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Hit with a heavy burden, weightlifter won’t bend

A beloved teacher takes on cancer on her own terms

Bridgewater State University professor Ellyn M. Robinson isn’t letting cancer stop her training. Bridgewater State University professor Ellyn M. Robinson isn’t letting cancer stop her training. (Paul Kandarian for The Boston Globe)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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BRIDGEWATER - Ellyn M. Robinson stepped onto the mat in the weight room at Bridgewater State University, where she is professor in the strength and conditioning program.

The short-haired, slim, and athletic 46-year-old bent to pull up a bar with more than 100 pounds on it, jerked it to her chest, and, with her eyes focused on the far wall, hoisted it over her head for a few seconds before letting it slam to the mat.

Not bad for a woman once told by doctors to never lift anything heavier than a bag of groceries. Or for one who, as she puts it, “has so many parts missing.’’

“Momma Bear’’ - what many of those she trains call her - is back.

Robinson, a former Hanover resident who now lives in the Franklin home of her late mother where she was raised, survived a bout with right-side breast cancer last year only to find out a few months ago that she has it on the left side. She had, and does again, ductal carcinoma in situ, a form of breast cancer usually confined to the milk ducts.

In the first round, Robinson opted for a lumpectomy to remove the cancer. It didn’t work. She underwent three more, and then a complete mastectomy that included, she said, “chiseling out part of my deltoid muscle, some of the abdominals, part of the pectoral, and part of the lat,’’ or latissimus dorsi - all essential to weightlifting - as well as her lymph nodes.

“It was weird to wake up with part of you gone,’’ she said recently.

Doctors told her to never lift anything heavy again.

“They said not to lift more than 5 pounds,’’ Robinson said. “I was 120 percent sure I’d never come back. I thought I was done.’’

The usual course of treatment following cancer surgery is radiation and chemotherapy. She opted for neither. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 58, beat it, but it recurred, and she died July 22, 2010, at 69. Ellyn Robinson wanted to be with her.

“I decided not to have the treatments because my mom was dying; I needed to be strong for her,’’ she said. “My family was upset I wasn’t being more aggressive, and so were the kids on my team. But I figured if it takes time off my life at the other end and I get time with my mom now, well, it was an easy choice.’’

After the mastectomy, she said, “my doctor told me to take at least eight weeks off. I took a couple.’’

She resumed training and within a year was at the top of her game again, lifting the same weight as before and more. In her career, she’s won a variety of lifting awards and last year was named coach of the year at Bridgewater State. That trophy sits among others on a shelf in the college weight room. Snuggled against it is a Doc doll, one of the Seven Dwarfs. Most of those she trains also call her Doc, in respect to the doctorate she holds, from Springfield College.

“One thing my mom always said, and I do, too,’’ she said, “is that I have cancer; cancer doesn’t have me.’’

A few months ago, she had a checkup and learned of the left-side cancer. She’s not having any treatment yet. She has a masters powerlifting competition in Cypress, Fla., coming up in October and said she’s not missing it. Asked what she would do if the cancer takes a turn for the worse before then, she smiled.

“If it progresses rapidly, I’ll do the right thing,’’ she said. “But I’m not missing Cypress.’’

One recent muggy morning in the college weight room, where she trains a group of lifters known as the Robinson Weightlifting Team, comprising former students and those who know of her training techniques, Robinson exhorted her charges with a variety of instructions that, if unoriginal, appeared to have their desired effect, as the crew hoisted their weights under her guidance.

“C’mon Mike, nothing different, nothing different,’’ she called to Michael Ward, a 2007 Bridgewater State grad who teaches at Fitchburg State but returns here to train with Robinson. “C’mon, you’re strong between the ears, let’s go!’’

Ward lugged the weight up and held it.

Most of her charges are younger than her, and they say she often uses the phrase, “I’m old enough to be your mother and strong enough to be your father’’ on them.

“I saw her one day and she said, ‘You should train with us,’’’ said Art Nash, a custodian at the school and occasional power lifter. “I said no, and she laughed, ‘What, you chicken?’ ’’

Nash joined her group. That was nine years ago.

“I’d lifted before, but nothing like this. Doc’s all about the right form, nutrition, warming up, everything,’’ Nash said. “I’ve been doing this with her nine years, and it’s addicting.’’

Joseph Mosher, an assistant athletic trainer at the university who also trains with Robinson, said she fosters a great team relationship and pushes hard to get the best out of her lifters.

“I’m not going to the Olympics,’’ Mosher said, “but she trains me like I am.’’

“To me, everyone lifts the same weight,’’ said Robinson, a faculty member for 10 years at Quincy College. “Everyone has 100 percent; 100 percent of what Joe does is just as anxiety-ridden and heavy as my 100 percent. We’re all the same.’’

Her style is relaxed and low key, but she does not like impolite behavior in her weight room. When young men lift and miss their weight, they’ll occasionally let expletives fly, she said.

“I’m pretty laid back, but those are the things I’m strict about,’’ she said. “Swearing is not a good life lesson; I teach them not to do it, to stay in the present, take that energy and not waste it on what’s in the past.’’

Which would seem to be her take on cancer. She knows those who have had cancer risk getting it again, which she has. But it’s not slowing her down one pound.

“I know I won’t live a long life. I’ve studied it. I know the odds are against me,’’ she said, showing no bitterness, just calm acceptance. “But the years I have left, I’m going to live hard.’’

And, she said, hopefully set an example. “If I can inspire one cancer patient to get off their duff and do something,’’ she said, smiling, “it’s worth it.’’

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.