IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cancer stole her confidence and strength. A special fitness trainer helped her rebuild it

Trish Burton thought she bit her cheek. It turned out to be cancer. Chemo and radiation sapped her strength and confidence, but exercise made her stronger than ever.

Welcome to Start TODAY. Sign up for our Start TODAY newsletter to receive daily inspiration sent to your inbox — and join us on Instagram!

When Trish Burton, 50, noticed the inside of her cheek was irritated in early 2022, she didn’t make much of it. She thought she had bitten her cheek after she had Novocain during a dental appointment.

But the spot didn’t go away — after a few months, it became a painful, open sore. She tried treating it on her own with salt water, and when home treatments didn’t help, she made an appointment with her dentist.

“As soon as he saw it, he knew I needed to be treated. I was in the oral surgeon’s office 45 minutes later, getting a biopsy. Two weeks later, I got the results. It was squamous cell carcinoma,” she tells TODAY.com.

A PET scan showed she needed more surgery. A head, neck and throat cancer expert removed the tumor from her cheek, grafted skin from her thigh and removed 15 lymph nodes that showed signs of cancer.

“The surgery was supposed to take an hour and a half, and it took about six hours. It was the worst-case scenario,” Burton says.

Cancer treatments take a heavy toll

Removing the tumor and lymph nodes was just the beginning of Burton’s battle with cancer. The tumor review board recommended six chemotherapy treatments, plus radiation every day for seven weeks.

“The chemo was manageable,” Burton says. “But the radiation was super aggressive. Midway through, I met my radiation oncologist, and I said, ‘This is not sustainable. I can’t do this anymore.’ I really wanted to give up. I had blisters in my mouth, I had to stop eating and I was on a liquid diet. I lost 40 pounds and I had to go on anti-anxiety medicine.”

Radiation treatments caused Burton's face to "charred," her husband said.
Radiation treatments caused Burton's face to "charred," her husband said. Courtesy Trish Burton

Burton’s husband, John, recalls how hard the radiation treatments were on his wife. “She wore a mask — kind of like a Hannibal Lecter mask — and they ran a laser over her face for 20 minutes every day,” he says. “That really ended up taking a toll. She couldn’t even keep her head up.”

Burton’s last cancer treatment was on December 30, 2022. After that, John says, “She was lethargic. The skin on her face was charred from the radiation, so she was showering ash off her face every day. She didn’t look like she was getting any better.”

Turning to exercise to support recovery 

John searched for a way to help Burton feel more like her old self. He wanted to help her get out of the house, but she didn’t want to go anywhere. “She thought she was disfigured from the scars and swelling,” John says.

Before Burton’s diagnosis, John had joined Life Time, a fitness club near the couple's home. He had been working out there regularly, getting fit and losing 50 pounds. Burton, a teacher, had started to go with him in the summer of 2022 after her school year ended, but she wasn’t able to work out once she started fighting cancer.

John found comfort in his gym routine and his connections there during Burton’s treatment, especially his workouts with coach Julie Henick.

“Life Time was really his support system while he was my caretaker. That was huge for him,” Burton says.

John thought getting Burton to the gym might be what she needed. “I didn’t know what to do to help Trish. But I knew that Julie had an amazing energy, and her classes were really fun,” he says.

Henick’s stepfather had cancer and went through 10 years of chemotherapy and radiation. “I’m familiar with and sensitive to this stuff. I know about it all too well,” she says.

John and Henick created a plan to help Burton. “We were very focused on her and making sure we supported her throughout her journey,” Henick says.

Burton was hesitant, but she agreed to try a class. “The chemo took every ounce of muscle off of me. I was still coming off my meds and in a kind of brain fog. I still had chemotherapy in my system. I had neuropathy, tingles and sensations from the radiation and chemotherapy. I was anxious, but I felt safe with Julie, and John was there to help me,” she says.

