Going from usually the heaviest woman in the room to the South Carolina queen for weight loss, Aiken resident Kathleen O'Brien used humor and a love for life to shed more than 300 pounds.

O'Brien knew she was overweight, but never let her weight get to her until coming back from Los Angeles, when she noticed things started to become difficult.

“I weighed 630 pounds and got a little nervous because I thought, 'That's circus material,'” O'Brien said. “Those are the people you see on (The Learning Channel) who can't turn themselves over in bed or bathe themselves. I used to see and watch those shows and think, 'I never want to be that way.'”

She decided to go ahead and have gastric bypass surgery but, after waking up from surgery, was told a medical issue made the procedure impossible.

“I had never been sick, never had surgery,” O'Brien said. “I'm thinking, 'Are you sure you looked at the right chart or the right person?' I went to a specialist and ended up not needing a transplant, but I did do a year of chemo.”

O'Brien lost about 20 pounds through chemo, and that is when she said it hit her. If in the future she needed major surgery, her weight could not hold her back. She joined a water aerobics class, cut out junk food, cut back on sodas and started looking for support groups. Without a personal trainer, O'Brien started small – she danced and made small goals such as getting on a treadmill to motivate her.

And then O'Brien discovered the support group TOPS, or Taking Off Pounds Sensibly.

“I started going to the meetings every week and became the biggest loser all the time and won all of the contests,” O'Brien said. “I even have perfect attendance. When I joined TOPS, I was about 400 pounds. I had already lost 235 pounds. Now, I'm the co-leader and treasurer. And then, I also won the South Carolina State Queen 2012.”

A nonprofit international organization, TOPS was founded more than 65 years ago to promote weight management for “Real People, Real Weight Loss.” The organization has more than 150,000 members, male and female, 7 years old and older, in thousands of chapters across the U.S. and Canada.

“TOPS is not about being skinny,” O'Brien said. “It's being just a healthier you and the you that you are the most comfortable with. There's not a set plan, although we do have a guideline book you can follow. It's just more what works for you, because everyone is really different.”

Now, O'Brien works at an organic food co-op, My Aiken Veggies, and credits her healthier lifestyle to continually having acceptance of who she is. Her message to others who are experiencing her similar journey and may not be sure what to do next is this: Smart small and start now.

“You first have to accept the size you are and be OK with it,” O'Brien said. “Once you do that, you can make very small changes to start losing weight. I know they sound silly or like cliches, but things like parking further and a little extra walking. A few extra steps every day makes a difference in the course of the week.”

The TOPS Aiken chapter meets every Tuesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Salvation Army Church, located at 322 Gayle Ave.

To learn more about TOPS, visit www.tops.org.

Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard.