From Lifting Weights to Surgery Dates: Living Life with a Chronic Invisible Illness

“Ladies, quarter-turn to the right please.” These are words any female bodybuilder is familiar with. After 16 weeks of a gruelling preparation phase, you have made it to your final destination on a big stage amongst other women who have worked just as hard as you, if not harder. You are called to quarter-turn to showcase your body at every angle, and every last inch of you must be tanned, toned, and muscular, with finely tuned posing. For some, show day is the scariest day of all 4-5 months of preparing, for me, it was the most exciting.

My name is Liz Zuback, and I am a 23 year old former natural national bodybuilder.

Liz Zuback Lifting

You may wonder why I chose to use the word “former” bodybuilder. Today, I am here to tell you my story, my journey, and my “why.” During my first bodybuilding show, I quickly realized how important a customized meal plan is for an athlete with such a specific goal and how nutrition can take you from an amateur level athlete, to a professional level athlete. I soon became obsessed with food and learning how to make such a bland diet more fun and exciting, and most importantly maintainable. Many people associate healthy with boring, and I made it my mission to discover how to make good food simply taste… good. I had registered for the program Culinary Management Nutrition at George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario, and attended school after completing my second bodybuilding show, having successfully become a nationally qualified figure competitor. In my two years of my program at GBC, I was taught the ins and outs of creating food, as well as the science to back it up. I learnt why we should eat certain foods, and why we should abstain from eating others. The knowledge I was obtaining would become of great benefit in the new journey I was about to unwillingly endure.

Before my final year at GBC, I was forced to put my bodybuilding career on hold when my body was no longer able to complete the tasks I had trained it to do. Lifting weights was becoming very difficult and I had no explanation as to why. My body felt like a rusty machine, it was difficult to make the smallest movements and I would become exhausted so quickly. I started to struggle in culinary school with lifting of pots and pans and even had trouble chopping ingredients. Carrying my backpack on my back to and from school became a taxing task. I saw several massage therapists, chiropractors and physiotherapists, and each one of them had their suspicions.

I heard the words “Thoracic Outlet Syndrome,” a few times in between sessions of therapy, but I never fully understood what it meant and the pain it could cause.

In the summer of 2017,  I was sent for an x-ray which ruled out a questionable theory of having an extra rib. Some people are born with an extra set of ribs which can cause compression and lead to thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), but my x-ray had proven this was not the case for me.

The professionals dropped their notions of my symptoms being caused from TOS immediately upon hearing the good news from the x-rays, and progressed into my next test, an ultra-sound. After a few days of completing my ultra-sound, I was informed that they had detected tendinitis of the pectorals major on both sides. I felt relief and I cried out of joy that after just over a year of pain and giving up competing that I had finally gotten my answer and true therapy could begin. I felt a sense of purpose again and could see the light at the end of the tunnel, after all, tendinitis takes anywhere from 4-6 weeks or more to heal, depending on severity.

Therapy for tendinitis commenced, and I felt full of faith and hope that I would soon be back to working out, and perhaps with enough time to compete at nationals. Several months went by of treating for tendinitis, and I seemed to progress very minimally. The pain was still there, and the body image issues were getting worse by the day. After a year and a half of treatment will little improvement, I decided to see a sports medicine doctor here in Toronto. He performed some assessments and dug into my tendons with his fingers, only to realize that I was able to withstand the amount of pressure he was putting on me.

He had me complete some manual tests and was unable to find my pulse in either wrist. The sports medicine doctor then referred me to a surgeon who had me undergo a Doppler ultra-sound. From there, I was sent back to the sports medicine doctor who officially pronounced me with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and referred me for a consultation with the surgeon.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is caused by compression on the nerves, veins, or arteries due to the lack of space in-between the collarbone and first rib. This can cause many extremely discomforting symptoms such as

  • pain in the shoulders, chest, and neck

  • cold, swollen and/or numb hands, arm

  • hand fatigue

  • and many more symptoms

I can remember vividly the day I met with the surgeon. I was excited with hope that today may be the day I would get my answer and be able to figure out a plan to move on with my life. I anxiously waited in the doctor’s office, trying my best to control my emotions. The surgeon walked in and shook my hand, not bothering to remove the pen that was in-between his fingers. He went over my case and explained exactly what was happening in my body. He explained that surgery would be too risky and that no form of therapy including seeing a chiropractor, massage therapist, or physiotherapist, would help lessen my symptoms. He informed me that I had chosen the wrong career path and that my body wasn’t built to have muscle. He encouraged me to limit the use of my arms and to only use them when necessary. He told me that I would never work out again and that I could come back when I’m “fully disabled.” I burst into tears thinking that this was going to be the way I lived for the rest of my life.

