Love for fitness found after cancer battle _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Cancer survivor Kirsten Morrison works as a fitness attendant at the Southside YMCA.

Kirsten Morrison’s fitness journey began with a new pair of sneakers, which her mom bought her while she was in Ocshner Medical Center in New Orleans, recovering from a bone marrow transplant.

“I felt bad, and I didn’t really want to do anything,” Morrison explained, “but my doctors kept telling me to get up and move around, so I became known as the patient who would get up at 3 a.m. and walk circles around the halls with my IV pole.”

Morrison was only 22 and a single mother of a 15-month-old son when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma the first time, in 2010.

“I was breast-feeding at the time, and I had to stop, of course,” Morrison said, and that added to her shock at being sick.

She began chemotherapy and soon was too weak to hold her son. It was a low time, both physically and emotionally.

She went into remission, but the cancer came back when she was 23.

“That time, I think I was angry,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’ve already done this. Do I really have to do this again?’ ”

The answer, it turned out, was yes. The more aggressive second round of chemo meant she’d lose her hair again. It was tough for Morrison the first time around, so the second time, she and her dad had a bit of a bonding moment when he shaved her head before her hair began falling out.

“I’ve always been a very girly girl, so that part was hard for me,” she said. She counteracted it a bit by getting her own shellac dryer and making sure her toenails were always painted, no matter how she felt.

When time came for the bone marrow transplant, she said, she got depressed.

“My mom could see me sinking, so she decorated my room with pictures of my son and of me when I was healthy” and of a beloved uncle who died of the same kind of cancer when Morrison was young, she said.

“I got a lot of support from my family,” she said.

While she was in treatment, she couldn’t work, Morrison said, so the thought of getting stronger felt impossible, until her dad told her about the YMCA’s scholarship program.

“I applied for it, and I got it. I was able to come and work out and bring my son with me,” she said. At various times, the Southside Y staff would see her coming in a wheelchair, a walker or a cane.

She slowly got stronger and eventually started to see the YMCA message as something she wanted to spread, she said, so she looked at the job openings on the Y’s website.

When she didn’t find anything listed in Baton Rouge, she went to visit a friend in Dallas and attended a YMCA job fair there.

“I stayed for a week and worked on my résumé. When I didn’t hear anything after a week, a friend suggested I ask in person in my Y, and I did. They pretty much hired me on the spot,” she said.

Before her diagnosis, she didn’t consider herself an athlete.

In fact, she was one of four sisters, all of whom ­— besides her — were athletic. “Track, basketball, softball, they were all good at some sport, except for me,” she said.

Now, she’s the most active of the four, Morrison said with a laugh.

Morrison said she eventually would like to become a personal trainer and perhaps get certified to teach yoga. “I’m still trying to find a way to compete — maybe fitness competitions — but I’m not sure what I’ll do yet,” she said.

All she knows for sure, she said, is that God gave her a second chance at life and that she wants to spread her love of fitness to as many people as possible. She’s already spreading it to her son, now 6, who does yoga at home with her every night and loves coming to the Y with her.

For more information about Y scholarships or memberships, visit your local Y branch or the organization’s website,