Remind Yourself

At the most simple, unassuming times I am struck with two realizations.

First, I HAVE CANCER.

And second, I AM NOT DYING.

They don’t always run in that order or even follow each other consecutively, but they enter my thoughts often. I know they come, because I’m being reminded, not allowed to forget, that the first is my reality and the second is my hope. They are unusual, out of place, even awkward. They come and they stay, because this is not the reality of most in my situation. I remind myself of these two realities for good reason, lest I become drawn to the extremes of either, to continue through my days with drive and purpose.

It’s true, I do have cancer. Somewhere within me there are cells, defined as cancerous, that have circumvented the checks and balances of my biology and spiraled out of control, reproducing wildly and chaotically, threatening my life. I have cancer because I am told the scans show it. I am told these cells have gathered somewhere near my colon, too precariously out of reach from the surgeon’s knife, for now. I am told they are cancerous, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that means, because the last time we checked they were not STILL reproducing. They had been stunted, frozen, paused in their selfish survival objectives. If this is true, it does not mean they aren’t still cancer, but does it mean they are cancerous, and will they reanimate at some point to continue with their objectives. I don’t know, but I do know they are there…in me. I have them. I guess they are “mine”. But we aren’t buds…I’ll assure you that much.

I have cancer, and although the reality informs my life greatly, it does not own my thoughts. It only creeps in when the rest of my mind goes quiet. It comes when I stop thinking about running. It comes when I stop thinking about design. It comes when I stop thinking about my son. It comes when I’m walking down the street holding a pizza box in my hands, driving to pick up Laura from work, sometimes engaged in conversation with friends…it comes when I feel the LEAST that I do have cancer. It reminds me.

It comes when I’m running.

It DEFINITELY comes when I’m running, because if there is ever a time when I feel like I have cancer the least, it’s when I’m running.

And yet, this is also the time I’m reminded…I AM NOT DYING.

I was dying. Believe me, I was absolutely dying, about a year and a half ago. I was apparently closer to death than I’ve really come to admit to myself, because despite my ability to run, despite all efforts to ignore the physical concerns I was having, the cells that remain in me somewhere had reproduced to the extent they were siphoning all my life-support to continue theirs. I was so close to dying that the surgery necessary to keep me alive was scheduled just 3 weeks from the first appointment with my surgeon. Other appointments were moved to make room for mine. I didn’t realize it, but I was dying, which is funny because no one had yet to remind me, or even tell me, YOU HAVE CANCER. But for sometime leading up to that point, I did have cancer, and I was dying.

And then I had surgery. And a year of chemo. And endless months of continuous recovery, degeneration, recovery, degeneration, recovery, strength, degeneration, strength. And a whole lot of living. Somewhere in the timeline between surgery and the present day, the scans told us the cancer had seemingly given up, held off, backed down, froze. They stopped growing, reproducing, doing their cancerous things…and I had continued living, actually getting stronger despite the initial surgery, and the subsequent chemo treatments. They were strong, but I was getting stronger. I was able to put on weight, to eat, to put on muscle, to work, to run. That is not dying. Dying is getting weaker, thinner.

I am reminded of this, because it’s not how the circumstance usually plays out, that despite having cancer, one is not dying. I’m not. I’m not dying. Until the scans show the cancer growing again, I’m not dying.

I HAVE CANCER because 2 months ago I was lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, a machine breathing for me, being pumped full of chemotherapy just days after being sliced in two, unable to think, write, or communicate. I was, by most conscious definitions, not dying..but dead.

But I AM NOT DYING…because 2 months later, today, I put my backpack in a gym locker, tightened my shoelaces, and ran into the street and up the trail for 6 miles, at 7:15 pace, as a workout led by my coach. I’m not dying because I’m now TRAINING, not just running, not just rehabilitating my body, but pushing my new and temporary thresholds to new temporary mile markers of effort. I’m not dying, because someone tried to pass me today towards the end of my run, but only made it another 400 meters before they slowed to a crawl as I kept going, finishing my 6 miles at a “moderate” pace. And that, is my favorite reminder of my two realities.

I HAVE CANCER. I AM NOT DYING.

And for you, for all of us, the timeline has a definitive end…no matter how it may come, and we must continue to remind ourselves, WE WILL DIE, but that does not mean WE ARE DYING. We must simply make efforts to actually live. Remind yourself.

Inspiration…With Teeth

Reluctant Responsibility

I continue to struggle with the responsibility of being an individual that inspires, in part because I haven’t fully internalized that responsibility and am not sure I want to. I have been told by others that I inspire them, and trust them in their word, but my apprehension lies in actively TRYING to inspire others. To be honest, I’m often NOT trying to inspire others. I’m living my life, as I always have, just making the most of my time, abbreviated timeline or not. This has always been my day to day, and if others are inspired by my words and actions, then who am I to deny them.

But with inspiration comes a reluctant responsibility. To inspire someone means, to some degree or for even a brief moment, they rely on me. They expect a return from my words, from my actions, to continue this stream of inspiration…and I might not deliver.

I might be a downright disappointment. I may struggle. I may become incredibly negative. I may fall back into petty gripes and non-issues. And that’s just me…I’m not a role model and I’m not a poster boy for inspiration. I’m just a guy trying to live the fullest I possibly know how despite any number of obstacles that meet me along the way. Debt. Failed relationships. Conflict. Cancer.

