Commentary

Trainer found his calling through cancer

Updated: December 7, 2009, 5:07 PM ET
By Alexa Pozniak | Special to ESPN.com

Faced with the unimaginable possibility of losing his right leg to a potentially deadly tumor, Anthony DiLuglio lay on an operating table in Rhode Island as doctors began to dissect the extremity.

Only four months earlier, he had been on the verge of stardom within the fitness community after being named one of the 100 best fitness trainers in America by Men's Journal. As surgeons sliced through his muscles, what they discovered simply shocked them. The endless hours DiLuglio had spent working out may have saved not only his limb and his own life, but also the lives of others.

Exercise has always been the embodiment of the 44-year-old DiLuglio's existence. What started as a means of enjoyment as a child evolved into a successful career. He became known for his innovative workout program that incorporated kettlebells as its main component. Blessed with the mind of a businessman and the body of an Adonis, DiLuglio opened his first Punch Kettlebell Gym in Providence in 2004. With zero connection to cancer at the time, but ever the cycling enthusiast, DiLuglio embraced Lance Armstrong's foundation with gusto, covering his new Hummer with the Livestrong logo and purchasing 1 million yellow bracelets to hand out to anyone and everyone.

Business was booming and life was good. But he had a nagging feeling that something was about to go wrong. "I have a weird balance in my life," he said, in a thick Rhode Island accent. "Whenever I have success, I have bad luck, too. It's kind of like a reminder."

DiLuglio
Anthony DiLuglio Anthony DiLuglio in the gym training.

During a workout one day, DiLuglio noticed a lump on the inside of his right thigh. Tests confirmed it was a tumor, but the doctor believed it was benign, saying there was a "one in 2 million chance" that it was actually cancerous.

"I immediately thought I could be that one guy," DiLuglio said. A biopsy was scheduled, and on May 11, 2005, he received the devastating diagnosis.

"The doctor said, 'Remember you said you thought you were that one-in-2-million guy? You were right: You have cancer,'" he said, slightly wincing behind his oversized sunglasses as he recalled the memory.

Up until that point, he had been in perfect health. But now, myxiod liposarcoma, a rare form of the disease, was invading his leg. Only 6,000 cases are seen in the U.S. each year. The doctor explained that more surgery was needed, and that DiLuglio had a good chance of losing all feeling in his leg and foot, or worse, losing the entire leg. "I thought, 'What did I do to end up like this? What about training? What about my livelihood?'"

Amazingly, DiLuglio made it through surgery and managed to keep his entire leg and the majority of his muscle tissue: His training had made the muscles so dense that the tumor was unable to penetrate them.

"The doctors wanted to know what I did to create such muscle," he said. "If you're a runner or bodybuilder, you don't have that type of density. I explained kettlebell training and my approach to building strength." Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston continue to study his case, hoping to learn more.

Back at work two weeks after surgery, DiLuglio still faced weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Ironically, his clients were now caring for him. "They brought me food, took over classes, still paid me," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

It wasn't long before DiLuglio began to feel the effects of radiation: pain, burning and extreme fatigue. He immediately went to work shooting his first DVD, because he didn't know what condition his leg would end up in after it was all over.

DiLuglio's breaking point came when lymphedema caused his leg to swell up with fluid. His doctor prescribed lymphatic massage, as well as stiff bandages, five layers of which were to be applied daily to the limb to keep the fluid out.

"Between the nerve damage from the surgery, the burning of the skin from radiation, and now the wrapping … I was in so much pain," he said. "I thought it couldn't get any worse than that. I survived cancer, but this was going to do me in."

To his wife's dismay, he grabbed a pair of scissors, cut off his bandages and announced he was going for a run. He completed an agonizing 20-minute jog, and his next stop was the gym. He put his physiological knowledge to work developing exercises to help alleviate the painful problem.

"I needed to get things moving, I needed to get the fluid to drain itself," he said. "My cancer is rare, and they don't have much information about how to treat it or the side effects." The swelling eventually subsided, and a month later, his doctor was shocked when DiLuglio explained his unique treatment method.

"I looked out in the waiting room and saw all of these other patients and thought, 'Why can't they come to the gym, too?" he said. DiLuglio had found his calling.

He had helped train professional athletes, including the NFL's Tennessee Titans, but DiLuglio's experience with cancer led him to embrace a new set of clients -- those facing debilitating conditions, such as cancer and brain injuries, who have been cast aside and deemed unfixable.

Andrew Miller, 39, sought out DiLuglio after treatment for brain cancer left him with severe balance issues.

"It affected most areas of my life, but the most frustrating thing was not being able to teach my 4-year-old daughter how to ride her bike," Miller said. "How can I not do that as a father?"

Miller tried physical therapy, without success. So after an extensive evaluation, DiLuglio put together a program that focused on strengthening his core and quads using a variety of exercises, including kettlebells and nylon ropes.

"He has the ability to create workouts that are different from the norm, and at the same time there's a unique bond with him because we were both survivors," Miller said.

Exercise gave DiLuglio his life back, and now he hopes to do the same for others. "I was pissed when I got cancer. I thought, 'I'm a good person; I can't give back any more than I already am.' But I realized that I have to give back even more, and I have to learn something from this."

Alexa Pozniak is a feature producer for ESPN, focusing on human interest stories. She can be reached at alexa.pozniak@espn.com.