How this champion powerlifter battles a rare cancer

by Len Lear
Posted 4/4/24

Aaron, 71, is a champion powerlifter who holds two national records, eight Pennsylvania powerlifting records and one world record.

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How this champion powerlifter battles a rare cancer


When I first met Howard Aaron at Balance, the health, wellness and fitness studio at 12 W. Willow Grove Ave. in Chestnut Hill, my first comment was “You are the last person I would expect to be going through the struggle with cancer that you've had.”  

“You are not the first person to say that,” Aaron replied. “I have heard that before. It doesn't hurt my feelings at all. I tell people there is a difference between health and a healthy lifestyle.”

Aaron, 71, is a champion powerlifter who holds two national U.S. Powerlifting Federation records, eight Pennsylvania powerlifting records and one world record. In 2022, when he was 69 and weighed 198 pounds, he lifted 330.7 pounds.

In March of last year, however, as Aaron was training for the Arnold Classic, an international weightlifting competition, one of dozens he has competed in for decades as a fitness coach, he began showing signs of extreme confusion, often forgetting where he was while driving to work. After getting himself checked out by doctors, Aaron was stunned to be diagnosed with intravascular B-cell lymphoma, an extremely rare form of blood cancer that infiltrates the blood vessels. 

“I had no pain early on,” he told us last week. “However, I lost eyebrows.”

Aaron was told that his cancer is so rare that it affects only one out of every two million Americans.

“At first I did not feel the disease,” he said. “I found out that one in five Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime.”

An oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital told Aaron that if he was as strong mentally as he was physically, then the doctors could learn a lot about his rare cancer, which is important because so little is known about it. He was treated with six consecutive cycles of chemotherapy, each of which consisted of five days of a 24-hour chemo drip, followed by 15 days of rest.

He was told if his body could handle the first cycle, then they would increase the dose. In other words, he would get as much chemo as his body could tolerate. He wound up finishing six cycles, each one stronger than the last.

“I did not feel the disease as much as I felt the side effects,” said Aaron, who never had to receive radiation treatments. “There were days when I felt the power of the cancer. I was exhausted. Every part of my body hurt. I did not feel like doing anything or going anywhere. I equated those days to being punched.”

Between the fifth and sixth chemo cycles, Aaron’s tongue became sore and sensitive.

“I felt pain as my tongue moved around my teeth,” he said. “There was nothing the doctors could do to help. I basically had a liquid diet with lots of high-protein smoothies. Even the taste of water was bad.”

Water, Aaron said, started to taste metallic in the third cycle.

“As a powerlifter, I always emphasize the importance of hydration,” he said, “So that was very difficult.”

Eventually, Aaron figured out that flavored carbonated water tasted better. 

Dr. Sunita Nasta, professor of Hematology-Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was part of Aaron’s medical team.

“Howard will tell you that he was doing great, and then suddenly he wasn’t,” Nasta said. “The symptoms are subtle.”

Lymphoma, Nasta said, is like a roller coaster.

“You can go up the hill with it for a while before your body hits its limit,” she said. “You want to catch the lymphoma early before it goes down the other side.”

In her more than 20-year career, Nasta has treated seven cases of intravascular B-cell lymphoma. All those patients are now in remission.

Aaron said that what helped him most was his attitude.

“I was determined not to look sick,” he said. “I wore regular workout clothes and did not stop working. That was a great distraction for me. I led training classes from my hospital room via Zoom. I thought if I can do this, my students should be able to work out really hard.”

Aaron was born in South Philadelphia and later lived in Wynnefield Heights and the Greater Northeast. He went to Central High School, where he was a member of the 229th graduating class.

He also attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy & Science, but dropped out after six months. But those six months proved to be beneficial.

“My education in pharmacy helped me understand how the body works,” he said. “It definitely helped.”

After owning businesses in the recycling, janitorial and latex gloves industries, Aaron bought the Old City Ironworks gym in 1998. In 2002, he opened Ironworks II in Northern Liberties but sold them both in 2003. Then in 2005 he opened East Falls Fitness. He retired from owning gyms in 2015 but is still a personal trainer, both via Zoom and in person at Balance.

Aaron's cancer is currently in remission, but in January he had two knee replacements on the same day. And despite all he has endured, Aaron, who has two children, Scott and Blair, with his wife of 14 years, Andrea Silver, is now training for competition again — in May in Warrington, Bucks County, masters level 4 for ages 70 to 79.

“I have no more fear and worry now,” he said. “I have already danced with the devil.”

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