I have enough to deal with and taking on the deliberate role of “inspirational individual” isn’t necessarily of my own making, and so I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with that dichotomy of potential success and failure. I don’t even know HOW to be that person. This is all very new to me.

Acceptance

But all that is only partially true, just a way of dismissing the effort to try, and protecting my potential failure, because you know what, I DO want to inspire others. I WANT to be someone others look to for perspective, for drive, for motivation…as downright frightening as that is. I don’t want to let people down. I want to help people experience a greater emotional intensity, just the same as I get from others.

Because I’ve suddenly found myself in the position to do so, connecting to more and more people through an experience others find unique and…well…inspiring. I can’t deny that. Whether I want the responsibility or not, it is there, and it would be somewhat insulting if I were to ignore the context, put my head down and just go. That’s an insult to everyone who doesn’t have an opportunity as impactful like this.

And lately I’ve been feeding that responsibility, that newfound role, primarily through my social media channels in which I’m connected to most people. When I feel the twinge of narcissism and worry about putting up yet another photo of my latest run or cancer-based experience, I err on the side of inspiration and honesty, of showing the more complete story, of giving another example of passionate living. And cats. I also show cats.

Inspire Yourself

Before I go further, let’s address a crucial component to inspiration. It often leans on others…and that’s dangerous. To find motivation outside yourself is to be vulnerable, to be susceptible to other’s decisions, to lose control, to relinquish agency of your own life, to give power to those that have no responsibility for your well-being. To rely on others for emotional stability can be problematic, and at it’s worse, dangerous.

First and foremost, every individual must be inspired BY THEMSELVES. Every individual must find the confidence in their actions, the motivation to take risks, the drive to find perspective, the inspiration to live the most passionate life they can muster. The only one we all owe responsibility to is the emotional individual within us, the only one we should ultimately rely upon, for when everything around you collapses and everyone abandons you…none of that matters.

We should all be inspired by ourselves. We should experience accomplishment and passion, and be driven to seek and find it again and again, because we know directly what that feels like, to have achieved it on our own.

To the individual who has lost all emotional self-reliance, what is a world with no more internet memes, no inspirational phrases plastered over images of mountaintops, no Oprah quotes on coffee cups, no friends to get them out the door, no spiritual texts and self-help sections to peruse, no feedback loops of affirmation from everyone else needing the crutch of others accomplishments?

Personally, I don’t want to know.

I want to know the inspiration I get from others is not a foundation to my emotional experience, but an addition, an addendum, an enhancement, and if they are not there for me…I’ll still be ok. I want that for myself and I want that for everyone else as well. Before everyone else, inspire yourself.

Empty Words

Here is where everything gets tricky. I am NOT one for empty gestures and hollow words. I want honest, tangible meaning behind the verbiage we throw around, and lately it seems like “inspiration” has fallen into this catch-all trap of perceived positivity and feel good back-patting. Individuals have been building careers, cults of personality and personal empires around the relatively empty idea of “inspiration”, and that makes me nauseous. I do NOT want to be associated with this new culture of “inspiring individuals” if this manner of inspiration is simply to make others feel momentarily good…for no purpose.

What exactly are we saying when we talk of inspiring or being inspired? Is there any moral responsibility to it? Does it progress the individual in any meaningful way? Are we just being patronizing?

In my own experience, one of not fully accepting the responsibility of being inspirational, I have remained uncomfortable without directing this matter of inspiration people have professed to get from my situation. Ultimately, I trust this received inspiration is positive, constructive, and valuable to the individual, and so that is great…but for me, that is not enough.

I would never want to be that “inspirational speaker” that tells my personal story, of overcoming adversity or whatever, and just letting the feel-good experience slowly dissipate. I want to be impactful, in a TANGIBLE way. I want to drive people towards a better life, for themselves, but also for others…with purpose…with teeth.

With Teeth

Hitler was an inspired individual. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were inspired individuals.

When we leave “inspiration” completely open, not rooting it in purpose, intent, or defined morality, we create at it’s most innocent, a worthless gesture, but at it’s worst, a dangerous premise. Granted, I highly doubt anything I could offer to others through my personal experience would result in a dangerous premise, but nor do I want to leave anyone with a worthless gesture either. I want to root my inspiration in something tangible.

With that said, I want to inspire others towards veganism, towards recognizing the disconnect our social context has created between human animals and non-human animals, and the ways it compels us to see ourselves as “others”, somehow above our obvious animal behaviors, absurdly separate from all the instincts and emotional lives every other creature on this earth share with us. I want to inspire others to tear down the figurative and literal walls of separation between our emotional lives and the emotional lives of animals being confined and tortured by the economic and egotistical impulses of modern civilization and all it’s machinations. I want to inspire as many human animals as I possibly can to make the choice to go vegan, in diet and lifestyle.

Connected to that drive, I also want to inspire others to reframe the way they view the world, our power structures, our sense of agency, our relation to immediate neighbors and those we will never see, our place in the timeline of existence…and how all that informs our sense of morality, our heightened sense of self-importance, our involvement with the social contract that none of us signed upon being birthed into this world. I want individuals to become individuals, to erase the unthinking associations they have found themselves seemingly attached, to shed all the absurdities of modern civilization and get back to being humans that think for themselves, develop moralities that fit into their personalized contexts, to shed ideas of religious subservience, nationalism, speciesism, separatism, economic superiority…to simply be human.

