In this episode of Beyond Clinical Walls Podcast, Dr. Curry-Winchell, affectionately known as Dr. BCW, engages in a heartfelt conversation with Mena Spodobalski, the remarkable owner of Evoke Fitness. Tune in as they delve into the inspiring journey of Evoke Warriors, a revolutionary program catering to cancer patients undergoing treatment or transitioning into remission.
Evoke Fitness, a local gym with a heartwarming mission, offers a lifeline to those affected by cancer. With a deep understanding of the transformative power of exercise and fitness, Evoke donates gym time and personal trainers to empower cancer patients on their path to recovery. Driven by the belief that physical strength fosters emotional and mental resilience, Evoke Warriors serves as a beacon of hope and support.
During this captivating conversation, Dr. BCW and Mena Spodobalski explore the profound impact Evoke Warriors has had on the lives of cancer patients. They delve into heartwarming stories of individuals who have embraced the program, discovering newfound strength, determination, and community.
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Dr. BCW (00:00):
Hello everyone, this is Dr. B C W. Thank you again for listening to our latest episode with Beyond Clinical Walls. As you all know, beyond Clinical Walls is a platform to discuss and share health related topics and an open forum, as well as to improve health literacy and call out healthcare inequities and shine a light on race-based medicine. I have with me today a wonderful guest that I am so excited for you to hear her vision, her work, all the things that she is putting forth on a daily basis. So I'd love for you to meet Mena who is, you know, when I describe this, this doesn't give it justice, but she is the owner of Evoke Fitness, a wife, a mom of two, as well as the founder of Evoke Warriors. And so I am excited for you to hear about her journey, things that she has really navigated through to get her to what she is today. So Mena, thank you so much for joining us. Please share with the audience, um, um, a little bit about you.
Well, first off, thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be on your show as a woman who, uh, I admire because of all that you're doing for our community and how just strong you are with your beliefs and equity and, and the right to medicine for everybody. So thank you for what you do as well. As you said, I am Men Debowski. I am the owner of Evoke Fitness. Um, we have been in business for 10 years serving the Reno Sparks community. I am also the founder of Evoke Warriors. Evoke Warriors. Was founded three years ago and I'm super excited to be here to kind of share a little bit about the program and what it's doing for cancer patients in the Reno Sparks area. Really kind of how the whole thing came to be and why I feel like it's so important. I wish we could have one of these in every state. So I'm hoping that someone becomes inspired by this and whether they create a program like this or helps them to move more, um, hopefully that's what we inspire someone to do today.
Dr. BCW (02:11):
Excellent. And that is the hope. When you hear about the work that she's putting forward and how she is helping cancer patients, this is something that should be produced in around the world. It is a blueprint for not only health, but physical mental health and just overall motivation in ways that I think, um, is truly needed when we look at the type of work that she is putting forward. So, MENA, can you share first, um, because I loved, um, being able to just read your bio and, and share with listeners your beginning journey. I think that's so powerful because it also shapes and, and really tells a story about what you do today.
So I'm gonna actually with a very brief background of where I was born and how I got to be here doing what I'm doing today, because I'm a firm believer that God puts you where you need to be at the right time and the right place. And I feel like that is kind of where I am now. I was born in Africa. My mom and dad met in das or islands actually, and they went to Africa and cuz that's where my dad was from. And so I was born in, uh, Caba, um, Angola. And I lived there until I was seven years old. And then in 1976, you know, I learned about this when I was in high school, which was kind of weird cuz I lived it. Um, there was a civil war, um, in Africa and my family had to pack up all of their belongings that they could basically put in a couple of bags and head to the airport and get out of there because, um, it was very, it was a very dangerous war zone situation.
So my parents packed everything they had, they had to leave their home. My dad had a business. There was no time to sell anything. Just whatever money you could withdraw from the bank. And we slept in an airport for three days before we got on a plane. It was actually an American refugee plane that pulled us out of there. Um, we were the second to the last airplane to get out of the country before the airport was bombed. So I feel very blessed to be in America. You know, when I first, uh, we stayed in Azores, I'm sorry, yeah. In the AOR Islands for about a year waiting for our visas. Cause my mom already had family in the United States and I have very few memories of my life there. Obviously I was young and obviously there was, um, a little bit of trauma there.
