Local immigrant, lawyer & brain cancer survivor in national health & fitness competition

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. (WROC) — Iskra Bonnano, an area woman who lives in Pittsford, is currently competing in a national competition called “Miss Health and Fitness.”

The competition is fan-voted from a pool of tens of thousands of entrants across the country. Voters decide the winner based on their stories, and their photos. You can vote daily for Bonnano here.

The winner of not only claims the title of “Miss Health and Fitness,” but also a $20,000 cash prize, and finally their photo making it to the cover of “Muscle and Fitness Hers.”

If she wins, she will use the cash prize to create a meal delivery service for cancer patients and other diseases. She will also do a dollar for dollar match up to $1,000 towards metabolic cancer therapy research with Dr. Thomas Seyfried at Boston College.

However, Bonnano’s story starts far away, in a very different life.

She born in Bosnia, but her family immigrated to Toronto when she was very young. Her family moved to Boston before coming here to Rochester, where she’s spent the last fifteen years.

“The environment was getting tense, and my mom could tell things were getting tense between the different ethnicities, and we were trying to find a way to get out,” she said.

She and her family may have moved to Rochester for her dad to work at Strong Hospital, but now she works as a labor and employment attorney for Harter Seacrest, and Emory. She was motivated to prosecute war criminals in Bosnia, but when that tribunal ended, she found that she still wanted to be a lawyer, and staying in the community she loves, Rochester.

“It’s mostly researching, writing, and advocating for my clients,” she said, describing her day to day as a lawyer.

But in December of 2018, she received terrible news. A brain cancer diagnosis.

“I have a history of cancer in my family, my mom actually passed away from cancer, and she also had brain cancer,” she said. “So immediately when I got my scan back and they said it was a tumor, I was expecting the worst, I thought that I’m probably not going to live, from this.

“The first thing I did was apologize to my husband, because I felt really bad that he was going to have to go down this terrible journey and path with me,” she said, trying not to choke up.

The cancer turned out to be a rare form called ependymoma.

“It took me through a whirlwind,” she said. “I had to have emergency brain surgery in the back of head, and I had a very large tumor growing on my brain stem.”

Iskra says the surgery and rehabilitation was excruciating. Right after the surgery, she even had trouble walking, and had blurred vision.

Despite that, she decided against chemotherapy or radiation, for fear of damaging side effects.

“At the time, I wanted to give myself the best possible chance to live a healthy, normal life for my kids,” she said. “I just wanted to be here for them in the best capacity that I could.”

Since her surgery removed 95% of the tumor, she decided to focus on overall health, and has turned her life around using exercise and overhauling her diet.

“I love the feeling it gives me, it empowers me, it gives me control of my health,” she said. “In a year I went from barely walking and seeing to doing a triathlon and competing in a health and fitness competition.”

Her cancer is under control, and though she deals with chronic pain, the remaining piece of the tumor has shrunk by 75%. And with the support of her husband and two young kids, she’s now a semifinalist for the national “Miss Health and Fitness” competition.

“I thought it would be a fantastic platform to get the message out on healthy living,” she said. “A lot of what got me to my cancer diagnosis was living a very stressful, unhealthy lifestyle, and not taking care of myself.

“So far, I’m happy that I’ve chosen the right path.”

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