Imagine raising four daughters, shedding half your size and beating thyroid cancer— all before age 36.

That’s my life in a nutshell. I’m now 37 years old. I have four beautiful kids, ages 18, 12, 5 and 2. I’m married to a terrific man. Overall, I’m a happy, healthy woman.

But it wasn’t always this way. Like all mothers, I strived to balance my spouse, children, household and career. Basically, I made sure everyone stayed well— except myself. That all changed when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2000, and gained 60 pounds as a result. I had to learn to put myself first, or risk losing everything, including my life.

Packing on the Pounds

Weight was never a problem for me during childhood. Sports, chores and work kept the pounds at bay. Right after high school, however, I experienced two significant life changes: marriage and motherhood. And my weight began creeping up.

When my military husband was stationed in Germany, our baby and I moved with him. There, I faced the stress of living away from family and friends, and the boredom of staying in the apartment with our baby. This led to lots of quick and easy meals comprising of lunch meat, bean dip, chips and other junk food. I’d eat throughout the day, rather than at mealtimes, even if I wasn’t hungry. I quickly ballooned to 257 pounds.

Three years later, we moved back to Weslaco, Texas, and I realized just how big I was. I felt ashamed. My wedding ring didn’t fit anymore. I never found anything flattering in my size. My back and neck hurt. In short, I was miserable.

To compensate, I tried every fad diet I found. Pills, shakes, even Mexican doctors by way of border-hopping. Each time I would drop 20 to 30 pounds, I’d gain it right back. This yo-yo dieting was expensive, ineffective and demoralizing. I was desperate for a solution, but didn’t know where to turn. I thought I had hit my lowest point. Boy, was I wrong.

Struggling with Thyroid Cancer

In 2000, I started noticing a weird sensation in the back of my throat, as if something was stuck. The feeling persisted for two months. I went to see our family doctor, who immediately scheduled an ultrasound. The discovery: a small mass on my thyroid. The biopsy confirmed my worst fear: cancer. There were two types of cancer cells in the mass. My thyroid would have to be removed.

This might sound strange, but I was simultaneously scared, nervous and happy. We’d caught the cancer early, and with such a small mass, my chances for recovery were excellent. As it turned out, however, surgery was the easy part. The real trials began when I returned home.

First, my energy level plummeted— a common side effect of thyroid removal. I had to force myself out of bed to clean the house and get the kids ready for school. I was also on thyroid replacement medication, which caused more weight gain, albeit slowly. The doctors advised me to stay away from sodium, but this proved difficult. Many of my favorite foods, such as Doritos, pizza and French fries, contained high amounts of sodium.

Then, six months after surgery, I started radiation treatment, getting three cycles of two strong doses over five years. Problem was, the medicine made me radioactive. I had to stay away from my family during the course of each treatment. This meant two weeks isolated in my bedroom after every dose.

Through it all, my family was wonderful and supportive. The girls never complained about my quarantine. And my husband handled household chores, leaving me free to concentrate on getting healthy. Finally, in 2005, my doctors declared me cancer-free. My family was thrilled, and I was excited to return to a normal life.

How I Regained My Life

My first step on that journey was fighting flab and returning to a healthy weight. Instead of a yo-yo diet, though, I sought a structured program that would teach me the right way to eat so I could lose the weight and keep it off.

But where to begin? There were more dieting options than ever before. When a coworker recommended L A Weight Loss, I figured I had nothing to lose— except the weight— and I signed up. I dropped six pounds in the first week on the program and kept losing weight at a steady two pounds per week. I was ecstatic, although I wondered why this plan worked when others had flopped.

The secret turned out to be learning proper portion control and moderation. I finally understood exactly how much to eat to keep my body going without feeling hungry or stuffed. I was also paired with a personal counselor, Jo Ann. Whenever I hit a weight loss plateau or felt discouraged, Jo Ann would offer diet adjustment tips or exercise ideas to reenergize my efforts. This kept me motivated and disciplined, even if all I really wanted to do was curl up and eat ice cream.

I learned to incorporate all food groups into my diet, which included the appropriate balance of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, protein and dairy. I planned my meals around these guidelines to ensure I was eating the right foods in the right amounts. As a result, I improved my family’s eating habits, too. The girls eat more fruits and vegetables than ever before, and enjoy noshing on reduced-fat or low-sugar cookies instead of our old staple junk food. Even my oldest daughter, who’s away at college, is now buying fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products for her apartment.

Adding exercise to my routine was another change. I walk three to five miles, five to six days a week. I also lift weights and follow exercise videos at home.

I went from 257 pounds to 147 pounds in a year. That’s dropping more than 110 pounds— nearly half my former size. I now wear a size eight, meaning I can find cool clothes in any store. I no longer have joint pain. And my wedding ring fits again!

Most importantly, my new approach to diet and fitness accelerated my thyroid recovery. I manage my sodium intake by cooking many meals at home with light salt, sea salt and other low-sodium seasonings. I even lowered my synthyroid medication.

The true gift, though, is my increased energy. Wanting to be active lets me spend more time with my youngest girls and play with them every day at the park.

Overcoming cancer taught me to seize life where I could. I want to be around for another 40 years to see my daughters grow up. I couldn’t do that if I stayed heavy.

Women always take care of everyone and everything else. But we must take care of ourselves, too. If we’re not at our best, everyone who depends on our strength and vitality will feel the effects. Stay healthy for others, and for yourself. It’s the greatest gift you’ll ever receive.