A life-changing diagnosis at 40. When health crises tested their mettle, these five women fought back. Find out why each one is at her healthiest right now and learn how to age-proof your life.

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Sharishta Shourie
Spencer Heyfron
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Sharishta Shourie

My Healthiest Age: 29

On September 1, 2009, my life changed forever. At 25, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few days earlier my coworker and I had been talking about his mother's recent diagnosis. That night I did a self-exam and found a lump. It turned out to be a stage II HER2-positive tumor, an aggressive form of the disease. I was shocked. The only relative I had ever known to have breast cancer was my grandmother, who was diagnosed in her seventies.

Fast-forward three years through six rounds of chemo, 28 bouts of radiation, 17 Herceptin treatments, and four surgeries, including a double mastectomy and lymph node removal. I was finally cancer-free. I had been given a second chance, and I felt a fire inside to go out and live.

I signed up with the group Boarding for Breast Cancer for a weekend surf retreat for young survivors. I fell in love with the rush of paddling through the waves, the calmness of sitting in open water with my legs dangling below, the power of standing on the board. At one point during the trip, as I floated in the ocean, I reflected on how lucky I was to be alive, and at that moment, two dolphins swam beneath me!

Since then I've taken several surfing lessons. The sea is a place where I'm not the girl with cancer. It doesn't pity me or go easy on me because of what I've been through. It challenges me, pushes me outside my comfort zone, and reminds me of my strength.

Cut Your Cancer Risk: More than 24,000 women under age 45 will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in the United States -- and they won't all have a strong family history of it or genes associated with the disease. These strategies can lower your risk:

  • Sip one alcoholic drink a day max. Women who have two to five are one and a half times as likely to get the disease.
  • Get moving. As little as 75 minutes of brisk walking a week reduces your risk by 18 percent, one study found.
  • Know your girls. Nearly 80 percent of young women with breast cancer first noticed symptoms at home.

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Michelle Bychowsky

My Healthiest Age: 39

It started as a typical day at the office in March 2008. One minute I was leading a meeting in a conference room, the next I went into sudden cardiac arrest. I was defibrillated seven times, and doctors later discovered that a valve in my heart needed repair. After two years I underwent open-heart surgery.

As a frequent gymgoer, it drove me nuts that I could do only light exercise, like walking or using the elliptical machine on the lowest setting -- especially because my husband, Paul, was training for a Tough Mudder at the time. I vowed to complete the obstacle race one day, too.

When doctors finally gave me the OK to return to my routine, I got winded simply walking up a flight of stairs. But I was determined. I started working with a personal trainer named Susan. We hit it off, and she promised to run the race with me. I set small targets -- do one real push-up, run two miles. Whenever I doubted myself, Susan reminded me that I had survived heart surgery; surely I could manage one more pull-up.

Four years after my cardiac arrest, Susan and I stood at the starting line of my first Tough Mudder. Thirteen miles of running, angled monkey bars, and icy plunges later, I was overwhelmed with exhaustion and emotion. Since then I've completed four adventure races. They make me realize how far I've come!

Listen to Your Heart: Women under 50 are twice as likely as men to die of a heart attack. "They're more likely to take a wait-and-see approach," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, the author of The Women's Healthy Heart Program. Beware of these sneaky signs:

  • Chest discomfort: Some women experience crushing pain, but others just feel that their bra is too tight.
  • Upper-body aches: Pressure or tightness that comes and goes in the upper back, shoulder, jaw, or stomach is common.
  • Who-knew clues: Watch out for cold sweats, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, fainting, or extreme fatigue. "Symptoms usually start slowly and persist for a few weeks before the attack," Dr. Goldberg says.

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Melanie Griffith

My Healthiest Age: 44

At 40, I thought I was in the best shape of my life. I was teaching 12 classes a week at the indoor-cycling studio SoulCycle. My classes were physically intense, and they always incorporated a mind-body approach. During grueling intervals I told my students that unexpected obstacles help define who we are. I had always believed those words, but it wasn't until I received a scary diagnosis three years ago that I had to live them.