“I burst into tears thinking that this was going to be the way I lived for the rest of my life.”

Liz Zuback.jpg

Upon leaving his office, I asked for a referral to see another vascular surgeon in the Toronto area to receive a second opinion. I was asked to perform the same tests that I had previously done. It was weeks before I could get in to see the next surgeon. I felt discouraged, but I wasn’t going to give up. The first surgeon gave me the absolute worst news I could hear, and I did not want to settle for that for the rest of my life. I made it my mission to not settle for that possibility and to seek more information and help.

Doctors Office

After over a month, the day was finally here to meet with my new surgeon. The appointment was completely different, it was like comparing apples to oranges.

The surgeon greeted me properly and was much friendlier. He performed a manual test on me, which is something the previous surgeon failed to do. From here, he presumed, I not only had compression on my nerves, but also on my veins. He ordered a CT scan which confirmed his assumption.

After my diagnosis, he recommended surgery. When your veins are compressed, you are at a higher risk of developing a blood clot which can lead to more serious health problems such as heart attack and stroke. Had I listened to the first surgeon and done nothing, my life could have gotten drastically worse. He is a respected surgeon with patients coming to see him from all around the world for this specific surgery. He estimated I would have over 90% relief on my veins and 60-70% relief on my nerves. This was amazing news. I finally felt like I had been put into the right hands and that I was going to recover.

He explained that he would be performing a two part surgery. He would have to completely remove my first rib, part of my scalene muscle and any built up scar tissue. This of course would have to be done in two surgeries, one for each side. By removing the first rib, part of the scalene muscle and any scar tissue, it should free up enough space so that there is less compression on my nerves, veins and arteries. It is expected that it will take 3-6 months to recover enough to get the second surgery.

After finding out that surgery was the right option for me, I didn’t hesitate to book my first surgery date with the receptionist after my appointment. The soonest I could get in was February 20th, 2019. Needless to say, I booked it off in my calendar. I have been patiently and impatiently waiting for that day ever since.

Living with a chronic invisible illness is not easy, and it isn’t something I ever expected to do. I, like most people, never thought twice about it until I was put into the position I’m in now. It is difficult not to feel lazy and it’s too easy to cancel plans because of exhaustion. Reminding yourself of who you were before your condition becomes a constant record on loop. Crying becomes almost a daily routine and getting frustrated with others for not understanding is constant. My mental and physical capabilities have been put to the extreme test.

As I wait for my surgery date, I have been trying everything possible to help prepare myself and reduce my symptoms as much as I can. I have weekly physiotherapy appointments and take natural supplements to try and reduce inflammation.

I perform my stretches and seek further help from massage therapists or chiropractors when necessary. I have also partnered up with Safely Sweet Nutrition to work on an anti-inflammatory group program called Foods That Fight. This program is focused on reducing inflammation in the body that can cause many different symptoms, anywhere from bloating and digestive issues, hormonal imbalances to fatigue.

I will be participating in this group program as a means of surgery preparation to get my body in a less inflamed state. I want to do as much as I can on my part to make sure my surgery and recovery goes well.

Through the horrors of living with a chronic illness, it has blessed me with the inspiration to help others that suffer from anything that limits them from living their every day life. I would never wish this pain upon anyone and want to help those who are living with pain, as best as I can.

Thank you for reading about my story, my journey, and my “why.” I look forward to reporting back post-surgery, and hope you will join me in preparation and conquer inflammation through our group program. If you can take away anything from my story, please never take no for an answer, always fight for more, and be gentle with your mind, body, and soul. Remember, where there is no struggle, there is no strength.