And to be human is to be self-reliant, while engaging with a supportive community, and continuously seeking a fulfilled and passionate existence, to recognize the absences in our lives and fill them with a value that makes us proud and excited to be alive. To be inspired.

A positively inspired, morally inspired, intellectually inspired human is not suicidal, does not seek the excesses of drugs, is not driven by religious fanaticism, is compassionate towards their fellow beings, is not susceptible to empty gestures and hollow words, is able to fight through adversity and the inevitability of physical and emotional obstacles, is able to meet the conflicts of the world with perspective and action….and does not settle for less.

An inspired individual meets their deathbed like everyone else, but the one who ran through life inspired with teeth does so with an appeasement, an acceptance, an unmatched contentment. If I have a part in helping anyone achieve that, I will be indescribably grateful to have been put in this position, but no matter my role, I’ll continuously be seeking this degree of inspiration for myself. And that will be enough. I only wish the same for everyone else.

The Body Responds

Sometimes Cancer is a waiting game, whether it’s anticipating the results of a CT scan or recovering from treatment, and trying to find some sense of development in that waiting can be difficult. In terms of physical progress – expelling the buildup of chemotherapy, gaining back red blood cells, etc. – the measurement of that progress can be elusive. The positive changes one hopes to see aren’t always so apparent and we’re left wondering if anything is getting better. We’re left wondering if we’re getting stronger or weaker, or just in a holding pattern.

But then there is running, and in running, progress can’t be mistaken. From the recognition of huge gains to even small victories, engaging the body on a daily basis and measuring the progress is both distinctly noticeable and deeply comforting. I know this, because I’m experiencing it now. I definitely experienced this measurable progress pre-cancer when I was in maximum training, but it’s even more noticeable now as I get back to running consistently again. In part, it’s because I’m starting from zero. My cells were wiped clean. My muscles atrophied. My lungs, deflated like over-stretched balloons. So any physical progress at this point will come rapidly and be unmistakeable. It’s not like I’m pushing the ceiling of my abilities, striving so hard to get just the most meager edge of performance. Now, every run is a workout, and so the benefits will follow.

And that excites me, that running allows me to KNOW I’m progressing. So many individuals (cancer patients or just the sedentary) are either relegated to passivity or simply choose it, maybe not knowing they have any other option, and therefore succumb to the waiting game, hoping the body acts in their favor and shows them signs of progress. Running, however, counters both those actions. Running engages the body in a way that forces it to adapt, using stressors to repair muscles, build red-blood cells, triggering the body’s various systems of regeneration…and let’s us know it is happening. With repeated stressors we feel progress, we feel development, we experience ourselves running further and faster, smoother and with increasing ease. Running let’s us know exactly where we stand. The numbers don’t lie.

I’m just under two months from my surgery, and to say I’m surprised at my recovery is an incredible understatement. I’m shocked beyond words. This time last year, I think I was still at my parents, stuck in bed, barely able to walk down the street. I was completely wiped out, without energy, without strength. To even imagine running took more effort than I cared to expend. And today? I ran for 40:00 minutes, with more ease than I have since I started back. The progress is unmistakeable.

And it’s because I simply tried…and the body responded. It was only a few weeks ago that I took my first tentative steps towards running, testing my legs, my lungs, my scar tissue. Then each day I tested them a little more, sometimes forced to rest, yet sometimes able to keep going. It hasn’t been easy, by no means, and it’s still very rough, but I’m moving and feeling the progress. Recovery seems to necessitate a full day off between running, allowing me just periodic walk breaks during my runs, but the strength is slowly returning. My lungs initially held me back the most, unable to retain sufficient oxygen no matter how deeply I would breathe in, but today, with the aid of chilled air, I could breathe with consistency and take deeper breathes as the miles wore on. Where my legs would falter and my form begin to collapse, I could now continue bounding off my mid-foot and run with stature. Where I mentally weakened from the sustained effort, today I only stopped to prepare for tomorrow’s longer attempt.

The body is responding and I’m literally feeling it.

I’m not waiting for an abrupt physical change or measured assessment from the doctor to make me feel the progress, but letting the body tell me in small increments, each day, with each mile. I KNOW I’m getting stronger because the numbers don’t lie. The amount of miles I can now run compared to three weeks ago don’t lie. The time it takes me to finish a run compared to three weeks ago doesn’t lie. The pace per mile I can now sustain doesn’t lie. The deepness with which I can hold my breath doesn’t lie.

Pardon my self-congratulation, but this is really exciting for me, as I’m sure you understand. I had no idea what sort of physical life awaited me on the other side of this most recent surgery, whether I was looking at months of passive recovery or even years. I had no idea, but now I do, and it’s very exciting.

I was talking to one of the runner’s I coach today, and he said,

“I never thought I could run this far!”

I knew exactly how he felt, what it is to experience the ability of the body, to progress, adapt and recover. It is a FASCINATING experience that only those who engage with their bodies deeply understand, and I’m fortunate to have become one of them. I’ve always been absolutely amazed what my body could do through running, through sustained effort and stress while training and running 100+ mile weeks, but this new progress is a whole ‘nother level of fascination and excitement. I’ve been filled with chemicals, repeatedly cut open, broken and damaged in so many ways, and I can’t even fully know what damage has been done to me and what physical restrictions I might be experiencing, but despite all that, my body is still responding. Despite all that damage, it’s coming back. Despite all that cutting, I’m healing. Despite all that poisoning, I’m creating cells that deliver crucial oxygen to my systems. Despite all atrophy, I’m running stronger, further and faster with each day.

