Staying Active Helped Me Overcome Pancreatic Cancer
"One of the biggest reasons my journey was a success was because I was in incredible shape."
I remember the moment as clear as day. It was 11 years ago, and I was in New York getting ready to go out to a party. All of a sudden, this electric bolt of pain coursed through me. It started at the top of my head and went down my whole body. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. It only lasted about five or six seconds, but it took my breath away. I almost passed out. What remained was just a small pain in my lower back on one side, about the size of a tennis ball.
Fast-forward a week and I found myself at the doctor's office, thinking I must have gotten an infection or pulled a muscle while exercising. I've been active since I was 20 years old. I work out five to six days a week. I have a very healthy diet. I can't eat enough green vegetables. I've never smoked. Cancer was the last thing on my mind.
But countless doctors' visits and one full body scan later, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer-a cancer where only 9 percent of patients live more than five years.
As I sat there, after the most dreaded phone call of my life, I thought I'd just received a death sentence. But I maintained a positive outlook and refused to give up completely.
Within days, I started oral chemotherapy, but I ended up in the ER a month later after my bile duct began to crush my liver. While in surgery for my bile duct, doctors recommended that I go through a Whipple-a complicated pancreatic surgery with a 21 percent five-year survival rate.
I survived but was immediately put on an aggressive intravenous chemo drug that I had to switch after developing an allergy to it. I was so sick that I was forbidden to do anything-especially any form of exercise. And more than anything, I really missed being active.
So I made do with what I had and forced myself to get out of the hospital bed multiple times a day-machines attached to me and all. I found myself shuffling the hospital floor five times a day, with some help from nurses, of course. It was my way of feeling alive when I was so close to death.
The next three years were the slowest of my life, but I was still clinging on to the hope of beating this illness. Instead, I was told that the treatment I was under was no longer effective and that I only had three to six months to live.
When you hear something like that, it's just really hard to believe. So I sought out another doctor for a second opinion. He recommended trying this new intravenous drug (Rocephin) two times a day for two hours in the morning and two hours at night for 30 days.
While I was willing to try anything at this point, the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in the hospital four hours a day, especially if I only had a couple months to live. I wanted to spend my last moments on this earth doing the things I loved: being outside, breathing the fresh air, biking up mountains, going on power walks with my best friends-and I wasn't going to be able to do that if I was inside a cold grungy hospital for hours every day.
So I asked if I could learn to administer the treatment at home without impeding the effectiveness. To my surprise, the doctor said that no one had ever asked him that. But we made it happen.
Shortly after starting the treatment, I began feeling better. I got my appetite back for the first time in years and started to regain some energy. Once I felt up to it, I would walk around the block and eventually started doing some very lightweight exercises. Being outdoors in nature and the sunshine and being in a community of people made me feel good. So I really tried to do as much as I could while putting my health and well-being first.
Three weeks later, I was due for my final round of treatment. Rather than just staying home, I called my husband and told him that I was going to take the treatment with me as I biked up a mountain in Colorado.
After about an hour and a half, I pulled over, used a little alcohol swab and pumped in two final syringes of medicine to complete the process-over 9,800 feet in the air. I didn't even care that I looked like a bald guy shooting up off the side of the road. I felt like it was the perfect setting because I was being careful and conscientious while living my life-something I'd been doing throughout my battle with cancer. I didn't give up, and I tried to live my life as normally as I could. (Related: Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Them Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)
Six months later, I went back to get my markers recorded to find out where I was on the cancer scale. Once the results were in, my oncologist said, "I don't say this often, but I really believe you've been cured."
While they say there's still an 80 percent chance that it could come back, I choose not to live my life that way. Instead, I look at myself as very blessed, with gratitude for everything. And most importantly, I embrace my life as if I never had cancer at all.
My doctors told me that one of the biggest reasons my journey was a success was because I was in incredible shape. Yes, working out isn't the first thing that comes to your mind after receiving a cancer diagnosis, but exercising during an illness can do wonders for a healthy body and mind. If there's a takeaway from my story, it's that.
There's also a case to be made about how you mentally react in the face of adversity. Today, I've adopted the mentality that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it. We all have the choice to embrace the attitude we want for today and every day. Not many people get the opportunity to truly know how much people love and admire you when you're alive, but it's a gift I receive every day, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.