About six years ago, Julie Porras tried lifting her daughter, Elena, now 15, and groaned.
“I let out a sigh,” Porras told TODAY’s Jill Martin. “(Elena) was like, ‘Mom I’m getting too heavy for you.” And I never want her to ever feel like she’s too much for me.”
This moment encouraged Porras to examine her life and make some changes. Porras is Elena’s caregiver and being able to lift her daughter as she grows is important to Porras. So she visited the local gym to learn what she could do.
“I talked to a trainer (and said) ‘What do you suggest?’ and she was like, ‘Well you need to try Olympic lifting,” Porras recalled.
That conversation led to a transformation that bolstered the mother-daughter relationship and resulted in Porras working to become a certified personal trainer.
Childhood cancer and caretaking
Soon after Elena was born in April 2007, doctors noticed a “a golf ball sized mass protruding from her back” and she was diagnosed with a stage 3 neuroblastoma, a type of infant and childhood cancer that thrives on immature nerve cells throughout the body, according to the American Cancer Society.
“There’s a tumor in her abdomen that you could see it compressing the spinal cord,” Porras said. “This was the first time they were doing chemo on a baby that young — she was 12 hours old.”Elena underwent four rounds of chemotherapy that lasted five days for each infusion. The tumor weighed 1 pound, making it massive for a 6-pound baby, Porras said. While the chemotherapy shrunk the tumor, Elena had to undergo another round of chemotherapy before surgeons ultimately removed the mass. While removing it helped with her cancer, it also caused more complications for Elena.
“They did like a 12-hour surgery to remove the tumor,” Porras explained. “When the neurosurgeon came out, he was like, ‘She’s not going to walk.’ So the tumor left her paralyzed.”
Elena also experiences cognitive difficulties, what’s often referred to as “chemo brain.” That means that sometimes she struggles with tasks that others can do easily.
“She knows that kindness matters. She knows what’s important,” Porras said. “But if you’re going to throw something out like ‘What’s nine plus three’ that will be a struggle because certain dots don’t connect.”
At first doctors weren’t sure what Elena would be able to do on her own, but she’s exceeded expectations, in part, due to her perseverance.
“Because her independence was threatened, she fights for it more and appreciates it more,” Porras said.
Weight lifting boosts mom and daughter’s health, resilience
Becoming stronger felt important to Porras as a caregiver and a parent hoping to nurture Elena’s independent streak. After that initial meeting with a trainer, Porras started lifting and noticed that weight training has cultivated more than her muscles.
“I got my mental strength as well as my physical strength,” Porras said. “She’s 130 pounds now and I can pick her up. I can do all our stuff that we do day-to-day whether it’s showering, changing clothes or anything.”
When Elena noticed changes in her mom, she felt inspired too.
“She’s getting much stronger, physically and mentally. I wondered if that will work for me. I want to try that,” Elena said. “Where do I sign up?”
Since starting to weight lift, both of them have experienced changes that transformed their lives.
“She can pick me up with no struggle,” Elena said. “She lifts me flawlessly.”
Elena also has impressive gains of her own.
“I’m able to get in the car by myself. I wasn’t able to do that before,” she said. “Now I am.”
Porras is working toward becoming a personal trainer. But she’s so proud of how her love of exercise helped her as a caretaker while also fostering Elena’s strength and independence.
“I am able to use my upper body much more than I used to,” Elena said. “I’m able to get in the car by myself. I wasn’t able to do that before, but now I am.”
The two love that Elena’s gaining more strength to do the things that she wants, such as moving from her wheelchair to the couch. When Elena first got into the car herself, Porras and their trainer took a moment to applaud her.
“We all celebrated,” Porras said. “Her trainer was FaceTiming her and she’s like, ‘This is wonderful news.’”
Weight lifting together is another way that the mother and daughter bolstered their friendship.
“We speak kind of like two girls would talk at a slumber party,” Elena said.
Porras agrees. “She’s my best friend. She’s my other half,” she said. “She’s my purpose.”
Porras has learned a great deal about herself through her experience and believes that lifting has made her a better parent. She encourages other parents to think of their needs as well as their child’s.
“If you take care of you, everything else falls into place — and taking care of you is being your healthiest self,” she said. “I have that mental strength because I invested in myself and that means I gave myself an hour a day.”