Rewind – My Diagnosis

An excerpt by my book “Relentless Mettle – My Cancer, My Rules”

I received my calling into the world of endurance sports in 1986 when a friend invited me to do a triathlon with him. I scrambled to borrow a bike and a helmet and had no idea what else to wear but was instantly drawn in and addicted to what I saw on race day. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made these people tick, but I knew I wanted to be one of them.

I continued racing shorter races but it wasn’t too long before I worked my way up to marathons and eventually ironman triathlons. I was healthy. I was happy. And I felt like I was setting good examples of healthy living for my kids who came to so many of my races and crossed so many finish lines with me. That was my lifestyle for 20 years. –And it was a good one. But we live in a world of perpetual change, often unaware of what may lie ahead.

2005 proved to be a very challenging year. My father had a large tumor removed and spent two months in intensive care as a result of complications from the surgery. We were at that hospital nearly every day and sadly we lost him in August of 2005. Still grieving the loss of my dad, yet attempting to usher in the Christmas spirit, my mom was rushed to the very same hospital needing triple bypass and aortic valve replacement surgery. That valve needed to be replaced a second time within days as it was malfunctioning. This meant two open heart surgeries within days for my then 80 year old mother. Somehow, that surgery and her subsequent recovery were successful. But it was an emotionally draining period of time. We were ready to flip the calendars to 2006 and embrace the New Year with renewed hope.

In early 2006 I started having difficulty swallowing. This worsened to the point of having trouble simply swallowing anything at all. I tried a number of things to try to treat these symptoms, but nothing seemed to give me any sustained relief. Eventually, I saw an ear, nose, and throat doctor who immediately ordered a tonsillectomy. That was not how I wanted to spend my 46th birthday but I was willing to accept the surgery if it was going to resolve the problem. In preparation for surgery, I needed to have preoperative blood work drawn and this is where the slope got slippery.  I received a phone call a few days prior to the scheduled surgery and was told that my tonsillectomy would need to be put on hold. There had been a problem detected in my blood work and I was advised to consult an oncologist.

Cancer. It happens. It happened to me. On February 24th 2006 my wife and I sat in the office of an oncologist who we had just met and tried to process what he was telling us. I had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (“CLL”). This would require several weeks of chemotherapy and then two years of follow up treatments. And even that wouldn’t “cure” the disease as it is a chronic blood cancer that would need to be lived with and managed. This diagnosis came out of the blue. My initial and desperate thought was that some sick person’s chart clearly must have been mixed up with mine. It wasn’t. The chart was mine and I was that sick person.

My perspective on cancer was always that it was something that happened to others. An athlete like me doesn’t get sick. I was an Ironman, several times over. I grew up one of those active kids who played every sport that I could sink my teeth into. I attended college on a soccer scholarship. I hung on the fringe of a pro soccer career and then played semi professionally for a number of years.  I lived clean and healthy. So I assumed that I of all people should get a free pass on disease like cancer. I was wrong.

So with every possible emotion spiraling in a mad freefall, I began the first of four one week long rounds of chemotherapy at our local hospital. I hit some physical and emotional dark patches but they certainly weren’t all dark. These patches were cyclical and interspersed with rays of hope and positivity. Things got better. My tolerance to the treatment drugs improved and I started showing signs of progress. By the 3rd round my blood counts were slowly returning to normal and I had reached my first remission.

We made a party out of chemo whenever we could. We made it an event. My wife came to every treatment. My daughters occasionally skipped school to come hang out with us and we would often all eat lunch together in the chemo suite. And I always needed to try to be the class clown to add a little levity to the situation. But that’s who I am in almost any situation.

As I reconciled everything that I was experiencing, I made a few key decisions that both kept me sane and at the same time changed my life. One was to practice the simple adage of controlling the things I could control. I couldn’t control the diagnosis. But I could control a lot of how I reacted to that diagnosis. In that respect, my thought process was exactly the same as it is on race day. I drew many parallels between the challenges I was facing with the disease and the challenges we all face in sport, and in life.

Within days of my diagnosis, I signed on as a triathlon coach with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. Through this program, I get to train aspiring and veteran triathletes who are in turn raising funds and awareness for my blood cancer. It has been a magical partnership and I have been blessed to meet and work with some incredible people through the years. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has funded many breakthrough therapies in the global fight against blood cancers and provides many crucial resources to patients and their families. At the center of all of this, is Team in Training. They have truly become a second family to me.

Another critical decision I made was to remain in motion.  I have learned through the years that I am always happiest when I am moving. I’ve never known if I am running towards or away from something, but when I am moving, I am whole. It is more than just a way to stay in shape. It is how I have always coped and it is my therapy. So I held onto that and kept up my training through my treatments – often running home from chemo. I made it part of a game. I challenged the disease back and made up some of my own rules of engagement.

The combination of effective drugs, a great medical team, an amazing support crew, and a good mindset allowed me to remain in some kind of shape while beating cancer. I was fortunate in that I was able to race and train throughout my diagnosis and subsequent treatments.  Shortly after my first round of treatments, I was back to racing again and seven months post diagnosis I raced the Chesapeakeman Ultra distance triathlon as race director and good friend Rob Vigorito proudly and with much emotion dubbed me “RemissionMan”.

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