A Cancer Survivor and Fitness Motivator

Jessica Bolz teaches aquatics classes at Duke Diet & Fitness Center

Jessica Bolz is an aquatics specialist for the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Photo courtesy of Jessica Bolz.
Jessica Bolz is an aquatics specialist for the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Photo courtesy of Jessica Bolz.

Jessica Bolz, an aquatics specialist for the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, wears Elvis Presley, Cher and cowboy costumes when she teaches water fitness classes. 

But the most fitting outfit Bolz dons is the Wonder Woman costume. It’s not a stretch to compare the fitness instructor to the superhero. 

Bolz, 46, is a four-time cancer survivor. 

“I like to end every class with the saying ‘Go get this day,’” said Bolz, who began working at Duke in 2016. “I have this history of illnesses, and there have been points in my life where the road was rocky. ‘Go get this day’ is a reminder to myself and the people in my class to seize every opportunity.”

Her outlook inspires clients of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center to tackle their own health challenges. Bolz teaches aerobics, stretching and resistance training in the pool at the facility, which focuses on nutrition and exercise to help individuals lose weight in a healthy way.

Jessica Bolz dresses up as Harry Potter for her water fitness classes.Brian Housle, Manager for Wellness and Rehab at the Diet & Fitness Center, said Bolz’s resilience motivates people around her.

“Jessica brings the message every day to every client that they can succeed and they can overcome challenges,” Housle said.  “She has overcome, and clients like to hear that message from someone who is inspirational to them for that reason.”

Bolz fell in love with water sports when she competed on swim teams while growing up in Queens, N.Y. She remembers herself being stubborn and competitive, two traits she credits for surviving multiple bouts with cancer. 

Doctors first diagnosed Bolz with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, when she was 11. Doctors removed her spleen initially and treated Bolz with radiation therapy and chemotherapy when the cancer reemerged after three months. She resumed swimming and later assisted her mother with teaching water fitness classes at a YMCA in Queens. 

While working in New York City, Bolz discovered a hard lump near her right armpit. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer and performed a mastectomy. She was 25. 

During remission, Bolz worked at a breast cancer hotline, appeared on local news outlets to talk about breast cancer affecting young women and ran a swim program for kids in Long Island. She was completely unprepared for cancer to reappear six years later, this time in her left breast. 

She said what helped her most for her physical recovery after her surgeries and treatment and was the time spent in swimming pools.   

“Water is a magic elixir for me,” Bolz said. “I was strong from years of swimming and aquatics classes. I wanted to share water’s gift with other people.” 

Jessica Bolz Bolz teaches aerobics, stretching and resistance training at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center pool. Photo by Jonathan Black.Dewey Thompson first met Bolz shortly after she began working at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Thompson, a resident of Chattanooga, Tenn., has been a client at the center since the 1980s and takes Bolz’s water fitness classes.

He said her empathy and energy motivated him to lose 100 pounds in two years. 

“She takes the time to learn about your family and share her own story,” said Thompson, 77. “It motivated me to overcome my own obstacles knowing what she’s been through. She makes a connection to the people in her class.” 

Bolz often shares her personal journey with Diet & Fitness Center clients because she wants them to know they can fight life’s challenges.  

 “When I’m in the water, it feels like I’m wearing a superhero cape,” Bolz said. “I have my magic cloak on that protects me against the challenging things that have happened on land.” 

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