Working around the challenges that follow cancer treatment 

Muscle weakness, brain fog and anxiety weren’t the only problems Burton faced in the gym.

“There were things that kept popping up. We had to make plans to work around them,” Henick says.

For example, one of the classes uses flashing colored lights during the high-energy portions. The green flashing lights triggered strong emotions for Burton, since they reminded her of the color she would see during her radiation treatments.

“When that happened, we realized, ‘OK, no more flashing lights while Trish was in class,’” Henick says.

Another class involved people slamming medicine balls to the floor. When the balls got too close to Burton, it was upsetting because she had had so much trauma to her face. So, Henick designed classes that gave Burton the distance she needed to feel secure.

At first, Burton covered her scars with a scarf and hat. “She was fragile, and didn’t really want to talk to anyone,” Henick says. “Now, I see her after classes chatting it up with the other members. It’s so beautiful.”

The gym gave Burton the physical and psychological safe space she needed. “Trish went from not trusting the earth underneath her feet to having a safe place and having a friend in Julie,” John says.

Chemo caused Burton to lose muscle mass. Henick worked with her to build it back up.
Chemo caused Burton to lose muscle mass. Henick worked with her to build it back up. Courtesy Trish Burton

Slowly, steadily building strength

As part of one of her classes, Burton worked on a box jump — jumping up onto a platform. It was a struggle. She had lost so much muscle in her legs that she couldn’t jump up onto a three-inch riser.

Henick had faith in her. She told Burton she would be jumping on the 20-inch box by the end of the summer. Still, Burton got frustrated.

“One time, she saw how weak she was and how her feet weren’t talking to each other. She dropped to her knees, crying because she didn’t think she could get through it. I tried to console her, and Julie saw how ineffective that was,” John says. “She tapped me out and pulled Trish over so no one else could see that she was crying.”

Henick tried to get Burton to breathe through her frustration, but it wasn’t working. “So, I asked her to inhale calm and exhale stress. We did that together. And I felt the shift in Trish. She got up and went right back to working out,” Henick says. “She could have given up a million times, but she didn’t.”

It’s so inspiring to see how the words of somebody who believes in you can change what you can do.

John Burton

“It’s so inspiring to see how the words of somebody who believes in you can change what you can do,” John says.

Week by week, Burton made progress. “She might jump and fall off, and we’d have to catch her, but then she would jump again,” John says.

By the end of the summer, she could jump up onto that 20-inch box. “This is something I never could have imagined for myself,” she says.

“It’s just so incredible and inspiring to see. It’s a skill that she didn’t have even before she got diagnosed. She is definitely stronger than she was before,” Henick says.

John agrees: “We never dreamed that Trish would be as strong as she is.”

I don’t love running. But any day that I’m not in the chemo chair, any day I’m not lying on that radiation table, if I can run, I run.

Trish Burton

Moving forward in recovery

During the summer of 2023, Trish and John were in the gym almost every day. In the fall, she went back to teaching. “Balancing work and going to the gym was one of my big challenges,” she says.

Fitness instructor Julie Henick helped Burton find physical and emotional strength after her cancer treatments.
Fitness instructor Julie Henick helped Burton find physical and emotional strength after her cancer treatments. Courtesy Trish Burton

Henick helped her plan which classes she would take on the weeknights, and Trish made sure to take Henick’s classes on the weekends.

For Henick’s 40th birthday in August that year, Trish gave her a bracelet that says “impact.” Henick says, “I wear it all the time. It’s so meaningful to me. It was the greatest gift that I could have gotten.”

Now, Trish is taking a class called "Warrior Sculpt," which combines cardio and strength training in a heated room. It’s a class that’s easier for her now than it was before her cancer diagnosis, and she can see herself getting stronger every week.

She’s also running on the treadmill. She says, “Honestly, I don’t love running. But any day that I’m not in the chemo chair, any day I’m not lying on that radiation table, if I can run, I run. I’ve got legs. I’ve got to make a move.”