But I vividly remember landing in the San Francisco airport and not speaking a word of English. And I remember looking up by my dad with these huge eyes just being like, I wanna learn how to talk like that. That's so pretty. You know, my dad's probably thinking, oh girl, you're gonna learn because that's the only way to survive here, <laugh>. But, um, you know, I went to school when I was nine years old and didn't speak a word of English until fourth grade, but it was a very tough beginning. My parents never took a handout. One worked at night, one went to school, they switched back and forth. Um, and they, you know, raised my brother and I to just be very independent and just to take care of ourselves, you know, and so fast forward here I am in Reno, Nevada. I'm working in retail, never worked out a day in my life, was not interested in exercise or getting sweaty and fitness.
I had always worked in retail and was more in that fashion aspect of the world. And after I had babies, I started to gain weight. And I was like, that's weird. I was always this skinny, you know, never have to worry about what I ate. Um, but as I had children and as I was nursing, I was putting on weight that was not coming off. And with my second child, I noticed that I was pretty much, when I stopped nursing him, I was weighing the same that I had weighed when I was about six months pregnant. So I had a total meltdown in a dressing room and I was like, I need to, I need to do something. Like I'm either gonna go in this really unhealthy, unhappy direction or I need to get my shit together and start doing things that are good for my body.
So I was really embarrassed to join a gym, which is a very, very common thing. A lot of times I hear that from a lot of clients that, um, land on our doorstep. Um, so I bought a tie bow tape that was about 30 minutes long. I would pop it in my v h s, the kids would play around me and I would do this tabo workout for 30 minutes and lay on the floor dying every five or 10 minutes. But the more I did it, the stronger I felt, the happier I was. I looked forward to the time when I could get my exercise on. Then my husband brought me an hour long tape and I started doing that. And as my confidence built and as I started to lose weight, I decided to hire a trainer so I could learn what to do in the gym.
Cause I had never, like I said, been in a gym. I had no idea what to do. And I just fell in love with the whole process. I loved how I felt about it. I loved just the mental clarity that I, that I got of it. You know, the kids would go to school, I'd go to work out. I felt so much better when I picked them up. I felt good about myself. And as I started losing weight, I ended up losing about 25 pounds. Other moms were like, what the heck are you doing? How are you looking so good? What is going on? And that was the motivation for me to get certified as a personal trainer. Um, so that's really how my journey started was just in a bedroom locked up with a typo tape, you know, and just realizing the importance of fitness and realizing not just how I was feeling and how I was looking externally, but really how I was feeling mentally, like feeling good about myself again, and like not getting out of breath, chasing the kids around. And I just felt so good about it that I wanted other women to find that confidence and that assurance in themselves through fitness. So once I got certified, I started doing boot camps in the park. So we would drop off our kids and then the moms would literally walk over to the park and we would do a bootcamp class for about 45 minutes. If they had babies, I would push 'em in the stroller. I would hold onto them so that they could work out. And that's kind of how my fitness journey started.
Dr. BCW (07:57):
You know, and something that you mentioned, mena, which I think is a through line in everything that you do, even with that journey, it's this thought process, but not just the thought, it's an action. It's what can I do? What can I do? Whether it's I'm at home, I'm popping in a, a tape to exercise, what can I do to build my confidence? What can I do even if I have to pick up my kiddos and do all of these things as well as this will lead us into the work that you're doing, um, in the, with your nonprofit is, you know, leaning into what can you do? And I think that mindset can really allow people to have a different perspective. And whether it's when you came to America and you want it to be able to speak English and didn't know a soul, but you figured it out and you, you, your parents as you mentioned, raised you to be independent. And I think when you think of independence, it's also this kind of, what can I do? What can I, um, achieve? And so that's something that really struck me when you were sharing that story as well as when I was able to read your bio. And so I think this leads us into when you started, when you opened your business and that kind of thought process that you infused in all of your clients. Can you share some of that?
Yeah. You know, when the opportunity came to buy the gym, I, that was not something that was in my radar. I was just happy working part-time, you know, between kid activities and, you know, working with 10, 15 clients and just doing that. But when the opportunity arose, it was actually my husband who was like, just imagine the amount of good that you can do by owning your own business and you're gonna get to set your schedule and work around the kids. And, and I, you know, I was on the other fence where I'm like, what if you know, it fails? What if people don't come? What if blah, blah, blah, blah. And he's like, what if it's a success? What if? You know? And so buying the gym 10 years ago really opened up a lot of doors, a, to help more people, b, to really build a culture where people felt comfortable.
