Ruth SilvermanStrength in Weights
Whatever happened to Meral Ertunc? You know—the pretty, dark-haired Turkish-born bodybuilder from Virginia who won her class at the ’92 NPC Nationals, took third at the ’93 Jan Tana Classic and made it to the Olympia in her first year as a pro? In the rush to develop bigger, harder bodies in the female bodybuilding ranks, then as now, a woman who possessed the truly total package of aesthetics—symmetry, proportion and looks—stood out even if she was only 5’2”. Besides, how could you forget a name like Meral Ertunc?
An aerobics instructor who was sidelined by shin splints, Ertunc started weightlifting in 1987 and entered her first show nine months later. After a slew of local and regional competitions—and a close third place at the ’91 Junior Nationals, she took the National Lightweight Championship on her first try, triumphing over a class of 28. Enter the national muscle media, and before you could say Marjo Selin, she was starring in magazine features like, “Beauty and Brawn,” “A Model of Muscular Beauty” and “Meral Ertunc Shows How Basic Movements Build a Feminine Chest.”
Meral got married and moved to Florida. She and her husband opened a gym, and, with her successful training business and her bodybuilding career starting to take off, well, if ever anyone seemed to be on the road to having it all, it was she. Then, suddenly, she disappeared from the scene.
What happened to Meral was every woman’s nightmare: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a bodybuilder and personal trainer, however, she had some heavy weapons to use in her fight against the disease. She used them in spades. Not only did she beat it back, but she recently took on the rigors of contest prep again, making her debut in figure at the San Francisco Pro in March.
The bottom line: Meral Ertunc is one gutsy lady. Here’s her story.
IM: When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
ME: July 4, 1996. I had found a mass under my right armpit.
IM: What was going on in your life then?
ME: I was in great shape, around 140 pounds. Going to Turkey, where I was born and raised, to do seminars and a radio talk show about my life as a Turkish pro female bodybuilder.
IM: What treatments did you undergo?
ME: I had surgery to take out the mass that was under my armpit. They went in three inches to my muscle and scraped. Then they took all my lymph nodes from that area, which is a very tender part of your arm. After that there were four treatments of chemo and nine straight weeks of radiation.
IM: I’ve talked with people who have gone through this, and most of them have said it was devastating. How did you handle it?
ME: I was very scared. I lost my mother to cancer in 1989. She was very young and healthy. She fought for her life for about 2 1/2 years, but the cancer took her life.
IM: What kept you strong?
ME: I saw what my mother went through, and I was determined to beat the disease.
This was a mental focus for me. My ex-husband, Tony Vargas, was there for me mentally and emotionally. I feel very fortunate that he was part of my life back then. He kept me strong and very much loved no matter what I looked like or felt. My family and my friends were my support group as well.
IM: What role did weight training and exercise play?
ME: I looked at my cancer as a bodybuilding challenge. I thought, If I can diet six months out of the year and train like a champion, what’s six months out of my life to overcome a deadly disease? My body was so strong from eating healthy and training with weights—I was so ready and focused to attack this illness.
IM: How soon did you get back into the gym? How did it go once you got there?
ME: Four weeks and I was back in the gym. It was very painful to work out. They said I would not be able to lift my arm over my head for about six months. They were wrong. With my training background and determination I was able to raise my arm over my head in weeks. I went to the gym every day and pushed through the pain and wanted so bad to get back to being normal as soon as possible.