I’d never wish my experience on anyone else, in order for them to understand what the body is capable of, but fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. All it takes is the effort to progress, to push your limits, to understand what you are physically capable of…and I guarantee it’s far more than you currently imagine. The body can be destroyed, day in and day out, but it can always respond to the damage, to regenerate all the same, to get stronger and faster…and you don’t have to just sit and wait for it.

I plan to prove this for as long as I can.

Is This Running?

Laura is training for the Monumental Half-Marathon coming in November…and I was tired of sitting in bed binge watching Breaking Bad. Last weekend came on the heels of legitimately fall weather, that beautiful coupling of sun and low humidity that allows runners to begin cashing in all that summer training that seemed to be getting them nowhere. I, right now, am not one of those runners, but couldn’t help at least putting myself out there, to experience that shift in the air that marks something important, something great, an anticipation of success only so many of us truly understand. Plus…I was tired of laying in bed. I suggested we head to the trails of a close State park.

After locking up the car, Laura jogged off to the trail head and I began a short walk to a different trail entrance point, watching other runners go through their paces, mountain bikers zipping past open spaces in the woods, and feeling compelled. I was only going for a walk, I told myself. I wore dead racing flats, jeans, a t-shirt and heavy sweatshirt. I was truly only going for a walk. But then I stepped onto the trail and began winding through the snaking dirt, around trees, over rocks, and…well…this wasn’t working. I’m not accustomed to walking through the woods. It feels awkward. It feels forced. And admittedly, I was out here to progress my recovery. Walking just wasn’t going to do it.

After looking over my shoulder to make sure I was relatively alone, I started a very tenuous, gentle stepping through the curving trail. Not fast. Not forceful. I just wanted to see how that would feel. Then I kept going, because it felt…just fine. I wasn’t RUNNING so much as just lightly jogging, but it was enough to stress my lungs, which admittedly, takes little to no effort at this point, but still, I didn’t need to back off. My legs were fine. My abdomen was fine. My lungs were, well, not fine. But that was, in part, why I was out there. To begin pushing them back towards their normative levels. There is only so much sitting around and waiting for the body to fix itself before one must take the initiative to help it along, to stress it, strengthen it, build it back up. I’m not one for waiting, so this little walk quickly turned into a very casual, intermittent jog.

It wasn’t a run though and it was barely a jog. My lungs suddenly reeled back in my efforts and I started walking, then jogged some more, then walked, then jogged, then walked, feeling the accumulative stresses building each time I started up again, unable to catch my breath almost the second I started pushing myself each time. I was suddenly relegated to just walking the rest of the way back to the car, up a steep set of hills mind you, but still walking. I made it back to the car, somewhat surprised and thoroughly fatigued for what would, under normal circumstances, amount to nothing even close to a run or workout of any kind. Laura soon found her way back and we drove off for breakfast and coffee.

I wasn’t sure if I had started running again. It was encouraging, yes, but also very soon. I have a leftover suture still visibly protruding from my neck where a 6 inch tube was inserted just over a month ago. Sticky residue from bandages remains visible on the inside of my leg where no water or friction will wear it away. My incision is hardened scar tissue, my internal sutures just now threatening to poke through like spring weather sprouts, as they did last year. The scabs where my enter/exit chemo tubes pierced my body are still the size of bullet holes and, sorry for the TMI, staining my t-shirts with fluid and leakage. My insides…well…who knows what’s going on in there. Still, I can run. I can do that, to some degree, so that’s what I’m going to do. If we can call it that.

I woke this morning, already resolved to run around my neighborhood…this time intentionally…just to see what happens. It’s a 2 mile loop back to my house and I had already chosen my outfit for the day, actual running clothes. I woke with the same resolve and built my confidence through the morning, forcing myself into running clothes before I allowed the motivation to wane too far. I stepped out into that distinct fall weather, and although I wasn’t going to cash in any previous training, I at least knew I had no extra external obstacles to manage on top of everything internal I had to deal with.

Precariously I jogged down the street, not even attempting to push myself, but let each leg swing past the other at it’s own meter, my head down, paying attention only to the effort of my breathing, which this time STARTS as if i’m FINISHING in the death throes of a failed race attempt. It is hard. It does not get easier. It is barely fun, or encouraging, or inspirational. It is just work.

I try to breath in rhythm, but feel as if I’m breathing against myself…which, I am. I can not bring full breaths into my lungs, in part from depleted red blood cells, but also from the internal scar tissue of my incision. My lungs can only inflate so far before they push against the calloused skin, the inflamed intestines, and I’m left to take abbreviated breaths for as long as possible. I do so for the first mile, my watch mocking me with a ticking 9:30, before I bring my legs to a halt and start walking up the street, letting my lungs rest for the next effort.

Looking ahead, I make a deal with myself.

“Walk this block, then jog all the way to 11th. At 11th you can take another break. You can make it there, at least, right?”

