Fighting Cancer. Beating Cancer.
Cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I had seen people go through it and had watched family members and friends fight it, to no avail. It never occurred to me that someone “like me” could get cancer. That changed my sophomore year in college when a teammate of mine was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, the less survivable cancer of the same form I would be diagnosed with 5 years later. He was the most fit person I knew, a national caliber rower and the captain of our college rowing team. An imposing man, taller than myself by a few inches and heavier by at least 30 lbs at the time of his diagnosis. It took him under its control quickly and he was ravaged by the disease. I remember seeing him later that same year, almost without recognizing him. I knew at that moment that cancer could take down anyone; big, strong or tough as they may be.
Fast forward to this past summer, my legs had been itching for almost 3 months. I brushed it off because I stopped working in a YMCA pool around that time and it must be the dryness and irritation from the chemicals. I had night sweats to the point where I had to change my bedspread constantly because I would soak through it. The fevers during hottest summer days? I justified that due to the hernia I got just prior to my diagnosis. Finally, there was a golf ball sized lump in my shoulder, just above my collarbone-gotta be a muscle tear from all the rugby, right?
Begrudgingly, I finally went to the doctor in August 2018, with the only reason being that my neck and face were swollen to the point that I couldn’t turn my head. After they took 6 vials of blood, they were unable to find a cause for my extremely high white blood cell count. I was terrified getting a call from my physician soon after and he candidly told me “I hate to tell you this, but I think you might have lymphoma”. I stood in the bathroom at my job for a while, I paced around, I screamed at my steering wheel, I turned up the music so loud in my headphones that I couldn’t think straight. That’s what I wanted, and that was easier than facing it, my new reality. It took another 6 weeks to get an official diagnosis, a port implanted into my chest and begin treatment. This was the most frustrating and mentally taxing part of the process for me. But now I knew what was going on, and being forced to wait while knowing I was literally dying (and at a pretty fucking fast rate might I add), was agony. I thought about it every minute of every day for those 6 weeks, the last week of August to the first of October, every negative outcome that I could imagine flashed through my head and I wasn’t in a great place.
I started treatment the 2nd week of October, and I quickly understood why chemo got its reputation. The room smells like sterilizing solutions and sweat, and no matter how much light the nurses let in, it can’t take you away from the reason you and everyone else is there for. I got my first dose and was on my ass for 4 days. When I was able to get my strength and stamina back and eat a substantial meal without feeling like it was going to have to boot it back up, I started back at the gym. I started with walking, 5 days after treatment, and it felt like shit. I felt like I was going to be sick every few steps I took. The smells of the gym felt overwhelming at first, but after about 25 minutes I was done and felt a lot better. I took it one step at a time, first increasing the intensity of my workouts that were a week after my treatment (every other thursday for 6 months) and then working to get my ass out of bed sooner after each treatment. I found that after a few treatments, if i really pushed myself, I could get out of bed on the day after treatment and do a few things before the fatigue hindered me. Even when I would drag during my workouts, I took solace in knowing that when I walked out of the gym I felt objectively better than when I walked in. By my last few treatments I had even started to do some workouts with lifting volume I’d been using pre-cancer. I also reclaimed a lot of the mass I lost before treatment, I had dropped from 185#-158# in the 4 months before being diagnosed.
I felt the more I let cancer take from my day to day life, and the more I let it change me, the more difficult it would be to regain normalcy after treatment. So I took one of my passions and made it not only something I looked forward to every day, but a benchmark for my own health and progress through cancer. It gave me another thing to look forward to, to forget about all the struggles and tough times and just go out on the gym floor and let loose. I could not have made it through these treatments without massive amounts of support from my friends and family, and weightlifting.
I want to help people to understand the benefits a healthy lifestyle offers. I had advantages when I went into treatment because I had been in good shape prior to my diagnosis. From day one the doctors were clear that exercise has been shown to help patients tolerate treatment better. There are intangible that I get from my athletic background; mental toughness, positive affirmations, positive mental imagery, fortitude and patience. I would not have had the same cancer experience without getting to keep up with one of my favorite hobbies, and I don’t think I would have handled treatment as positively as I did if my health status had been less than what it was. I want to share this with other people struggling with cancer. I’ve started to do so with LiveStrong at a local YMCA, where personal trainers work with cancer survivors to help them attain health and return to their normal daily activities or find new rewarding ones. It has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done and has pushed me to new heights as a trainer.