Fighting Chances

Lauren Chiarello Finds Healing in Movement

“It’s a beautiful day to be alive!”

The singsong voice of Lauren Chiarello rings out across the mirrored room. She abounds with energy even in the early morning hours, and here at FLEX Studio NoHo, she is gearing up to teach another class. This is Chiarello’s signature phrase, declaring the start of every workout, even on chilly winter mornings when beautiful is perhaps the last word that comes to mind. Twelve participants await her instruction through a series of cardio warm-ups, TRX exercises and Pilates positions. It is just before 7 a.m. and Chiarello has already greeted almost everyone in the building, a sunny ‘hello’ that makes it feel like she inhabits a world full of her closest personal friends. She is endearing yet undeniably tough once class begins, and her words of encouragement fill the space as students wobble and crunch their way through the hour.

Chiarello stands at a sprightly five foot four, with a dark blonde bob of curls that bounces every time she laughs, a common occurrence for the 33-year-old fitness instructor. She has a persona that exudes an easy warmth and kindness. Wearing a gray tank top and receiving students by name, Chiarello conveys a charming enthusiasm that makes it easy to understand why these students are regulars.

Her smile, however, conceals a tenacity built over years of fighting for her own life. Chiarello’s story differs from that of a typical studio fitness instructor. At 23, she sat in a doctor’s office and faced news no young person ever expects to her: “You have cancer.” Chiarello’s battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma lasted two years as she grappled with two separate diagnoses, multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant that provided her with a second chance at life. She has taken that chance and channeled it into a personal platform, using her story to model resilience and spread awareness for rare disease research.

“She never really slows down, ever,” says Rachel Zatcoff, a long-time student in Lauren’s barre classes. It is rare that Chiarello is not awake by 6 a.m. at her apartment on the Upper East Side, answering emails and prepping materials for her next fitness event or speaking engagement. She juggles a variety of obligations as part of her full-time commitment to her personal business, Chi Chi Life, a platform that merges her love of fitness, community, cancer advocacy and event planning. In the years since her own diagnosis, Chiarello has devoted her time to helping others reach their potential, whatever the particulars of each goal might be. She is a living embodiment of the term “why not,” in Rachel’s words, always seeking out the next challenge and filling her days to the brim.

“I’m trying to figure out what I want to spend my time and energy on. I love it all, but I can’t do it all. I’m only one person,” Chiarello says over lunch at By Chloe, sneaking in a meal between teaching seven classes on a single day. This kind of schedule would be unsustainable for many, but if she feels the strain, she doesn’t show it. For her this may be simply another work-filled Friday. Chiarello is a business major by education and a philanthropist by trade, and her commitment to cancer advocacy began long before she had a personal connection to hospital patients.

Chiarello grew up in South Salem, New York, with her parents and one sister, Jennifer, four years her senior. She was adventurous from her early years and dabbled in active pursuits, not limited to soccer, field hockey, basketball and softball. At Villanova University, she studied Accounting and Marketing, but it was her extracurricular involvement that introduced her to her true love: philanthropic fundraising. Chiarello served on the Executive Board for St. Jude Up ‘til Dawn and as Philanthropy Chair of Student Government and Chi Omega. Despite a full-time offer from an NYC accounting firm following graduation, Chiarello took a step back and decided to follow her gut. She responded to an ad in the New York Times for a position with Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a social services agency on the Upper East Side. This was her introduction to the real world of non-profit work, and it is where she was working when things began to go awry.

Just a year and a half out of college, Chiarello started to notice unusual physical symptoms. Her skin itched, though there was no visible rash or dryness. A small lump above her left collarbone got bigger, gradually at first but finally enough that she took notice. “I thought I was going crazy,” Chiarello recalls, when she first called on a dermatologist to help determine the root of the issue. The doctor sent her on to a general practitioner, who found a similar mass in her chest. It was after a series of blood work and x-rays that experts confirmed what Chiarello never expected: she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, stage 2A, and would need to begin a regimen of twelve chemotherapy treatments over six months. It was then that her sunny exterior faltered as she collapsed in her mother’s arms. “I don’t want to die,” she uttered, faced with the reality that her life, once so secure and full-bodied and vibrant, was in danger of being cut short.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, like many forms of cancer, begins when a group of white blood cells takes on a life of its own. A DNA mutation causes cells to multiply rapidly, crowding out healthy cells and damaging the body’s ability to fight infection. It is typically identified after the formation of a swollen lymph node on the neck or underarm, which may then lead to the discovery of other similar masses in the body. Treatments range from chemotherapy to radiation to, in serious cases, a stem cell transplant. The severe treatment process comes with a myriad of unwelcome physical effects, including hair loss, fatigue and susceptibility to infection.

