One October morning last year, Erica Lugo said she was driving to work when she began sweating profusely and the color drained from her face. She spotted a parking lot and prepared to pull into it when, suddenly, she said she couldn’t hear and started seeing in “tunnel vision.” As she drifted out of consciousness, she felt three big bumps. Moments later, a man pulled her from her wrecked car.
“I am so thankful for that stranger,” Lugo, 32, told TODAY.
At the hospital, doctors who examined her worried that some underlying illness could have led to the incident.
“Doctors were like ‘Why is a healthy 31-year-old athletic girl passing out while driving,’” Lugo recalled.
After an MRI, they found a lump deep in the right side of her neck. A month later, a biopsy revealed that Lugo had stage 2 papillary thyroid cancer and she was told she needed to have her thyroid and 33 lymph nodes removed, plus radiation treatment.
She had just signed a lease for a new gym space in Dayton, Ohio, to grow her athletic training business. She was also a single mom. The news left her stunned.
“You think that everything is over,” she said. “No one could prepare you to hear you have stage 2 anything.”
In January 2019, Lugo had the thyroid and lymph node removal surgery. Her doctors warned her that most people gain weight afterwards, but Lugo felt determined not to let that happen again.
Six years ago, she weighed 322 pounds and had felt too exhausted to get off the couch to play with her son. That’s when she began tracking her calories on an app and exercising four days a week and started losing weight.
“When I first started, I had no idea what to do,” she said. “The basics are what worked.”
As she shed weight, losing 160 pounds from her 5 foot 11 inch frame, she learned that she loved exercise and decided to turn it into her career and started Erica Fit Love to help others.
After losing her thyroid, she still wanted to continue. But, it hasn’t always come naturally, the way it used to, since her cancer diagnosis.
“You no longer have a major organ in your body that controls so much of your hormones and your mood and your metabolism,” she said. “It’s been a process of finding out what medication works for me, how my body reacts.”
Despite not having a thyroid, she has kept the weight off. But, she’s had to make some modifications.
“The high intensity interval training actually will just tank my immune system,” Lugo explained. “So I can’t do the HIIT I once loved to do all the time. I can only do it maybe two, max, three times a week.”
Instead, she walks on a treadmill at a high incline for about an hour. While it is frustrating at times, she thinks listening to her body helps her — and can help others.
“Fitness is a lifestyle,” Lugo said. “If you want to stay fit and lose weight for the long haul versus the short haul you really have to look at what workouts you’re doing and is it sustainable.”
Lugo said she uses the lessons she learned from her weight loss and experience with cancer in her role as one of the newest trainer on USA's Biggest Loser.
When she first applied to the show, she worried she wasn't good enough to be selected.
“Every day you have to work on that inner critic," she said. "Reminding yourself that you are worthy, you are amazing, you are strong, you are capable of hard things."
Now that she’s there, Lugo is ecstatic about being able to help so many people.
"Every day I have to pinch myself,” she said. “It is an insane experience being on the show knowing that five years ago I was 322 pounds and here I am … teaching people how to lose weight and become better versions of themselves."
These are her tips to help anyone maintain their weight loss.
1. Learn about maintenance during weight loss
While losing weight, she went out to eat or attended birthday parties and enjoyed all foods in moderation. Learning how to eat in social settings while losing weight made it easier for her not to splurge as she maintains.
“If you restrict yourself all the time when you are losing weight, when you get to maintenance you have no idea how to do it,” she said.
2. Plan for the unexpected
If Lugo is stuck somewhere, she doesn't want to feel trapped into eating fast food. So she is always prepared.
“I have what I call an emergency kit in my car,” she said. “If I am out all day long and shopping and may not be able to get home in get my meal I will always shave a quick energy snack in my glove box, which is something that won’t melt.”
She also knows which restaurants have the healthiest meals so she can always find something to eat.
3. Create a structure
Having a routine that is consistent makes it easier for her to maintain her positive exercise and eating behaviors.
“I lack willpower, which is crazy to say” she explained. “It’s one of the hardest things that I have to do.”