Because I knew from experience that walking into a gym was a scary thing. You know, whether you're a hundred pounds overweight or you're 20 pounds overweight, it doesn't matter. The fear's still there. And it's just like, are people gonna laugh at me? Am I gonna look dumb trying to lift away? Am I gonna injure myself? And so I knew that I could build a culture where people will feel confident coming into the gym. And really, I'm really proud of that. That's one of the things that Evoke is known for is that we are family oriented. People feel comfortable there. There's no judgment. No one is criticizing someone who's walking in. They're rather giving you a high five or saying good job. And, and I see it all the time and it makes me so happy to see it in clients who don't even know each other.
And they see someone for the first time and they're like, wow, you're new here. Congratulations. You know? So I'm super proud of that culture because I feel like when somebody walks in, they're nervous, but usually by the end of that hour they're like, okay, that wasn't bad, you know, or I can do this. So that, it was one of the things that really excited me about owning the gym. And it opened up doors to be able to do things that if you, if I was working for someone else, I wouldn't have been able to do. For example, when we first, when I first started being part of breast cancer to bikini, you know, I donated the gym space, I donated my time to get that program started and to help develop that program,
Dr. BCW (11:15):
You not only just participated, you built, and I think you should share with the listeners about that program because I think that was so, uh, instrumental in changing lives and what you're doing now to this day. So can you share where that came from when you talk about donating space in your gym and what you were putting forward?
Sure. So I actually had trained a client's daughter to do a bikini competition. And that client of mine had, um, had breast cancer and had gone through the whole process of, you know, a double mastectomy and chemo and radiation and all of the things that go with a pa so diagnosis. And she had actually trained at another space, another gym to do a bikini competition because she just wanted to get the courage and the strength back to believe in her body again. And so fast forward, I trained her daughter, I get to know her really well and she calls me one day and she's like, Hey, I had an idea. I wanna do this thing. I want some of my people that I know who've gone to breast cancer to feel the way I felt when I got up on that stage. She goes, it wasn't about Winnie, it wasn't about wearing that bikini, it was about building confidence in my body and I wants you to do this with me.
And I was like, um, I don't know nothing about training cancer patients. I know nothing about that. I knew about competing cuz I had competed myself and I knew how to train people for that. But you know, when people have had all these surgeries and are going through all these different medications that affect your weight gain and affect what your body can do and all of that, I was like, I had no idea, but I, I didn't hesitate. And I was like, sure I would, yeah, I'll figure it out. I would love to do that. And then she was like, well, I would like it to be a pro bono job. You know, these people already have enough to deal with. And I was like, yeah, I'm all in because I could do that. I owned the gym and I can donate my time. And so that's where breast cancer bikini came from.
And we, you know, she had this vision, I learned how to train 'em properly. I did all the nutrition and all of those guidelines and we kind of just built this program like, this is what we need to do at week 12, this is what we need to do at week 10, this is, and so forth. So I did that program for about four years. We put 60 women who had breast cancer on stage. Some of them were going through treatment, some of them were outta treatment as far as 15 years. And some of 'em, like I said, were currently going through treatment. We helped them lose weight, we helped them build muscle, gain confidence, do things that they never thought they were able to do. And that was truly for me to watch them. I always get a emotion while I tell this story, but to watch them walk in nervous, scared, overweight, not be able to get off the floor to people who walked in smiling and happy and they couldn't wait to be there and lifting weights that they didn't think that they could do or doing a pushup.
You know, like a lot of times when they have a double mastectomy or they have any kind of surgery in the chest and breast area, doctors tell 'em, oh, you can't ever do another pushup or you can't ever do another plane. And then they try it and they're like, I just did a ten second plane, or I just did one pushup and then it goes to 10 and it goes, it's absolutely remarkable. And so that was really what kind of drove me was that joy of seeing that. And then four years of that, um, you know, we decided to go separate ways so they, they could do things kind of differently than what I wanted to go with the program. And I just took a break from it and I actually kind of thought I was done, you know, okay, I'm done. I'm gonna move on from this journey and, uh, 2020 hit and all the madness of that.
But in the, those two years that I wasn't doing that program, I really missed the joy of it. When I train my clients, you know, it's a day in, day out, I get to see progress. But when there's a deadline, it's different. And when it's somebody who's got so many things going against them that they get to overcome through fitness and eating well, it's different. And I missed that part of it. So that's kind of how Warriors came to be. Breast cancer d bikini was only for women and it was only for breast cancer. Evoke warriors is for anyone who has a cancer diagnosis, men, women, colon cancer, breast cancer, brain tumors, melanoma, you name it, we've had it. We really try to help anyone with any cancer diagnosis because once you get those words, you have cancer, it completely changes your life.