“Cancer is a family disease,” remarked Jennifer Chiarello Rinaldi, recalling the early days of her sister’s diagnosis. “Especially with someone who’s very young, it hits you in a different way.” Lauren coped by educating herself on every aspect of the disease, diving headfirst into the research and taking charge of her own care. She took notes, followed detailed instructions and continued to work full time during her treatments with Dr. Subhash Gulati, a private oncologist on the Upper East Side. Maintaining a sense of normalcy was key to being able to heal. “I still wanted to work, I still wanted to go out with friends and do everything I had been doing,” Chiarello recalls, though it became increasingly difficult as she lost both her hair and her strength.

Cody Parker, Chiarello’s close friend since high school and a steadfast fixture in her young life, was one of many visitors during those early days of treatment. “She was still smiling, surprisingly enough, through the worst of it. She’s very, very resilient,” Parker notes of Chiarello’s attitude. Her friends continued to champion her recovery, and several of them signed up for a marathon with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program. They ran the race in San Francisco that fall, and Chiarello, now in remission, flew out to cheer them on. It was their enthusiasm that prompted her to sign up for a half marathon herself.

As race weekend rolled around in January 2009, Chiarello had an army of supporters to encourage her through the run. She finished the race as a fundraising member of the Team In Training program, now more personally significant than it had been in the past. And yet, in the midst of what should have been a celebration of her recovery, something did not feel quite right. That lump above her collarbone had returned, an unlikely outcome for patients in remission. Over 80 percent of Hodgkin’s survivors are cured following the first round of treatment. Yet in Chiarello’s case, the cancer was back, and it would likely require a more aggressive treatment plan the second time around. Upon receiving her official re-diagnosis, she turned the page of her personal journal and wrote a new heading: Round Two.

The second round of chemotherapy was more aggressive than the first, and Chiarello was forced to confront the reality that she could not continue to lead a normal life. During her remission, she had taken on a new role in the fundraising and events department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, though very few coworkers knew she was a survivor herself. Chiarello wore her wig to the job interview but never mentioned her own battle with the disease. She was known instead for the funfetti cupcakes she would bring to the office and the eagerness she attached to her work.

Once she relapsed, Chiarello took a leave of absence so her body could be fully committed to the treatment plan. Though she was no longer an active staff member, she remained a regular feature at Memorial Sloan Kettering, this time a recipient of the advocacy and fundraising work she used to do full-time. The second round of treatment saw her in and out of the hospital for pre-conditioning chemotherapy and stem cell collection, and the intense protocol took an even more serious physical toll. Chiarello took a six week hospital stay to complete the radiation, high dose chemotherapy and finally an autologous stem cell transplant, a procedure in which her own cells were taken from her body, stored and frozen, and then reintroduced once the cancerous cells were destroyed by chemotherapy.

For Chiarello, this was an entirely new chance at life. “They essentially bring you to the brink of death and give you your stem cells back. Your transplant is considered your second birthday,” she says of the procedure’s impact. Her transplant occurred on April 24, 2009, just seven days after her 25th birthday. It is a day she recalls with awe and gratitude, a chance to start over and take back her own story. And take it back she did, expanding her work in fundraising to include fitness and public speaking engagements. “Her whole life was reshaped by this second chance,” say Linda Farrell, the woman who would later go on to train Lauren in her Pilates certification. “She has made it her business to keep herself healthy and get others healthy in the process.”

Chiarello returned to work at Sloan Kettering for three more years, but then transitioned to a fundraising role at Helen Keller International, a non-profit that works to fight vision loss and malnutrition in developing countries. She was taking barre classes at Exhale Studio on the Upper East Side, and she decided on a leap of faith to give teacher training a go. It was not intended as a career prospect, but rather as a way to further develop her interest in physical movement and strength, especially after her body’s own recovery from illness. After receiving her certification, the first class Chiarello ever taught was in a rented studio, in the company of around fifteen friends who used water bottles as makeshift dumbbell weights. She was nervous, unsure of her ability to thrive as an instructor when she was still in the learning phase herself. It was her students’ backing that propelled her to give it another shot.

