Liz Bauer knew it was wrong the moment she felt the lump. As a mom who had been “either pregnant or nursing for the past four years,” she says she had every reason to dismiss the lump as a harmless clogged milk duct. But something about this lump didn’t feel harmless.
“Something felt wrong,” she says. “It was so big it took my breath away.”
She called her midwife, who advised her to get a mammogram, which confirmed Liz’s intuition. At age 36, Liz—living a life packed with two preschool boys, a husband and a full-time job—now found herself facing a daunting battle with breast cancer.
Conversely, one could say breast cancer now faced a daunting battle with Liz.
If cancerous cells were capable of sentient decision making, cancer might have chosen to settle elsewhere. Liz and her husband, Todd Bauer, have structured their home and lives around tackling tough health challenges. That is, in fact, their day job.
Todd Bauer, owner of Optimal Health Alliance, has spent nearly 20 years building his reputation as one of Baltimore’s top wellness coaches and personal trainers. He trained Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright while they were in Baltimore filming “House of Cards,” sculpting Wright’s famous Claire Underwood arms.
Liz first met Todd when she hired him as her trainer. At the time, she was 35 pounds overweight and had developed health problems such as arthritis and autoimmune issues. She enrolled in Todd’s comprehensive nutrition and fitness plan to reset her life.
He reset her life—and more. Liz’s arthritis and autoimmune symptoms disappeared, she lost 35 pounds and, perhaps most significantly, she says, “I fell in love.”
As their relationship deepened and grew more serious, they discussed opening a health retreat center—a place to bring clients to learn about nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and relaxation. They found a 3-acre property within the Baltimore area in Glen Arm. They closed on the place on December 31, 2014, and that night, Todd proposed to Liz at the farmhouse.
The Bauers have since renovated their space into a total wellness retreat, The Farmette at 4424, which offers nutrition counseling, indoor and outdoor group and individual fitness, massage, sauna and meditation. Clients work out with Todd in an open-air barn and have access to the organic vegetables grown on-site and eggs from the chickens that roam the yard. Their massage therapist, Caitlyn Thompson, brings clients outside after their treatments to feed their three goats. Next year, Liz hopes to breed the goats and start making goat cheese.
The unexpected chapter
Enter breast cancer. Liz says she was raised to favor holistic over Western medicine. “My parents are as ‘granola’ and alternative as can be,” she says. But looking at images of a 5-centimeter tumor that had already entered her lymph system, Liz knew she’d need every tool in the tool belt to get well.
Her doctors at Johns Hopkins recommended fighting the disease by starting with four rounds of Adriamycin (known as the “red devil” to cancer patients and practitioners), then 12 treatments of Taxol, followed by a double mastectomy and the removal of lymph nodes.
Todd worked to build a nutrition and wellness plan to complement and increase the effectiveness of the chemotherapy.
“It’s important to treat the disease, of course, and we’re doing that,” Todd says. “But where’s the exercise, the nutrition and the mindfulness to help you stay well through the treatment and beyond?”
Todd and Liz agreed that if they were to commit to the lengthy and intense treatment regimen, they needed to align their lifestyles to get the most benefit from it.
For Todd, that meant “doing a deep dive into what nutrition is best for preventing cancer, the best nutrition plan during chemo for staying well and strong, and for maximizing its benefits.”
He consulted cancer experts in both holistic and Western medicine, and he worked with his team at Optimal Health Alliance to build a complete pre- and post-chemotherapy and surgery wellness plan. This wellness plan included exercise and nutrition, mindfulness, meditation, supplements and massage.
Todd is “very analytical, very in his brain,” Liz says with a laugh.
“I just knew there was a lot more information available,” Todd says.
A holistic approach
The results after one chemo, says Liz, were “shocking.” She had responded to her treatment in the top 5% of patients. The nurses were impressed.
Liz was stunned. Her “eyes widened,” Todd says. “She couldn’t even feel the lump.”
By the time chemotherapy was complete, cancer could no longer be detected in her lymph nodes and the 5-centimeter tumor had been reduced to less than 1 centimeter. The Bauers credit Liz’s robust response to her treatment to “Western medicine along with that holistic edge.”
Todd is now working to partner with cancer practitioners to bring what he and Liz learned to other cancer patients. Most importantly, Todd says, health and nutrition plans have to be adjustable and responsive. “It was hard. With Liz’s nausea during chemotherapy, we had to adjust the eating plan. You have to eat what makes you feel good when you’re sick,” he says. “And we figured out when she was well enough to exercise and when she wasn’t, and when it was best to use massage. We had to be flexible.”
And 2020 required still more flexibility. Right before her scheduled mastectomy, COVID-19 descended on the country, closing hospitals to nonessential surgeries and visitors.
Because of the restrictions, Liz faced her double mastectomy alone. Todd dropped her off at Johns Hopkins Bayview with a suitcase and said, “I’ll see you in two days.” As a steady presence alongside Liz during every single one of her chemo treatments, Todd never envisioned this scenario occurring.
The hospital, Liz says, felt like a “ghost town,” but staff went above and beyond to make the experience easier for her. “I will forever be grateful to these angels,” she says.
Liz was officially deemed cancer free in July. It was “exciting in that moment,” says Liz, but she feels “the hardest battle—the emotional and mental battle—against the unknown and the fear” of cancer returning is just beginning. “It’s way harder than physical battles.”
In the meantime, Liz says she’s “going to do everything I can and bring everything I possess to exercise, health and self-care to make sure it doesn’t come back. I will become healthy and strong again.” But she acknowledges the journey has “ups and downs.”
The downs, she says, “are the hard part for me.” As someone who describes herself as “a naturally positive person,” she nevertheless feels pressure to present a positive face, even on bad days.
There’s this good-vibes-only, forced-positivity attitude cancer survivors can face from family, friends, strangers—and even herself. Liz says she feels the pressure of regulating the mood of the household: “The kids thrive off of me. When I’m happy, they’re happy.”
At the same time, she knows it’s unrealistic. “There are times it’s hard to just look in the mirror. That’s when I see cancer,” she says. She allows herself to cry and acknowledges the need to accept “the real and the raw” along with the positive attitude.
She has allowed the kids to see her sad and has shown them scars they asked to see. “They were very curious and interested” in the surgical sites, she says, when she returned from the hospital.
This connection to reality “is how we connect with clients, too,” Liz says. “To be truly healthy, we need to know where you really are. We hear a lot of, ‘Oh, gosh, I don’t want you to see how I eat.’ We don’t want you to be perfect. It’s about giving people love, helping them heal.”
After this past year, Liz says, “when you take good care of yourself, I know firsthand how good that feels.”