Warrior’s Heart – Fighting Spirit

healthy body nutrition
Do NOT Be Afraid To Gain Muscle!
November 6, 2014
Warrior’s Heart
September 1, 2016

Warrior’s Heart – Fighting Spirit

Donna Workout2


   “Quality of mindset, determines quality of behavior.”                

The above quote epitomizes Donna Lilla. Those of you, who are part of the DTC family, probably know Donna’s story to some extent. I am writing this article to share her whole story to those who don’t, because it’s inspirational. It is a rollercoaster journey with highs and lows. It is a story about how life is not fair. It is a story about courage, and not giving up. It is a story about getting knocked on your ass, getting up and hitting back even harder.

Donna’s original story was inspirational enough. Donna came to DTC over 4 years ago, needing to lose at least 70lbs. Not only did she accomplish that, she blew past her goal weight and achieved an elite level athletic physique, losing over 90lbs. of fat, and putting on over 15lbs. of muscle.

Donna BeforeDonna After




Donna inspired everyone at DTC, not just clients but staff too! Her hard work and dedication to her health and fitness level was unparalleled. Clients would actually stop and watch her workout.

She never hesitated to share her story with others who may have been struggling with their diet or training. Encouraging them to never quit, if she could do it, she believed everyone else could as well.

Donna was focused on the “investment of the process and not on the outcome”. She didn’t focus on needing to lose over 70lbs. She focused on the workouts and the joy she got from exercising. She fell in love with fitness. She knew if she focused on what she needed to do on a daily basis, the goal would be achieved.

If you just focus on what you want the outcome to be, you will lose sight of what it takes to get there. Those of you who know Donna, know she has laser like focus.

As if accomplishing that goal wasn’t challenging enough, Donna was diagnosed with cancer on May 5th, 2014. She had a tumor – Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the tongue. It also spread into the lymph nodes of her neck.

How does this happen?! She literally gets into the best shape of her life, the poster-child for health and fitness, and the reward for all of that hard work?…… Cancer!

I don’t know about you, but I would not have been able to handle that news as well as Donna did. I remember when my wife, Laura, and I spoke with Donna about her diagnosis and the process that she was about to go through, and just being amazed at the strength, and bravery that she displayed while talking about it. Everything was just a matter of fact. It is what it is, so what’s next? That was her attitude. Like a boxer sizing up her opponent.

That’s when it really hit me, how Donna was different than most. Just like with the success of her weight loss, she was taking the same attitude toward her cancer…Investing in the process, and not on the outcome. Not getting caught up on being cancer free, but rather the steps needed to become cancer free. Not getting overwhelmed.

Before Donna ever had cancer, she had a tattoo that said – “Warrior’s Heart, Fighting Spirit”. She resonated with that saying, and it defined her. Little did she know when she got it, how she would be tested on how much it defined her.

What she was about to endure over the next few months, most wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy…..

  • Because of the tumor on her tongue, half of her tongue was removed.
  • 35 lymph nodes in her neck were removed.
  • Some of her salivary glands removed.
  • Had skin and her radial artery removed from her forearm to “replace” the part of her tongue they had to remove.
  • Took skin graph from thigh to repair her forearm.
  • Had a tracheotomy to perform surgery, which took 11 hours.
  • 10 days in the hospital, with a feeding tube.
  • 33 radiation treatments, which produced sores in her mouth making swallowing food seem like razor blades which led to her having to have tube put in stomach because she couldn’t eat.
  • 2 rounds of chemotherapy.

 Donna1 Donna2Donna3








After all of that, she said the most difficult part was the fact that she had to go 7 weeks without working out. It was such a change of pace from her previous activity level, which left her frustrated and depressed. Donna’s doctor said that the fact she was in “the best shape of her life”, was a saving grace. Being healthier and stronger made her body respond to treatment that much better.

As soon as she could stand, her doctors would walk in witnessing her doing squats in her hospital room. They could see it in her face that she was becoming defeated, not because of the cancer, but because she wasn’t able to do what she loved. Knowing that she needed exercise for her mental well-being and how important that would be going forward, the doctors gave her the approval for coming back to DTC with proper supervision and limitations.

She met with her trainer, Steve Wiberg, and he made the necessary adjustments so that she would start slowly and without risk of any setbacks. Believe it or not, Steve actually had to slow Donna down once she got back into DTC. She even worked out during her last week of radiation, while still having her feeding tube in!

Like a kid in a candy store, you could see Donna’s face light up every time she was able to come in to workout. She attributes her workouts with Steve, no matter how limited they may have been, to maintaining her sanity. They were the highlights of her week. Donna credits Steve with helping her stay so positive and the adjustments he made which allowed her to still be able to exercise through this whole ordeal.

Although “remission” isn’t considered until it has been 5 years without any signs of cancer, Donna has been finished with treatments for 9 months and is currently “cancer free”.

It’s been my life’s work to have clients look at their health and fitness as a necessity, the way Donna has. It’s not only about changing yourself physically, but physiologically and mentally – which many overlook, focusing on just what they want to change in the mirror. It is very rewarding to see a client, such as Donna, adopt that same philosophy.

This is the most inspiring story I have seen in the 22 years I have been in the Personal Training industry. The perseverance, the positive attitude, the relentlessness of just never refusing to quit. The tougher it got for her, the harder she fought back. It’s the type of strength we all hope to have if ever put in that situation, but pray we never are.

Think about the next time you “can’t” do something, or suffer a setback and say…..“This isn’t for me”, “I can’t do this”,” I don’t have the time”, “I need to take a break”. Read this again. Look back at the above process Donna had to go through and still made no excuses.

Remember that it was the strength that she built prior to the cancer that helped her beat it. Her own Doctor told her that. Evidence how important consistent training is. I’m sure Donna’s reason for getting in great shape wasn’t for the slight chance that one day she may get cancer, but I’m sure she’s glad she did it.

Remember that even through all that, she only took 7 weeks off.

Since she’s been back, she has put back on all that muscle she lost while sick. With the same determination she had when she did it the first time.

 Donna Workout2

Donna had every reason to sit at home and make excuses, but she was determined, focused on what she needed to do that day. Invested in the process, and it lead to her desired outcome.

Donna workout1

Congratulations Donna! I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say, “we look forward to witnessing your continued inspiration!”.