FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — Monique Pichette was tough enough to take the stage as a bodybuilder in her teens, and later had the grit to become a Marine, but breast cancer was different.
“And I just teared up in the doctor’s office and said ‘wow.’ I was getting ready to lose my hair, not my breast,” she said, thinking back to the day her doctor told her she’d need a mastectomy. “I always struggled with body image. I struggled with eating disorders. I’ve struggled through trying to feel good enough around other women. Then this?”
That stark recollection is a dark contrast to her demeanor in the gym, where she often giggles through her grueling work out.
“It’s getting harder to talk,” she said from a treadmill, giggling yet again. “The gym is my psychiatrist. I just love working out. It changes everything.”
Breast cancer changed a few things too, knocking her down twice within two years. First in November of 2011, then with a relapse in May of 2012.
“I cried. I mean I just cried. It’s hard to talk about it. I was tugging on my hair. I did it every day,” she said. “And it just started falling out in clumps. I just broke down in tears because the reality was there. This wasn’t a dream anymore. It was really happening.”
Despite being weakened by radiation, she decided to return to the gym and set what some might’ve considered an unrealistic goal: To get back on the stage in a bodybuilding competition, decades after she’d competed the first time.
The guy in the pink shoes running next to her was her high school sweetheart. Around the time she relapsed, he was suddenly there for support, 27 years after they had last dated. Bobby McCarthy helped her survive the chemo, and pushed her to beat back what the treatment did to her body.
“You got it. Let’s go,” he said to her as she twisted her way through a set of sit-ups. “You beat cancer. You can beat this.”
Fifty-one weeks after the cancer returned, Monique did take the stage for a bodybuilding competition. But finishing fourth and taking home a trophy in the NPC New England masters division last November mattered less than the message she could offer to other cancer patients.
“I want to represent life again,” she said. “But to know my scars and everything I’ve been though, I was already a winner.”
She credits her trainer and McCarthy for her success, but he tosses the credit right back to her.
“She motivates me in the sense that she’s very intelligent,” McCarthy said. “She’s so willing to help everyone else. She has a big heart. She has a good life ahead of her, and she’s going to live as long as she can.”
“There I was, bald and frail,” she said. “I had no idea how they’d accept me at the gym.”
She’s neither bald nor frail anymore, but she is determined to build a non-profit to help cancer patients and caregivers at The Philip Hulitar Inpatient Center. Monique is in the process of designing a clothing line that she hopes will raise money for the foundation that carries her friend’s name.
“I named it after Sara Hayes,” she said. “She lost her battle with cancer.”
Monique is doing everything she can to win her fight.