Dr. BCW (15:34):
So Minna, I would love for you to, um, share with the listeners. One thing that you had mentioned to me that you often hear is when your clients have received that diagnosis of cancer, their life kind of just stops as far as exercising and this feeling that I just need to stay on the couch while I get my treatment. And can you share with listeners, you know, what your mindset has been and how you've been able to empower these patients? And it's important to mention what you stated. You are very inclusive in your reach for all types of cancer patients, all gender, everyone. Um, I I'd love for you to highlight those two pieces,
You know, back, I mean, even if you go back five years, and I think that there's still a lot of doctors who firmly believe that when you're going through chemo and you're going through radiation, that you need to go home and lay on the couch and rest. And yes, there's a lot of people who it wipes them out and barely getting to the bathroom and barely having dinner is more than they can do. But the majority of people and the sci, the science is there to show that if you are moving through your chemo, that you actually get through it better. You move that poison through your body. It's not just sitting there. You move your, your body was built to move no matter what we're going through. And these people are finding that the more that they move, whether it's a walk, a hike, getting on a bike and just slowly moving their legs, they find that they do get through the chemo much better.
They're less nauseous, they're less fatigued, they're less achy, all of the things. And there's a lot of research out there that's showing that. And more and more doctors are telling people, no move. Try to go about your life. And so we really try to encourage them and show them that they can do these things. I would say that most of the time when they apply for the program, a patient will tell us, oh, well, you know, I'm really having a difficult time with this and this. I'm like, just trust us. Trust the process, take it one step out of time. And literally within two weeks, I'm gonna tell you 99% of them are doing amazing, remarkable things. It's cool. It's, it's really remarkable.
Dr. BCW (17:47):
Well, and like we've mentioned before, not only that physicality that changes, but that mental outlook that is really mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I think vital to just changing your whole outlook on life. And so absolutely you are providing, um, two layers of support, um, not only for the forecast of their future, but right there in the minute or right there, um, helping them day to day and also having something to strive for. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like you mentioned, you know, getting on stage or whatever their goal is, just having something that you are looking forward to. I wanna share with the listeners that through Evoke Warriors, which is nonprofit and it was founded in 2021 and this is her third year, giving back to the community cancer patients throughout the state that you continue to just, um, push and, and elevate this important work. I think another piece that is important to mention is you've had 61, is that correct? 61, um,
People with or more now? Uhhuh <affirmative>? No. With this year's group we're at 61. Yes, that's correct. Okay,
Dr. BCW (19:00):
Excellent. Well, can you share with some of the listeners, if someone knows either themselves they're, they're interested for themselves or a family member, how do they go about learning more about, um, evoke warriors and applying or either donating, which I think is really important for, um, those listening to think about how you can help someone else really have the opportunity to experience this.
Yeah, so Evoke choirs opens up their applications every February and the applications are open for a month. So anyone can go on our website, they can go see our socials and they'll see that the application is available. We do an interview process with, um, old Warriors will be on the interview panel and some of us, all of the trainers in our nutritional guidance as well. We are on this panel, you interview with us and it's not a scary interview at all. We just wanna know a little bit about your cancer journey, how it's affected your life, mentally, physically, personally, um, what you're hoping to get out of the program. And then we do, you know, we'll take 20 to 22 people to be part of the program. We typically get about 40 applicants apply, and then we start the program always at the, that last week of March.
It goes six months of exercise bonding events that we do so that they can bond outside the gym. We have nutritional guidance, we have our nutritional book club because we use the Path to Wellness, which is a book that is used in some cancer centers throughout the country. We use that as our nutritional guidelines. We really focus on mental health, nutrition, physical health, and just giving 'em all the tools in six months that they need so that they can take these things that they learn and use them and apply 'em for the rest of their lives so that they avoid a cancer recurrence. And if a cancer recurrence does occur, they're stronger mentally and physically so they can take on anything that comes their way. At the end of the six months, we do a Reveal program and this Reveal Gala, they get to pick something that they want to wear that makes 'em feel amazing and beautiful and handsome, whatever it may be.
