How fitness gave this 26-year-old the confidence to have a preventative double mastectomy


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If you’ve ever danced out of a spin class buzzing with endorphins, you know the power of the post-workout high. But did you know that those feel-good vibes can actually go much deeper?

Like, way deeper. For Caroline Szum, an office manager at a Boston physical therapy practice, her fitness journey wasn’t just about building muscle—it was about re-building a foundation for self-worth that had been broken down by bullies starting in childhood. (Told you it was deep.)

“I specifically remember when I was in third grade and one of my classmates said I should go on Jenny Craig,” Szum says. “I would get bullied weekly, and was constantly trying to hide my body in hopes that my classmates would just leave me alone.”

Flash forward to today, and Szum couldn’t be more proud of the body that has carried her through everything from powerlifting competitions to the death of her mother and an elective double mastectomy. To honor strong women like Szum, we teamed up with Target to celebrate the beauty in bodies of all shapes and sizes by sharing their stories. Szum’s starts in a high school weight room.

Keep reading for more of Szum’s inspirational story—from the start of her fitness journey to her decision to undergo a double mastectomy.


Finding her power

“There is absolutely no way I can do this,” 14-year-old Szum thought as she faced the 200-pound Atlas stone her strength coach had just challenged her to lift. She had been spending her first summer ever lifting weights and flipping tires under the tutelage of her coach. But 200 pounds? “There’s just no way.”

Seeing the doubt on her face, her coach called over some football players working out nearby to observe the impressive feat he knew she was about to pull off. Now she had an audience, and her heart started to race. “Now I really have to lift it,” she thought, accepting the challenge.

Deep breath. Brace yourself. And, bam! The stone was on the platform. “I have never felt so powerful,” Szum says. “I started to see what my body was capable of, and I loved it.”

“I started to see what my body was capable of, and I loved it.”

Moments like this one were crucial for helping Szum start to squash her self doubt, which had been planted by those third-grade bullies and watered by the teasing that continued up until high school.

“I learned that I was more than the cruel names,” she says. “After stumbling into the strength gym, I quickly realized I was a badass with a big heart.  If people were intimidated by my height and couldn’t see past my hips, that was on them.”

No one wants to be bullied, but Szum says proving the haters wrong is what helped her develop her inner strength—which she would need for what life threw at her next.


Battling breast cancer

In 2009, when Szum was still in high school, both her mom and aunt passed away from breast cancer. Concerned that genetics played a role, Szum and her father met with a genetic counselor, who said she could get tested for gene mutations linked to breast cancer once she turned 25.

The test came back positive.

With her chances for developing breast cancer at 89 percent, according to her doctors, she was given three choices: undergo biannual screenings, take medication (which brought the risk down to 45 percent and could affect fertility), or have a double mastectomy (which brought the risk down to five percent but would prevent breastfeeding).

She chose to undergo a double mastectomy with reconstruction in January 2019, and she credits weightlifting with giving her the confidence and poise she needed to make that decision.

“Weightlifting has not only made me a physically strong woman, it’s also made me mentally and emotionally strong,” she says. “I didn’t want to have to keep going for scans every six months and living on eggshells. That’s no life to live.  I know my body and knew through weightlifting I would have strength, discipline, and patience to let myself heal and recover.”


Loving her body—in all its phases

Since undergoing reconstruction surgery after her mastectomy, Szum had to find new bras to fit her new shape. She said most would gap in the cup area, but when she tried The Daydream and The Bliss from Target, she found her second-skin fit.

“With The Daydream you get a little lift with a smooth fit, and no air pockets in the cups,” she says. “[The Bliss is] very smooth on the body from the band to the cups. It feels like I’m wearing nothing!”

Learning to value herself for more than her physical appearance was a game-changer for helping Szum deal with some really intense life events, which is why she’s thrilled to see major brands featuring body diversity more prevalently, like Target is doing with its new inclusive Auden bra line.

“I think this celebration of body diversity could help to decrease depression… and bullying.”

“I love that we have these brands today who are using real life women and showing the upcoming generation that all bodies are beautiful,” she says. “I think this celebration of body diversity could help to decrease […] bullying. You could have cellulite, a tummy, imperfect skin, small boobs, big boobs, hips, no hips, and it’s all beautiful!”

In partnership with Target

Top photo: Target

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