Coaching others in a class environment has not always come naturally for Chiarello. “My favorite quote is, ‘Every expert was once a novice,’ because it’s so true, everything takes time,” she says, looking back on her early days in the studio. From barre, she expanded her repertoire to include Pilates and later TRX suspension training. Fitness is an outlet for Chiarello to celebrate her own recovery while motivating others to prioritize self-care. She sees it as a chance to unlock potential and help students push past the resistance in their own lives.

It was after she began training at Exhale that Chiarello decided to leave her corporate career and run her own business full-time. Chi Chi Life was born, a personal brand that embodies Chiarello’s philosophy of chasing dreams and living in the now. She manages a host of different tasks and projects, including event planning, non-profit fundraising work and special fitness events throughout the city. She works as a patient-to-patient volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering, sharing her stem cell transplant story with patients and their families preparing to go through the process. Chiarello also hosts her own fitness series in Central Park called Chi Chi Sweat Sesh, each class targeted towards benefiting a different non-profit agency.

“Lauren doesn’t see her teaching as a fitness instructor as this isolated activity, that she’s just helping you get into shape. She sees her role as a teacher in a larger way, as part of her community and as a way to give back,” says Meredith Steinberg, a fellow instructor who recently partnered with Chiarello to host a yoga/Pilates fusion class benefiting Special Olympics New York. Chiarello is actively involved in the community, hosting events to raise money for a variety of charitable causes, many related to cancer. She hosts a team of riders for Cycle for Survival every spring, an annual indoor team cycling event to support rare cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Chiarello’s talent may lie foremost in her ability to recognize individual strengths in the people she coaches. “You’re not just a client. She really does take the time to know why you’re there, what you’re trying to accomplish,” said student Lotsan Lvovsky, who met Chiarello during an in-store class at retailer Sweaty Betty four years ago. Like many others, Lvovsky was drawn to Chiarello before she even knew about the instructor’s personal history. “She doesn’t give up, and she doesn’t let you give up,” Lvovsky says over tea and a light lunch near her apartment in the Flatiron district. Chiarello’s appeal comes from her ability to meet each person at her own skill level. “I will always be your cheerleader,” she often captions her Instagram posts, full of encouragement to chase lofty dreams and overcome challenges.

If Chiarello has a weak point, it is the constant pursuit of life experience that sometimes runs her energy to its brink. She has a ‘yes’ personality, determined to make use of every moment given back with her new chance at life. The plan for her business is to focus more on wellness training for corporate teams, but Chiarello knows that this will require scaling back on some of her other community projects. “I’ve been trying to find this dance and balance of choosing the best projects to take on, and it’s tricky. Something has to give.” Family is important to Chiarello, and she knows she functions best when she can allow ample time to spend with them. Her husband Russ has been her ardent supporter since they met in 2012 during separate vacations to Florida. He can often be seen in her classes, following along with other students, and attending events and excursions such as her fitness retreat to Bali in July 2017. Chiarello led a group of seven through a week of themed exercises, outdoor day trips and community service. She hopes to travel more in the future, but she also wants to take life as it comes, and this may mean letting go of her unceasing energy to move and taking a step back to just be.

The impact she leaves may be greater than Chiarello herself understands. “She is a breath of fresh air, and she has opened my eyes to so much,” says Julia Schwartz, a close friend and former coworker of Chiarello who travels with her every year. While Chiarello is quick to point out that every person fights their own battles, her outlook is an example for peers about how to approach times of hardship. “I don’t see a scared or cynical person, I see a real fighter. There’s something really calming about that, when you’re in the presence of someone who’s a cancer survivor and they’ve got this rosy, optimistic outlook,” Farrell remarks of her time spent with Chiarello. Her personal story alone is enough to remind others how fragile, brave and impactful one person can be.

“You have the ability to change your life. It’s just a matter of making it happen,” Chiarello says of what she hopes others can learn from her. She talks to students about how crucial it is to push through obstacles, no matter how large or small. In her own experience, the drawback was cancer. But Chiarello knows it takes gumption to conquer any sort of adversity, and she believes now is as good a time as any to begin.  “It’s easier to sit on the sidelines. It just is. But I really am a believer that if you push yourself, and move past whatever is holding you back, new opportunities are created.” This comes from a woman whose new opportunity is the very blood flowing through her veins.