Woman Fighting Cancer and Depression Finds Hope in Fitness

"I continued to feel more empowered. I'm not healed from mental illness, but I have these coping mechanisms that allow me to participate in the world more when I was completely isolated before that"
Andrew Thomas September 5, 2018

When someone suffers from depression, they can feel like they’re stuck and unable to pull themselves out. And if the depression is compounded by another illness, it’s even more difficult.

New Yorker Leslie Sterling, like a lot of Americans, was traumatized during and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The attack shocked the entire country, and people couldn’t understand how or why such a large-scale tragedy could take place here at home.

Sterling, who was 41 at the time, began to suffer from PTSD and major depression. Not long after, another tragedy would touch Sterling.

Leslie Sterling. (Courtesy of Vincent Ferguson)

Her boss at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, whom she looked up to and admired deeply, was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2003. Sterling herself was diagnosed with breast cancer only one month after her boss.

Sterling’s cancer was caught early and had not developed as far, but it was still another burden to contend with. Meanwhile, her boss was dying.

Sterling was battling her mental illness, and wasn’t well enough to say goodbye to her boss before she passed away.

“I was even more devastated that I didn’t have it together enough to say goodbye to her. To let her know how much she impacted me. She was the most amazing woman that I had ever met,” Sterling explained to Humanity.

Sterling experienced a significant amount of survivor’s guilt after her boss had passed away.

Life got darker for Sterling. She wasn’t able to work anymore, and began using cocaine.

After years of struggle, Sterling decided to seek help. She attended a program called Mental Illness and Chemical Abuse in 2011. There she learnt how to manage her mental illness and break the cycle of addiction.

But it was a chance meeting with her old friend and personal trainer, Vince Ferguson, that really set her life on a new path.

During her time in the drug abuse program, counselors had discussed the importance of nutrition and exercise as ways to manage mental illness.

When she ran into Ferguson in 2012, he invited her to attend the Six Weeks to Fitness Challenge, which was an exercise and nutrition course he was teaching at the time.

“I couldn’t say no. It was for me. It was exactly what I needed at the time. I just embraced it in that moment,” Sterling recalled.

“I went to that program. I was feeling so much better, and I was inspired again,” Sterling explained.

Exercising and good nutrition helped improve Sterling’s mood immensely.

(Courtesy of Vincent Ferguson)

“I continued to feel more empowered. I’m not healed from mental illness, but I have these coping mechanisms that allow me to participate in the world more when I was completely isolated before that,” Sterling said.

Her renewed passion for fitness motivated Sterling to become an instructor. She knew how important exercise was for well-being, particularly for those who suffer from mental illness.

Sterling earned her group fitness certification from the Aerobic Athletics Fitness Association of America in 2015.

Sterling teaching a class. (Courtesy of Vincent Ferguson)

“I truly didn’t think I could make it. I hadn’t been in school in forever. I hadn’t worked or anything. It was really challenging, but I was super excited. It was probably one of my biggest accomplishments in years,” Sterling said.

Sterling had overcome tremendous physical and mental obstacles. She had barely been able to leave her house for years, and she was finally had taking care of herself.

The 57-year-old has been teaching fitness for several years now, and enjoys going into her community and helping people with disabilities or other limitations.

It makes it easier for Sterling to contend with her depression knowing that she’s helping someone else.

“I live for it. I think that it’s super important to share information. So many of us struggle in different ways on different levels, and I think that we’re here to serve,” Sterling said.

Helping others has become Sterling’s purpose in life.

“I’m on a mission. I have to be able to do something. I need to be useful in this world in order for me to feel good about myself,” she said.

So when not exercising, Sterling is applying her affinity for theater and the arts as another means of helping others suffering from mental illness.

When she was participating in her drug and mental health rehabilitation program, art therapy was a large part of her treatment.

In 2014, the therapists that treated Sterling invited her to be on the Brooklyn Mental Health Counsel’s Creative Art Therapy committee.

“I think the arts allow people a safe space, because you got to get it out somewhere. You can’t have all of this angst living in the body and it not affect you physically and mentally,” Sterling explained.