“God has been so good to me!” Those are the first words out of 59-year-old breast cancer survivor Helen Ansari’s mouth when asked what her life has been like since she beat the disease. It wasn’t an easy road for the Zumba instructor, who was 42 and in perfect health when a routine mammogram returned bad news. Ansari had her right breast removed, and thankfully never needed chemotherapy to win her fight. Sadly, her mother and little sister weren’t as fortunate. Her mother succumbed to breast cancer after a 10-year battle and her sister passed away from ovarian cancer at age 40, leaving behind two small children, both of which Ansari took in and raised alongside her own two daughters.
When cancer seemingly attacked her family, Ansari used what she knew best, fitness, to fight back. She began raising money at her local gym to help support the cause. After helping community members band together to raise thousands to help promote awareness and find a cure, Ansari found a way to combine her two passions.
Today, Ansari and her daughter, internationally known Zumba choreographer Shahidah Ansari, 28, work annually with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Zumba Fitness to encourage women all over the world to get fit and help to raise money for research by hosting or participating in a Party In Pink. Ansari sat down with us to speak about what her survival has meant to her and why being on the frontlines of the fight for a cure has helped her make it through her darkest days.
ESSENCE.com: How did you handle getting a breast cancer diagnosis knowing you were healthy and fit at the time?
HELEN ANSARI: When I was diagnosed, I had just placed fourth in the National Aerobic Reebok competition. I learned through a routine mammogram. I was 42 at the time and you see, I grew up in the South where everybody was fat, but I was always a skinny little thing. When I became Miss Black America (1975-76) that’s when I got educated about fitness and health. It was important to me. But, [when I was diagnosed] I pulled it together and I just kept rolling. I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. I was really blessed.
ESSENCE.com: How did it feel to beat the odds and win your fight?
ANSARI: It’s been 17 years for me. Let me tell you, my prayer was, dear God please let me raise my children. They both are now 25 and 28. Every mother wants to raise her children. My biggest fear was not being there for them. I’m one of those people who understands that death is inevitable, and you never know when it’s going to happen, so you have to just enjoy every day as if it’s your first and last. It feels magnificent to be able to raise my kids.
ESSENCE.com: What got you through the toughest days?
ANSARI: When you’re in it, and it’s happening, that’s when you find the biggest branch to swing on. I had faith in God and I knew that this was something that I couldn’t stop. Any time you lose someone you have to find it in your heart and soul to pull yourself up from the bootstraps because you find yourself feeling really low. I don’t call it depression. It’s grief; you feel heavy. It’s hard for you to move through your everyday life. My mom said to me on her deathbed, “I’m not ready to go. It’s hard, but it’s fair, because remember, just as we’re born, we also die.” She told me to be strong and that’s what I’ve been to this day.
ESSENCE.com: How did you become so involved in the fight for the cure?
ANSARI: It all begin before my mother passed away. I started out with American Cancer Society. I beat my cancer in 1995. At the time, my mother was going through her struggle with cancer. I teach fitness, so I went to my club and told my class that I’d been battling breast cancer and I’m cured and I’m good, but my mom isn’t, and I really want to raise some money. We did the walk with ACS together. I gave everybody a brochure, and everybody went out and raised money. We raised over $17,000 in one month. That’s when I really got involved. Then, after we got involved in Zumba, which was so amazing, my daughter came to me and said, “Mom, I want to do something in honor of you.” In 2009, we did a fundraiser with Zumba Fitness and we raised $21,000. It was the first one ever. That’s when we started doing Parties in Pink and got involved with the Zumba and Susan G. Komen partnership.
ESSENCE.com: How do the Parties In Pink help to raise money for breast cancer awareness?
ANSARI: Anyone who puts on a Party In Pink at their fitness club, 75 percent of the proceeds go to Susan G. Komen and the other 25 percent is used to put on the function. It’s all about Zumba right now.
Helen Ansari (left) and daughter Shahidah Ansari
ESSENCE.com: What advice would you give women who feel they’re too busy to give back or too out of shape to start exercising?
ANSARI: It’s a very dark space for many people psychological and emotionally. That’s what you have to tap into to get people to get into. They should think about step one. Step one is, ask yourself, how is it going to help my help? The thing that is most important is feeling better mentally, spiritually and physically. You want all three components. If you put your health first, you’ll automatically work out. You won’t have a choice.
To learn more about how to get involved with Party In Pink, click here.