Um, at de they get to show all their hard work in the last six months to their family, their friends, their supporters, our supporters, our community. They get to see what they've done, the gala, we do a interview of them and they share their cancer story. You see this video, you see their before photo, and then they get to walk up on stage in this amazing outfit and they always get a standing ovation. There's usually not a dry eye in the entire place and they just feel the love. You know, when I've envisioned that gala and the finale to their six month journey, the key to that was that they feel all the love and support that maybe they felt like they didn't have during their cancer battle. Because a lot of people say that they lose a lot of friends when they get cancer. A lot of people just don't know how to handle it. And I want them to feel love and supported and proud of themselves. And so far that's kind of been a success story because they all feel like that was more than I ever imagined it would be. And so it's pretty amazing. And
Dr. BCW (22:08):
You're also creating a network of connections that, you know mm-hmm. <affirmative> people may not have been able to experience. And having the opportunity to connect with others that are going through cancer and understanding that kind of lived experience of appointments and, you know, uh, medications, but also going to the gym and having this accountability piece is really a key to helping you just get, navigate all of these things that are kind of coming at you all at once. Yeah. But if you have support, it really can make a difference. And so I wanna highlight that this is, you know, a nonprofit MENA is doing such amazing work in our community and helping people throughout, and it's, although it's a, you know, and she mentions a six month plan, it is a lifelong plan. I love how you mentioned, you know, if a recurrence happens, it's something that you can hold onto that you now have in your playbook to help with the mental, the physical toll that not just cancer brings, but also light.
It's, it's a very powerful opportunity. It's an opportunity to create lifelong education support and just overall skillset that you can use not only for yourself, but your family and, and anything that you navigate. And I think that that's huge. So the work that you're doing, yeah. Minute is fantastic. Can you share some of the social media handles, just if people wanna get a flavor of the things that you are doing? Um, I love her Instagram. She's on there, you know, sharing different exercises, but also just mindset things that can also help you <laugh>, um, in your, in your daily, you know, whatever you're, you're facing.
So we have evoke warriors on Instagram and as well as on Facebook, and you can follow it. And I post videos of their workouts. I, I keep it as real as possible. I always tell them, I'm like, the struggle is okay because there's gonna be a struggle one day, but there's also gonna be a success the next day. So you'll see what they go through day in and day out in the gym. Um, a lot of them call it their happiest hour of the day when they get to come and be with their community of cancer survivors and cancer warriors that are going through it. So you can see some of their workouts. We give you tips and nutrition and all kinds of fun things on their, on their pages. And then if you wanna follow Evoke Fitness as well, we have more of the gym side, um, and what's happening in the gym and so forth.
At that time. We also have a website, evoke warriors.org. And on that website is where you would find the application when it's available. And the link, um, we're, we're gonna be having our one and only fundraiser on June 24th, um, at the gym. It's a bootcamp fundraiser. It's super fun. We have a dj, we have treats, um, we have raffle prizes, silent auction. You get to meet all the warriors, work alongside them. You're really put things into perspective. You're like, well, if they can do five pushups, I sure as heck can do five pushups, right? The fundraiser's coming up on June 24th. There's details on our socials as well about that. And all the reveal information will also be on that website.
Dr. BCW (25:27):
Perfect. And if they can't make it, they can definitely donate, correct?
Absolutely. They can donate on the website, there's a little button that says donate. Um, whether it's $5 or $5,000, we'll take it all because it really helps us continue the program for as long as possible. I've always said that I will do this program as long as there's a need, I really want to stand behind that. So the program is a hundred percent donated to every single participant. They don't have to pay a dime. And that has always been a very, very important part of this program. And you can have excellent insurance, but you still have all that struggle of not being able to work, not being, I have clients who go toran to Stanford for treatment, or they'll go to MD Anderson and they're having to pay for flights, they're having to pay for rooms. There's a lot of costs involved with their cancer diagnosis and their cancer treatment, whether it's local or out of town. And so we don't want getting healthy and fit and that desire to ever be put on the back burner simply because of cost. So it's a hundred percent donated to them, and we rely on our community, our donors, to um, continue that.
Dr. BCW (26:39):
Excellent. Well, thank you Mena for joining me today and do casing all of this wonderful work with Evoke warriors. I encourage all of the listeners to take a look at our website, uh, consider donating, consider coming and joining, um, at the fundraiser June 24th. Correct. I'm gonna say that one more time. Yes. Yeah. Not only are you helping the community and helping people, um, directly, you're also able to get a workout in as well, which helps you. So my dad always said, when you help others, you're helping yourself. And this was a man who, as many of you know, a 99 year old World War ii, Korean, Vietnam war veteran that worked out, you know, every day <laugh>, even the day he's, he passed away. And, um, it was his motto was, you have to keep moving. And so what MENA is doing, she's allowing people to keep moving. Thank you for joining me today and, um, I'm excited for people to take a look and donate and, and find ways to support. So this is Dr. Bcw. Thank you as always for listening to Beyond Clinical Walls.
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