In 2018 while Erica Langley was pursuing her dream of becoming a competitive bodybuilder, she noticed a hard lump the size of a peach pit in her breast after a workout. She thought she had just pulled a chest muscle while weightlifting. But when it didn’t disappear, she visited a local health clinic which sent her for a mammogram. It detected HER2-positive cancer in two locations in her left breast.
Langley was only in her late 30s, so she was referred to UChicago Medicine’s Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic for genetic testing. “When a young woman gets breast cancer, we always want to ask why,” said University of Chicago Medicine oncologist Olwen Hahn, MD.
“For Erica, having cancer at a young age signaled that she needed to undergo genetic testing. And it turns out, she had a well-known mutation that puts her at higher risk for breast cancer and other cancers.”
Langley’s team of doctors took her through several cancer screening tests, including a colonoscopy and an upper endoscopy to “examine the lining of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum, as well as extensive blood work,” according to a report by the University of Chicago Medicine. The report said all the tests came back negative for cancer.
Langley also looked at her options for having a biological child in the future. Her treatment plan all in all included 20 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy in April 2019, intravenous targeted therapy, and reconstructive surgery on both breasts.
In November 2020, she returned to the gym and began bodybuilding training. She would go to ChiTown Fitness in Melrose Park four times a week after her work as the manager of a microbiology lab. But Langely was now 50 pounds heavier and weakened from chemotherapy and two surgeries.
She could also not take the same supplements as her competitors because those supplements negatively interacted with her cancer medications. During training, she would get tired easily.
“Mentally, I still really wanted to do this, but my body was struggling,” she said. “After the first few workouts, I didn’t think I’d ever be competition-ready.”
“So, I made up my mind that I was going to do this. I decided I wasn’t just going to survive cancer, I was going to thrive.”
And she did while sticking to a strict low-carb, high-protein diet that included eating plain chicken six times a day. In May 2021, after six months of intense training with her trainer, Daniel “Bolo” Young, Langley entered two bodybuilding competitions and won multiple medals. She even placed first in one category and performed better than her competitors who had spent years training.
“She knew she was going to get there, even if the journey was going to be difficult,” plastic and reconstructive surgeon Rebecca Garza, MD, said. “The most important thing is that her cancer is treated and that she’s at decreased risk for another cancer. But she worked really hard to be even better than she was when she started this journey.”
Langley said she is grateful to her parents, fiancé and his parents for supporting her throughout her treatment and training.
To Bolo, Langley is “a true inspiration and hero” whose bodybuilding career has a bright future.