Isabel Beats Incredible Odds

When something monumental enters your life, little things often get taken for granted. For 24 Hour Fitness member Isabel Orejel, however, it’s the little things that have kept her motivated and moving forward.

In 2014 Orejel received a difficult diagnosis: cancer. She has been battling the disease ever since, through a series of ups and downs. It’s affected her weight and muscle mass, compounding the struggle to keep up her strength. At one point she was at risk of paralysis, and her physical and mental health were at a breaking point.

Things began to change when Orejel started training with 24 Hour Fitness team member Jake Tomilloso. He instantly became part of her support network, which includes her husband (who trains with her as they keep each other accountable to their goals) and her two daughters, who she notes keep her centered, focused and laughing.

“I’ve made great strides in my quest to be stronger and healthier through a consistent four-or-five-day-a-week workout regimen, proper nutrition, positive disposition, faith, my different therapies and support from my family and the 24 Hour Fitness team,” she says.

Not only has coach Tomilloso’s approach—diligent concern coupled with tough encouragement—helped Orejel be proactive about her health and fitness, it has reinforced her natural perseverance. And that includes pursuing her lifelong love of learning. In June 2021, Orejel celebrated a milestone of a different kind when she received her doctorate degree in education.

“As an immigrant with English as my second language, and an only child, I wanted to honor my parents with this degree for all of their sacrifices,” she says.

Orejel also wanted to set an example for her daughters. Now that she’s stronger and able to build new vibrant memories with them, she wants one of those memories to reflect how resiliency is rewarded.

“Given a terminal diagnosis can break you, or you can stare it straight on and continue to fight. Illnesses like cancer do not define a person and can be a source of strength when you shift your mindset,” she says. “Take charge of your life and commit to being stronger each day. You’ll not only feel better, but you will be better!”

24Life: In what ways has working with a coach helped you become self-sufficient?

Isabel Orejel: From my first visit with Jake, I knew that I would attain my fitness goals. Every session I learn a new exercise, machine or routine. I am comfortable and confident in utilizing the various equipment and getting in a productive workout. I walk in with confidence and feel the support of all the 24 Hour Fitness team members. Gaining better balance and more strength, confidence and endurance—I now look forward to the gym. Jake has helped me embrace my fitness journey, which didn’t exist until I started my sessions with him!

24Life: Was there a moment when you realized you had more strength than you initially thought?

IO: When I started training, my goal was to supplement my physical therapy. I had drop foot due to a cancerous tumor in my spine. I struggled to walk and maintain my balance. Through my fitness training sessions, my drop foot started to improve! Combined with my physical therapy, I am on my way to full recovery. I can bench press and hold a plank for three-and-a-half minutes (or maybe even longer now). But most importantly, I can walk, run and pick up my youngest daughter. That’s the moment for me—being strong enough to play and do physical activities with my daughters as a stronger mommy.

24Life: Can you tell us about any setbacks that somehow became opportunities?

IO: I’ve had a terminal diagnosis twice—once with six months to live and then three months to live, just nine months ago. I even had COVID back in December 2020, along with my cancer. I’ve done traditional chemotherapy, salvage chemotherapy, clinical trials, a bone marrow transplant, holistic Eastern medicine, immunotherapy and more. I have weighed 225 pounds and most recently 95 pounds. Struggling with my weight due to my cancer and treatments was very discouraging. I used to worry about the number on the scale. My coach has helped me focus on my strength and endurance. Now, I think more about how I feel. My cancer does not define me. My weight does not control me. My health is most important, and healthy looks different for each person. I am the strongest I’ve been my whole life, even with my Hodgkin lymphoma!

24Life: What advice do you have for others, based on your experience?

IO: We can have many setbacks, struggles, pain, losses and even a terminal diagnosis or global pandemic during our lifetime, but it’s our choice to be resilient and defeat them. Health (and faith) is at the forefront of my quest to succeed. Commit to yourself and know that you can achieve your goals, no matter what obstacles are thrown your way. It’s about having a cheerful disposition and growing from each experience. It’s not easy—in fact, it’s hard—but you will grow, you will triumph and, most importantly, you will heal. Through this healing, you will be stronger. And with this strength, you can help others overcome their challenges, as I hope to inspire others to do.

Photo credit: Isabel Orajel

Results not typical and may vary per individual. With a regular diet and exercise routine, typical weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. Please consult a physician before starting or changing a fitness routine. Personal training and virtual personal training available to 24 Hour Fitness members for an additional fee.