I agree and do just that, finding my way to another intermittent finish and let the relief of a halted effort fill my body, holding onto my hips like I just finished a 5k and let my lungs ease back to neutral, except they never do. They are taxed and will stay this way. I have no other option but to make more deals.

“Walk this block, then jog the next two.”
“Walk this block, then jog the two up the incline.”
“Walk this block, then jog home…that’s all you have left.”

Somehow I agree to my demands and am able to reach each one, with lungs increasingly worn from the effort, the two miles feeling embarrassingly long and unlike any effort I’ve had to exert at this distance before. I’m still unmotivated, uninspired, unencouraged…but I had to make it home.

On the porch I still didn’t feel accomplished…just done. I tell myself not to bend over, knowing standing back up will risk a light headedness that will bring me back to the ground. Ultimately, I ran 2 miles, if you want to call it that, and glad to have done it, but not filled with a comeback attitude…that will come later. Right now it’s not about BEING inspired, but just putting in the effort, still in suffer mode, tired of remaining horizontal, too impatient to let my body do the work. This is the time that I have to begin helping things along, speeding up the recovery process and getting through it until the passion comes back, and the excitement returns.

I want to say this…whatever I’m doing…is where I start. I want to say this is where running begins again, but I have no idea. I don’t know what is to come of my body and my abilities in the next few weeks. We start with movement, then a mile, and two…and at some point see where it ends. Call it what you may, but it can’t be denied that it’s at least momentum. I’ll take it.

No Poster Child

I walked into the oncology waiting room, my mom following behind me, the eyes of other patients and relatives all lifting to watch us walk in. I knew what they were thinking…

“Which one has the cancer?”

I know this, because I think the same when anyone walks through the front door or into the waiting room from the exam area. Most of the time, you can instantly tell. We are frail, or balding, needing physical support from others, have sores on our bodies, are pushed in wheelchairs, or are simply old. But not me. I walk in with my mom or dad and know they think the patient is the parent…until I walk up to the window and begin talking with the receptionist. I, undoubtedly, stand out. Despite turning 38 last month, in the world of cancer, I’m just a baby.

I sat in one of the waiting room chairs and pulled out a book, avoiding the gaze of anyone who might be sizing me up, looking for tell tale signs of weakness. The door to the exam rooms opens and 4 people walk out, one them being supported by two others. There was no doubt who was the patient among them. He was the poster child (a misleading term) for cancer. He was old, by all definitions, but aged worse from the disease. His wife helped stabilize him as they walked him towards a wheelchair, every step a conscious effort. His skin hung from bones, spotted and marked. His stare, completely vacant. He didn’t talk…everyone spoke for him. I couldn’t help wonder what kept him alive…and why. His existence, pardon my bluntness, is not one I ever want to experience. Surely the doctors, with their unending list of patients, see little hope for treatment. I wonder if they must be simply following the wishes of the family, taking their lead, who want any time to continue sharing love and protection to their husband, their father….understandably. Sometimes, I wonder, if treatment isn’t about the patient at all, but rather the emotional desires of loved ones.

Looking at this frail old man, I couldn’t help but appreciate my predicament, valuing my relative youth, taking comfort in the life I’ve lived to this point, recognizing the reward of health and strength. I am not the poster child.

The room cleared out and we were left alone, waiting to be called to the back for examination and questioning. I didn’t feel sick. I barely felt the waning pain meds. My greatest discomfort was the line of staples still pressed into my skin, wearing out their welcome days ago. The door opened and my name was called.

After basic vitals were taken (128 lbs – race weight! – without the necessary muscle) the practicing resident, who was also one of the accompanying surgeons, gave me a simplistic rundown of my situation, expressing hope and encouragement towards my diagnosis and saying little more that gave me concern or strayed from the original plan. This has not always been the case. He quickly removed the rest of my staples, with minimal pain, and said little else that warranted remembering. This has all become so routine and the in and out of the exams have lost the emotional intensity they once held. The cancer experience, at least mine, has seemingly become little more than a checkup. I still feel confusion, and sometimes even guilt, that it has all become so easy, so routine, so…unconventional. And sometimes I still get scared, because it has become all that. Because I’ve internalized this whole situation and relatively thrived through it in such a way that I’m not as bothered as I used to be. A little more tension might do me good. On the other hand…I’m not the poster child. And I don’t want to be.

The resident left to be replaced by my oncologist, the individual truly in charge of saving my life, and he quickly went through a physical examination, mouthing approval of my healing scar. He followed with another recap of my surgery.

“I got about 3/4’s of it out…”
“I thought I could get it all…”
“Didn’t want to risk a temporary colostomy…”
“Trouble near the colon….”
“Decided to hold off and not do further harm…”

Nothing new surfaced from what he told me in the hospital. Thankfully. It all went as good as it possibly could have considering the circumstance, meaning I still have cancer, but considerably less than before, and now we have more decisions to make.

We continued discussing recovery.

“I feel shockingly better than I did last time.”

I am not a poster child.

I pressed him about the logistics.

“So you said that maybe the chemo treatments might have got to the tumors and made them easier to get out this time, right? So, were they easier to get out? Is that what happened?”

“Well..yes. They were easier to get out this time, and I wish I could have gotten them all out…now, whether it was the chemo that made them easier to get out….I can’t say. We really don’t know.” he admitted.

