Fight for Health

January 2019 View more

Whether it’s an eating disorder, cancer, or a rare syndrome, grappling with an illness changes life—completely.

Naperville magazine recently spoke with three area residents who have battled emotional and physical burdens. Although their conditions are unique, they all share the same mission: to empower and teach others what they have learned.

Model Crusade
Although Michelle Landriault’s plus-size curves were always supported by her modeling colleagues, the Geneva resident found her health numbers were “borderline everything” and she had a high body mass index.

“It was [no longer] about the ‘beauty aspect,’ ” Landriault, 36, says. “The weight was starting to take a toll on my heart.”
After a metabolic endocrinologist diagnosed her with binge eating disorder (BED), Landriault went on a courageous weight-loss journey and lost almost 130 pounds in two years.

First, Landriault retrained her body how to eat properly again. She took medication to help control her eating and began seeing a therapist to uncover the root of her emotional binges. After losing 90 pounds, she joined the adult fitness program at Naperville’s UltiFit, which includes progress testing every six weeks.

“I cannot explain to you how far I’ve come in so little time,” Landriault says. “In my first 90 days, I was able to do double where I started. In February 2018, I weighed 355 pounds. Now I’m 316. I’m able to move in ways I never have before. Life is so much easier.”

But Landriault thinks working out three times per week at UltiFit is easier than eating right. “Once you get there, you bust your butt for 50 minutes, and it’s over,” she says. “With eating habits, it’s a constant battle all day long. My therapist gave some great advice. She said, ‘Michelle, motivation is crap. No one is motivated—they are planners, who have committed to a schedule. Motivation is a pretty word people use, but it’s all about planning.’ ”

Sticking to the plan is paramount to losing weight, but the body also goes through a lot of changes that result in what Landriault calls “an emotional roller coaster.” She encourages people to be transparent and share what they are going through with friends, family, and doctors. Landriault writes about her weight loss, dealing with BED, makeup, and fashion on her blog, Michelle Swoons (

Michelle Landrialt took baseline fitness levels and photos when starting a fitness program at UltiFit. She has since lost an additional 40 pounds.

Landriault started out as a makeup artist in 2003. She now teaches at the College of DuPage and recently launched her own makeup line, F.A.C.E., which stands for Facts, Action, Compassion, and Empowerment.

“I loved playing in my mom’s makeup and watching my Nana put on her face every day,” she says. “I was never popular at school. Getting bullied and never fitting in made it a bit hard in high school. Makeup saved me.”

Through her work in makeup and weight loss journey, Landriault hopes to empower others to get healthy and to stick to their goals.

“Getting treatment for BED made me aware of the issue and gave me courage to get help,” Landriault says. “I’ve learned more about myself these past two years than in my entire lifetime.”

Physical therapist Wendy Wagner

Lifelong Battle
Ever since Naperville physical therapist Wendy Wagner was a child, she’s been labeled a “medical mystery.” Constant headaches. Dislocated joints. Sprained everything.

After years of pain, injuries, surgeries, and tests by dozens of medical specialists, at age 49, she can finally give a diagnostic name to her battle: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).

The Ehlers-Danlos Society defines EDS as “a distinctive problem with connective tissue, which is what the body uses to provide strength and elasticity.” It’s generally characterized by overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin. For Wagner, EDS resulted in difficulty healing after surgery and weakness and increased elasticity in her ligaments.

“I’ve had several reconstructive knee and wrist surgeries,” Wagner says. “The greatest impact, however, has been on my cervical spine, which resulted in continuous headaches for most of my adult life.”

Every day, Wagner struggles with wrist pain that makes it difficult to hold or carry things. Writing and typing are painful, and she has to do them in small increments. She also has constant head and neck pain because her neck isn’t strong enough to hold her head on her spine.

“I was devastated when I finally heard the words ‘Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.’ As a physical therapist, I was familiar with the course of the disease and had trouble admitting I was headed down that path,” Wagner says. “When I got home, I found the strength to say out loud, ‘I am Wendy, and I have a disability.’ ”

After the diagnosis, Wagner embarked on a mission to help herself, only to find there are few doctors who understand the rare condition. As she explored treatment options and pain-relieving techniques for herself, Wagner realized not one physical therapist in the Chicago area treated EDS patients like herself, so she decided to start offering her services to others (

Wagner posted a question in an EDS Chicago Facebook group that read, “I am a PT, and I have EDS. Would any of you be interested in traveling to Naperville for PT services?” Within four hours, 26 people responded, including one from Wisconsin and another from Indiana.

Wagner believes physical therapy is one of the few viable solutions for EDS patients. With very specific exercises, she works to strengthen the muscles that cross over joints, so they can provide the stabilization that the faulty ligaments cannot. In addition to symptom management and EDS education, she also provides information on core strengthening, energy conservation, anti-inflammatory nutrition counseling, ergonomics, and pain-relieving techniques.

“After numerous hospitalizations and years of continuous headaches,” says Wagner, “I’m happy to report that between 60 minutes of daily physical therapy, plus substantial lifestyle modifications, I’m finding pain relief I didn’t think was possible.”

Peter Rubi Produce owner and cancer survivor John Graves is a nutritional advocate for those facing illness.

The Power of Produce
John Graves’s son Brandon always wanted to open a small, premier produce company in his hometown of Plainfield. After his son’s college graduation, Graves and his wife, Maria, invested in Brandon’s dream, and Peter Rubi Produce ( opened in 2012.

Six months later, John was diagnosed with cancer—a fast-spreading undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma—in his leg. He was given eight months to live.

After receiving the news, his wife hugged him, said, “Were going to beat this,” and marched off to the kitchen to make juice drinks. Maria had been studying nutrition and the benefits of boosting the immune system, and food would be one of their weapons to battle cancer.

“After making peace with God and knowing he is in control of all things, we started our new journey fighting cancer,” Graves, 57, says. “We met with an army of doctors, but I opted out of chemotherapy treatments and fired my oncologist. He was too negative. With such a short time left, why surround yourself with people you don’t want to spend time with?”

Surgery removed the first tumor, but the soft tissue cancer only grew back to its original size two months later. Graves completed 25 days of radiation therapy and then had a second surgery to completely remove his rectus femoris (quadricep) muscle. After that, a spot was discovered on his lungs. Before his next doctor visit, he and his wife were at a spiritual retreat in Michigan, and the group prayed over him for healing. At his next follow-up visit to the doctor’s office, a nurse told him the spot was gone.

“I couldn’t believe her. I asked if there was a mistake. Had I inhaled a bug?” says Graves. “She laughed and said I had received a miracle.” After five years, Graves was declared cancer-free.

“Is there a cure for cancer? That’s not the right question. The reality is we all have cancer in our bodies. Cancer cells are good cells that have gone bad,” Graves says. “Can we change our body’s environment before the cancer is created? Once we have cancer, can we change the environment so that our immune system can kill the cancer cells before cancer kills us?”

Graves believes strengthening the immune system is key to keeping cancer at bay. He is on a mission to partner alongside people to help them live healthier lives through education, direction, and produce. The Graveses offer seminars at the store to share their nutritional knowledge, such as the recent Clean Eating with John and Maria.

“Peter Rubi Produce and Peter Rubi University are all about providing the products and information to feed your body and soul to live life well,” Graves says. “Maria and I know our purpose—to radically change lives.”

Photography by Olivia Kohler