I was in the shower when I noticed a lump in my groin. After a trip to a doctor and a biopsy, I learned I had a rare form of lymphoma that would require lifelong observation and treatment. The diagnosis was shocking, but I kept telling myself to live the words I preached to my students: Trust your strength.

I continued to teach between rounds of chemo. Before, I was working out to stay in shape, but now my rides were about something bigger. If I could find strength in the studio, then I was tough enough to cope with intense treatments and to be brave for my three children, my husband and, most important, myself. Living with chronic cancer will always be a challenge, but Spinning has taught me what I'm capable of mentally and physically. I'm the strongest I've ever been in body and mind, and for me, there's no separating the two.

Conquer a Crisis: Mental strength can help you work through obstacles, remain optimistic, and focus on getting healthy. Here, three ways to flex your resilience muscle.

  • Think back: Reflect on a challenging time and what you did to get through it. Focusing on your strengths builds confidence and gives you tools to overcome other hurdles.
  • Look forward: Picturing what you want your life to be like one year from now can give you the determination to take the steps to get there.
  • LOL: A daily dose of laughter can keep depression at bay. Call a funny friend or watch a silly YouTube video (cue Jimmy Kimmel's "I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy").

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Rhonda Bellamy Hodge

My Healthiest Age: 56

My 55th birthday was a milestone: I had officially outlived my dad and two sisters. All three died in their early fifties from lung or heart disease, and I had vowed to avoid the same fate. I knew that I couldn't control my genes, but I could take charge of my lifestyle choices. Years earlier I had eliminated soda and switched to a healthier diet, but it was time to start exercising.

My goal was simple: Walk four miles in the park near my house every day for 31 days. Walking had always seemed boring, so this time I chatted with anyone who made eye contact with me. Within a few days, people actually started to walk with me. Pretty soon my solo strolls were a group outing. About a dozen people gathered at 6:45 every morning -- my husband, my son, my neighbors and their dogs, anyone who wanted to join. We're all taking steps toward better health.

Now my 31-day goal is long past. We're still walking, and I feel healthier than ever. My last doctor's appointment went something like this: "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it!" And I will.

Go Greek: People with a family history of heart disease who ate a Mediterranean diet -- produce, beans, fish, olive oil, and red wine -- were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die from heart disease, according to one study.

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Pat Mitchell

My Healthiest Age: 69

Ten years ago a neighbor encouraged me to take a yoga class she was teaching. I had just retired from my job as a kindergarten teacher, so I figured, Why not? I was nervous that I was too old, but after an hour of moving into positions I had never attempted before -- cobra; plank; warriors one, two and three -- I was hooked. I left the class feeling strong, confident, and excited to go back.

I've been taking yoga two to three times a week ever since, and I'm as fit as I can possibly be. I weigh the same as when I was 25 and have more flexibility, strength, and balance. Not only can I touch my toes, but I can also place my palms flat on the floor. Other students say they envy my lotus pose, in which my knees practically touch the floor.

Four years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery to remove two-thirds of my right lung. One of the first questions I asked my doctor was "How soon can I get back to yoga?" Six weeks later I was on the mat. I believe that yoga helped speed my recovery by restoring my strength and lifting my mood. I never would have thought that I'd be a yogi in my sixties; it shows that it's never too late to become your fittest self.

Hit the Mat: "Yoga can have an enormous effect on healing the body and mind," says Timothy McCall, MD, the author of Yoga as Medicine. In one study, breast cancer patients who practiced yoga for 60 minutes a day reported fewer instances of chemotherapy-related nausea as well as less anxiety and depression. "Yoga influences neurotransmitters in the brain and boosts the level of serotonin," Dr. McCall explains. "Breathing deeply and mindfully also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and improve the immune system."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2013.

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