I knew this. We know very little about cancer, about chemo…so this I accept. We try everything and hope something works..even the processes of the human body. He confessed that it may just be the immune response from my own body. It could be of my own biological doing. It could just be a trigger..of which we don’t know. He recounted stories of other patients who came up with No Evidence of Cancer all on their own…without surgery…without chemo. It happens.

He talked further about the future.

“So, our plan now is to let you recover, for you to get stronger, and then take a CT scan in a few months to see how things are going. Then another in 6 months. We will keep you off chemo, but keep checking in before starting again.”

I stumbled over his last sentence. Chemo? Again? Please no.

Our plan prior to surgery was to “wait and see”, to see if chemo really was the dominant factor in reducing cancer or some other non-chemical mechanism, the human body, dumb luck. Anything. Anything but chemo. I thought we were going to wait and see…and that is what we are doing, but I guess I hoped we were leaning on that possibility more than the expectation of undergoing chemo again. That was stupid of me, however, because I know chemo is ALWAYS an option. I know the CT scans can come back to tell a more ominous story, but I just didn’t..and don’t..want to believe it. I want to believe I’m not the poster child, that I’m different, that I don’t need chemo. And that is a dangerous position to take…I know better…I need to stay neutral.

Still, we were just talking options. It just felt like he was more definitive in his statement. As if to say, we’ll see how things are going and then start chemo in 6 months, instead of saying, we’ll see how things are going and IF NEEDED start chemo…or forego it all together. I wished he was a little more fluid with his statements. Still, this are just options, and this is one.

We talked about surgery too…again…a third time. This I was more prepared for.

“We’ll look out about a year from now, or maybe a year and a half and see about going in and getting the rest,” he explained.

This time there was less “if’s” in his declaration. The third time is a charm. With how much he removed the first and second time, it seems a definitive that the third time would be the last time, and despite still reeling from the necessary abuse, I didn’t flinch. Let’s do it. Get it out of the way. Get it out of me and let’s move on…finally. But, despite the confidence and positivity of this approach, this is still just an option.

In the process of cancer, everything changes. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes unexpectedly. We never know how it will all proceed and a year away in the cancer world is akin to a lifetime…so much can happen. Cancer could come roaring back….or it can disappear without a trace. It can be killed and it can just die. Nothing is guaranteed within a year.

Without much more of consequence said, that was the end of the appointment. He gave me free reign to eat with abandon, do everything I enjoy, and just live my life until we meet for a CT scan and reassess the situation. There was no need to take immediate action, to respond to desperate circumstances, to give timelines, projected lifespans or survival percentages. I am not a poster child. I don’t need that information right now. I simply need my options.

We walked into the empty waiting room and out of the building towards the car, still a little defeated from the potential for chemotherapy in six months, but trying to remind myself that I’m not a poster child, that my situation is different, that maybe, just maybe, I can avoid chemotherapy completely. I won’t say I can avoid surgery too…but if I must reach past my boundaries for something, it can at least be a treatment without chemo.

Who knows…I’m not the poster child for cancer, so all possibilities are still on the table.

Hoka One One Conquest Review

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Hoka One One – Conquest Review

Overview

I never thought of buying, or even trying, the Hoka One One running shoes, primarily because I’m not drawn to extremes in running footwear. I don’t like gimmicks and I don’t like marketing. I like to put on a mid-range shoe and just go. With that said, I do have a variety of footwear and have tried out many different models over the years, from protective trail shoes, trainers, and racing flats to big lugged winter shoes, transitionals and now these Hoka’s. Through all my trial and error, I have found that I prefer a shoe that fits the specific type of running I’m doing at the time, but also nothing too minimal or too cushioned. So, why am I reviewing the Hoka One One’s then, a shoe that spits in the face of the Taramahura tribe and snake oil hucksters selling the latest saran wrap for your feet?

If you aren’t privy to my personal story I’ve put out in various places on the internet, I have a rare form of cancer, and the chemo treatments I’m receiving have the very unfortunate side effect of “Hand and Foot Syndrome” – a very real and debilitating condition where the chemo leaks from your blood vessels into the ends of your hands and feet, causing a deterioration of the skin, making one vulnerable to friction of any sort. That, obviously, doesn’t bode well for running. At the end of the weeks where I’m taking my chemo pills that cause this side effect, I can have great problems walking through the house, or just going about my day without great pain always under foot…literally. The problem is that greater pounding and greater friction cause equal amounts of pain…which is what brought me to the Hokas.

A local running store was hosting a short 3 mile run where participants could try out a pair of Hoka One One’s, and I figured I’d give the excessively cushioned shoes a try, in hopes that it might alleviate just a little of the pounding and friction that continued to sideline my running ambitions. I opted to try the Conquest model, a relatively standard performance road shoe. They offer trail models as well, but I only intended to try these for road purposes. After the test run, I was so impressed with the shoe for my own special circumstance that I ended up buying a pair. The following is my review.

