How Brazilian jiu-jitsu helped this Island woman take down cancer

Inside a training gym in Charlottetown, Jill MacIsaac adjusts her grip and flips her training partner flat on their back. A quick fist bump to acknowledge the move and the sparring pair are back on their feet for another round of Brazillian jiu-jitsu

"It's the gentle art," MacIsaac said about the martial art that combines self-defence fundamentals and submission holds.

"There's a lot of gripping. There's a lot of throws over head, taking down. It's very rough and tumble."

But for MacIsaac, jiu-jitsu is about much more than that, she also credits her training for saving her life.

She has been training in the martial art for seven years, but had to take two years off after making a painful discovery while at the academy.

There was not a moment going through treatment that I didn't think 'I just can't wait to go back to the academy.' — Jill MacIsaac

"I was in a position and it was a lot of pressure on the chest and I had some pain and so then I did some investigation and found a lump," said MacIsaac. It was breast cancer.

"Even doing the technique of jiu-jitsu helped me find that lump and potentially saved my life."

Long-list of accomplishments

MacIsaac, is also a town councillor in Cornwall, P.E.I., manager of the Hair Shoppe and mother to two teen girls.

She can also add another accomplishment to the list — earning her purple belt at Wulfrun Martial Arts Academy in Charlottetown on Oct. 31.

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It was at a special ceremony and at first MacIsaac didn't know she was receiving the honour.

"Purple belt is an advanced belt. It's very tough" said instructor Paul Abel of the Wulfrun Martial Arts Academy. 

"Purple belt is what they call your fighting belt — it's an impressive belt. A lot of people who start Brazilian jiu-jitsu do not reach their purple belt."

"I'm the only woman at this academy, and as far as I know the only woman in Prince Edward Island that has received their purple belt." MacIsaac said. She said it was a personal accomplishment that she is very proud of.

Laura Meader/CBC

MacIsaac said while she was taking time off as she was going through treatment she continued to show up at the gym, even if she couldn't train — just to watch and be a part of the Island jiu-jitsu community.

"There was not a moment going through treatment that I didn't think 'I just can't wait to go back to the academy,'" MacIsaac said. During her two years away from the mat, she also had a double mastectomy.

"The training that I had until my diagnosis really put me in the best physical condition I could have gotten myself in, to get through the gruelling months of cancer treatments."

Inspiration to others

"Just the tenacity that she has,"said Jodi Philips, who has been training with MacIsaac for the past three years.

"She has an energy and a glow. She is very positive — even through all the treatment and chemo and radiation — whenever she could, she would be back here on the mat with us."

Laura Meader/CBC

Philips said it was an inspiration to see MacIsaac battle through and back to the mat to earn her purple belt.

"Unbelievable that she can come through cancer and such a severe form of cancer," said Abel. "Jill's greatest talent is mental toughness [and] physical toughness."

For MacIsaac, she is glad to inspire others on their own mental and physical journeys.

"It makes me proud," said MacIsaac. "It makes me feel like, well, I'm glad that I can contribute something positive to my teammates here at the academy, something positive for my children to see."

Laura Meader/CBC

The rare achievement of the purple belt is not the end for MacIsaac's training.

"I look at this like a step closer to black," MacIsaac said. "A  black belt would be my goal and I am going to keep chipping away at it, one class at a time, one time on the mat and just keep going until I achieve that."

MacIsaac will have a busier holiday season than some. As well as keeping up her training, she is also getting married on New Year's Eve to her fiancé Chris Buote.

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