At 4 foot 10, Barbara Boomer can’t even jump to get her hands on a pull-up bar at CrossFit Painesville.
If a workout calls for the gymnastics movement, she jerry-rigs a platform. So, on May 16, 2016—when the workout called for 4 rounds of 12 overhead squats, 12 box jumps and 12 pull-ups—she slid on her new velvety-soft gymnastics grips, hopped onto a 12-inch box topped with a 45-lb. bumper plate and got to work.
“I’m not proficient, so I do ’em one and drop,” the 63-year-old explained. “And sometimes I don’t get one every time.”
Boomer was nearing her final pull-up. The clock had passed the 20-minute mark. She was the only athlete working.
“It’s not uncommon,” she said jokingly.
Boomer was determined. She was, after all, only three weeks away from her first competition.
“It was on the last rep of pull-ups,” she said. “I slipped off the bar and fell and slid right down the plate (and box). And I scraped up my back like a rug-burn type of thing.”
Affiliate owner Char Sintic barred Boomer from wearing her slippery grips again, and Boomer took the next day to rest.
Over the course of the next week and a half, she had persistent pain in her right shoulder. By the 27th, she went to see her primary-care physician. His staff took X-rays of her shoulder, and Boomer went home to await a phone call with the results. But when the doctor called, he asked her to come back to his office.
That “didn’t sound good,” Boomer remembered.
When she arrived, he had both good news and bad news.
“He said, ‘The good news is it’s just a sprain on your shoulder. You can work that off. But we did find a suspicious spot on the upper part of your right lung.’”
Over the course of the next month, Boomer underwent an MRI, a CT scan and a PET scan.
“That’s when they told me there was definitely a spot—a mass—on the upper part of my right lung.”
Boomer visited a pulmonologist, then a surgeon, and got a second opinion. They all agreed: She would have to undergo surgery so specialists could obtain a small amount of the mass for biopsy.
After surgery began on Aug. 8, that plan changed.
“The mass was so embedded in there, they couldn’t get to it at all,” Boomer explained. “So, the surgeon decided to (take) out … half of my lung.”
After arriving at the hospital at 8 a.m., Boomer woke up five hours later in the ICU.
Doctors immediately sent the mass to the lab for testing. Before she left, they had the results.
“They told me that it was cancer.”
She continued: “I was just totally petrified.”
Two and half months elapsed between Boomer’s discovering she had a mysterious mass in her lung and her surgery.
In the interim, she went on with her competition on June 25.
“I came in last place and first place,” she said, laughing.
Boomer ended up being the only woman in her age group.
“Oh, the last WOD was horrible,” she said of the competition.
All the while, she kept her condition to herself. The week before her scheduled surgery, she told Sintic, then her friends in the morning class at CrossFit Painesville that she would go under the knife.
“I tried to tell them and I started crying, and Char tried to tell them and she started crying,” Boomer recounted.
To this day, Sintic gets teary talking about what happened.
“She came in in tears,” she said, audibly choking back emotions.
But even though doctors discovered cancer, they found it was contained.
Boomer’s doctor told her, “’There was nothing in your lymph nodes. There was nothing in the surrounding tissue of that mass.’ And so, he feels … 99.9 percent sure that they got it all.”
After roughly four months of rehab and easing back into CrossFit, Boomer got back to her regular five-classes-a-week schedule just before Christmas.
“She just worked through it. She’s strong. She kept going,” Sintic said of Boomer, one of her first members.
And Boomer’s back to doing pull-ups.
“She just (did) pull-ups the other day in a WOD. She’s been doin’ really good. So, I’m like, ‘CrossFit saved your life twice.’ I’m like, ‘You’re a healthy individual and now they found your cancer and got rid of it,’” Sintic said.
These days, Boomer includes pull-ups and toes-to-bars on her list of accomplishments. And, of course, a 162-lb. deadlift.
“I thought that was pretty good,” said Boomer, who weighs 105 lb.
She said she’s “a lot” stronger than when she started CrossFit at 59 and can handle menial tasks with ease.
“I can lift things, like flipping the mattresses over—I can do that all by myself. Moving furniture. … I can carry all my groceries in at one time. I don’t have to make numerous trips. Playing with the grandkids—I can keep up with them. We run, we play,” Boomer said. “I feel healthy. I have friends my age (who) can barely keep up with their grandkids, and they’re not active. I’m a true believer that CrossFit is the reason.”
It helped give Boomer resilience, Sintic said.
“I seriously think CrossFit made her stronger than she ever was and helped her through that surgery,” she explained. “I don’t think she would have fared as well if she hadn’t been doing CrossFit and been as strong as she is.”
For Boomer’s part, staying active is key.
“It keeps you mobile, it keeps you happy, it keeps you breathing. You say to yourself, ‘I’m getting older and this is hard. I’m just not gonna do it anymore.’ Well, that’s like a death sentence.”
About the Author: Andréa Maria Cecil is assistant managing editor and head writer of the CrossFit Journal.