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The Good

Cushion

The Hoka One One brand boasts a number of features that separate it from others, but the feature that garners most attention is it’s cushioning platform…rightfully so. Not only does it have a unique cushioned base, but the accentuated aesthetic on the side of the shoe highlights this feature, giving the appearance of a low cut moon boot instead of a functioning running shoe. Without going into too much detail into how it all works, I can just say the softness and cushion is felt immediately after putting on the shoe. It’s not a pillowy, marshmallow feeling, but the “give” upon impact is noticeable and far greater than any other shoe on the market. The aesthetic of the shoe is deceiving though. Where it does look like a moon boot, or a pontoon as my teammates and I called them, the actual cradle is the same size as any other shoe and the drop is a mere 4 millimeters, lending to an unrestricted running form. The cushioning, however, is achieved not by piling on a bunch of foam in the footbed, but rather by cutouts beneath the footbed that give upon impact. And it’s that cushioning that makes this shoe.

I’ve been running in the Conquest consistently now and the benefit of the softened impact has been just what I hoped. The effect of my hand and foot syndrome is always present, of course, but the cushioned base allows me to get much further into my run before the repeated pounding builds to a point where I’m severely compromised and can’t go much further. The softness unarguably does it’s job. How does this translate to runners without such a condition? I can tell you my teammates have been running in Hoka One One’s as their recovery shoe, going out for easy 10 to 12 milers and allowing the shoe to reduce the impact on their legs. In a way, they are using the shoes on pavement as a way to achieve the benefits of running on dirt or grass. No one I know runs in these for EVERY run, but choose to use them selectively.

Drop & Weight

As mentioned, the shoe LOOKS like a moon boot – bulky and heavy -, the external raised cushion near the heel not helping the effect, but what surprised me was the natural “feel” while running. I assumed the shoe would be heavier than most, but it weighs in at only 11.8 oz., on par with most standard trainers today, and that lack of weight is felt…or not felt. I’ve never felt that I was dragging through my gait, even towards the end of the runs when my legs are getting weaker. The shoe feels consistently light in both hand and on feet.

My other concern was the perceived bulk of the shoe. I expected to have to adjust to the raised footbed, picking my feet up a little higher to avoid scraping the sole or heel on my swing through, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I can run without any adjustment. I’ve yet to feel my heel scrape the ground on a swing through or need to compensate for any added bulk. This normal running form is no doubt a part of the 4mm drop from heel to toe. A longer test will prove if my wear patterns remain the same as other shoes.

Construction

One of the other benefits for my circumstance is the seemingly wider toe box and seamless construction of the upper. Any contact with my foot is going to result in abrasion, blistering and discomfort, so I was quite thrilled when I realized my toes had enough room in the front of the shoe, but were also not “floating” and causing friction during movement. The room in the toe box eliminates the pressure that can be apparent on the sides of the foot. Further, the seamless construction and smooth, airy upper materials caused no “hot spots” or points of contact that would rub or scrape at my skin. The upper material, as most shoes are now utilizing, acts more as a firm, smooth sock than anything else. This will benefit all runners, no matter their physical circumstance.

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The Bad

Lacing

I have four issues with this shoe overall that may or may not be deal breakers for you. First, the “speed laces” that come with the shoe are terrible. They have a sort of locking mechanism on the laces that, I believe, actually make them come loose. Every runner I know has offered the same complaint for these specific laces. They compress snugly at first, but as soon as you start running, they slowly loosen until the fit is noticeably compromised. I’ve had to stop repeatedly to adjust the fit during longer runs. The shoes do come with standard lacing, however, and I would recommend swapping them out as soon as you open the box (you will have to actually cut the speed laces, however). I actually prefer speed laces and have had great success with them on my Salomon’s, but the design Hoka uses needs reworked.

Water Retention

I have not used these shoes during wet weather, but reports from teammates that have run in them during either downpours or through creek crossings have not been favorable. I don’t know if it’s the lack of wicking in the upper material or if the footbed foam actually retains water, but reports are that the shoes become heavy and emit a signifiant “squishing” sound when wet. If you do use these shoes, I would consider running only in dry weather or on dry conditions.

Trail

This critique may not apply to trail runners who are more tentative in their approach, but I like to “attack” trails, minding where my feet fall, but doing so with relative abandon. I like to run them fast, whether uphill or down, and I’ve discovered that a “transitional” shoe works best for my needs. I used to run in the Salomon Speedcross, but the lug pattern was so gnarly and significant (wear is barely noticeable after years of use) that I couldn’t “feel” the trail under my feet before it was too late. I rolled my ankle almost EVERY TIME I ran in those shoes…no exaggeration. Due to the added cushion of the lugs, I couldn’t feel the roll begin off a root, rock or rut until it was too late to compensate. It was only when I switched to the Saucony Peregrine’s, with a 4mm drop and significantly reduced footbed, that I stopped rolling my ankle…immediately after the switch. That leads me to believe these shoes would NOT be good for trail running and I’ve heard of rolled ankle stories from other runners who have ventured into the woods wearing Hokas. This might vary by trail condition, but I’m not even going to attempt to use them.

Feel

Ultimately, I find myself reluctant to recommend these shoes to normal runners, based primarily on the feel of the shoe. Despite everything I said previously, I personally would not run in these if I wasn’t dealing with Hand and Foot Syndrome. This, however, may just be my preferred running style, as I like to “feel” the ground to some extent while I run, knowing that I’m getting the most efficient push-off that I can manage, but without destroying my leg muscles from the pounding. If you aren’t concerned so much with feel and power transfer, the cushioning of these shoes might work fantastic for you. With that said, I jokingly call these “cancer shoes”, because I would recommend them for anyone with Hand and Foot Syndrome who wants to stay as active as possible, whether that is running, walking, or just moving throughout the house. A friend who also selectively uses them said they are the most comfortable shoes he’s ever worn for standing on his feet all day at work.

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The Wrap Up

Price & Mileage

Here’s the rub…the shoes retail for about $175 to $180. Ouch. I mean….OUCH. That was almost pricey enough to just deal with my pain and blisters. The other side to this, however, is that the mileage you will get from the added cushioning has been reported in the 1000 to 2000 range. No, that is not a typo. The rep I spoke with said he would never recommend going that high, but he has repeatedly heard from others they are still running in them after so much mileage. The suggested point at which to buy new shoes is around 500 miles, so in doing the math, you’re actually getting quite a deal if you can extend these past your normal point of shoe swapping. Just be prepared to look at these as an investment rather than a shiny new toy you buy on a whim.

Again, after all is said and done, these shoes are really going to come down to your preferred “feel” while running. The construction, fit, weight and other issues are hardly deal breakers for this shoe, but the sensation you prefer while out on a 10 mile run is going to be the deciding factor whether you think the benefits of the “gimmicky” cushion are worth the trade off. For athletic cancer patients, people with foot sensitivity issues or those on their feet all day, I think this is definitely a solid choice to consider. I still plan on putting as many miles into these as I possibly can when I’m not going for speed or on the trails.

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Post-Survivorship

I don’t want to be a cancer survivor. More specifically, I don’t want to be a “cancer survivor”, a definable phrase that becomes my identity. 

I was recently talking to a friend who is 5 years in remission (though this might have abruptly changed – may the biopsy be benign) and we shared perspectives on what it means to have cancer in the midst of so many other interests and chosen identities. Speaking for myself, I am a runner. I am an ethical vegan. I am a writer and a graphic designer. I am a coach. I am a number of identities I have freely chosen and accepted for myself, that I project to others. These define me to some extent and I embrace that. But it has been a greater struggle to accept “cancer patient” as part of my identity, in that this isn’t something I created. I didn’t willingly seek out cancer…it just happened to me. So in that, I don’t feel comfortable accepting it as part of who I am. It seems to be more a part of WHAT I am rather, but maybe those are just semantics. Regardless, the diagnosis remains. 

With my friend, however, we began to speak of what it is to be a cancer “survivor”, in it’s definition as an identity more than just a physical reality. Maybe it was our relatively young age (we are babies in the cancer world), but neither of us felt good being “survivors”. I don’t mean to demean an individuals sense of identity in accepting “survivorship” into their life, but I also can’t help wonder how those individuals saw themselves prior to cancer. Did they not have a strong sense of self? Did the happenstance of cancer really bring an importance into their life that was stronger than anything else they did prior, and so being a “survivor” is who they became? 

I don’t know…that’s not my place to judge, but speaking from personal experience, I don’t want to be a “survivor”. My life and my identities prior to diagnosis held far more importance than the act of living through cancer, should that become that case. So if I’m ever given the NEC report in the future, I don’t plan on adding “survivor” to my list of character traits, but instead plan to put this whole ordeal behind me and get back to concentrating on the life I once had and am constantly seeking every day. 

I am a runner. I am a graphic designer. I am a writer. I am an ethical vegan. I am a coach. I am a father. But, regardless, cancer remains, and that is something I’m not allowed to forget in the present moment and I am also aware that I will never have the fortune of forgetting this cancer experience. That cloud will always hang above me until the day I die, but I don’t have to let it become me, not now and not as a survivor. However, if my previous stated identities must have qualifiers in the interim, so be it, cancer is still my reality. But let cancer be an addendum, not the core. I don’t mind if people say I’m that runner that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the graphic designer or the writer working through cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the coach that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the vegan that got cancer. I don’t mind if I’m the father who is raising his child through cancer. Just don’t switch the order of terms. I’m not the guy with cancer who runs. I’m not the guy with cancer who keeps working. I’m not the cancerous vegan. I’m not the guy with cancer who coaches runners, raises his kid and goes about life despite it all. Cancer is the addition, nothing else. 

Yet, cancer is still there and it would be irresponsible to not address it’s reality. I don’t want to hide my cancer experience, which is why I write this post, which is why I post scarring and cringe-worthy visuals on Instagram, which is why I use cancer humor on Facebook, which is why I talk freely about it all. Because it IS my reality, it IS a part of me, but it is not who I am. Again, it is what I am…in part. And so I reference cancer, but not only cancer. I reference it alongside images of my work, alongside photos documenting my runs, alongside petty gripes and amusing (to me anyways) jokes and jabs at pop culture. Because cancer is not my identity, it is my reality. 

But someday, I want it out of my reality. I want to be JUST the runner again. I want to be the guy throwing down 6 x 1 miles under 5:00 pace. I want to be the great father to the adorable, hyperactive son. I want to be the guy making a living doing what he loves. I don’t want to be the survivor. I don’t want to champion the genetic mutation I had no control over, that spiraled into chaos and almost took my life. I don’t want cancer to run my life more than it already has. I want it to be forgotten. I want to survive cancer, but I don’t want to be a survivor. I want to be my own version of human, no more, no less. 

For now, I’ll continue to live through this experience with an unwanted, but unavoidable addition to my various identities. I only ask that it remain an addition, a terminology and unfortunate circumstance easily discarded when the time may come.