Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Powerless Cancer

Part of me doesn’t want to be changed by cancer. Part of me wants to keep complaining about the absurdities of daily life, get worked up by non-issues, and deliver clever cathartic releases through social media forums. The problem with this perspective is that it anthropomorphizes cancer. It gives it a face. A personality. A conscious intent. And cancer has none of those.

Cancer itself doesn’t change who I am as a person, fundamentally, at my core. It doesn’t stop me from whining about obnoxious customers. It doesn’t prevent me from expressing relationship desperation through passive instagram photos. It doesn’t prohibit me from selfishly spewing negativity onto others instead of finding something more valuable and constructive to talk about. It doesn’t change those ingrained behaviors because it isn’t a conscious force that can convince me to do otherwise. It is merely a physical force. It is an unconscious, but valuable component of the evolutionary process. So cancer does change me…but only physically.

The cancer EXPERIENCE, however, is a whole ‘nother matter. That is where change truly happens.

I had a conversation with a friend going through a similar cancer experience after we were both recently diagnosed, and I questioned if the cancer experience would change me. Undoubtedly, I knew it would, but I wasn’t sure how. Again, part of me didn’t want it to change me. I didn’t want to give cancer that sort of power. I felt pretty good about myself up to that point and didn’t see the need to change things too drastically. Part of my consideration had me worried that I was to be EXPECTED to change, or to be changed, against my personal wishes. I didn’t want to be a different person just because I lost part of the genetic lottery…I wanted to keep my life how it was.

But that was absurd. And I can say without reservation that, right now, I have changed. Of course, CANCER didn’t change me…the EXPERIENCE has changed me. And more directly, how I have interpreted and approached the experience has changed me. I could have very well gone on cathartically complaining about the little things in life, feeding into the stream of negativity and hyper criticism that seems to mark our days and of which I’ve greatly done my part to build…but I’ve stopped. Ok, I’ve TRIED to stop. It’s not easy. Angry customers are still angry customers.

But still, things are undoubtedly different.

Facing down your suddenly abbreviated mortality will do that to you. And there is a great fortune in being put in that position.

I had yet to express it, a little out of fear and potential insensitivity, but a friend of mine who is also suddenly facing down an abbreviated timeline of life affirmed my thoughts by stating them to me bluntly.

We are FORTUNATE to be dying….slowly.

Truly.

We are afforded the experience of actually CONSIDERING our death, and therefore life…on a VERY REAL level. Over time. Deeply and passionately. This is no longer a philosophical exercise, and although it may sound a little blunt, unless you are going through this very real process of a slow death or potential fatal endpoint, you just don’t understand. I don’t say this arrogantly, but there is a great truth to that. I considered my life and my death prior to diagnosis, but to do so with the understanding of the physical reality of the situation, again, is entirely different, more emotional, more intimate.

And yes, we’re all gonna die. Our mark on the earth will be forgotten. The planet will ultimately be engulfed in a ball of flame when the sun erupts, though we’ll all be long gone before that, but that awareness is still distant…too distant to be real and intimately felt. And even when you recognize that “tomorrow isn’t guaranteed”…it’s different.

How many times have you thought to yourself in the past month, “I wonder if this will be the last xmas I ever have?”

I’ve thought that a lot.

THAT’S part of the difference in considering death and knowing death.

And so…that has changed me. It has changed me because I can’t put off the life I want to live, the person I want to be until a later date when I feel more comfortable, more compelled to make the change. I might not have enough to time to experience the rewards of being a better person, of seeing the world through more compassionate eyes, more calmed nerves…just in a more contented place. And that’s what I want. With this realization, this very real circumstance, I have most definitely changed…not by cancer, but by how I’m using the cancer experience and how my perceptions of mortality influence and shape my worldview and actions.

Which leads me to this statement. “I’m sorry”.

Sincerely. Not, “I’m sorry I’m not sorry”. Just…I’m sorry. I am a hyper-critical person, a skeptic, a doubter…because those traits have served my intellectual and personal purposes well. They are character traits I admire in others because they lend towards honest considerations, keep us from being tricked by hucksters, the selfish and the exploiting. They are hallmarks of the self-made individual. But they can also easily be coopted by inner anger, insecurity, and general discontent. They can lead an individual to tear down others for personal value and generally create an environment of loathing and negativity…and i’ve certainly contributed my share to the world, whether I was aware of my effect or not. And I’m sorry for being that person.

Because the cancer experience has changed me, and those little, tiny, annoying issues that used to drive me nuts…are just inconsequential. They are nothing. They are non-issues. And even the big issues…the important ones, the ones I’m often unable to effect any control over whatsoever…I simply complained about them because it was all I could do…to no alteration at all. It was negativity that fouled the air and then dissipated into nothing.

And the cancer experience has changed how I view all those issues. They just don’t matter anymore. If they are not addressing “the big issues” or if we can’t have any control over them, then they aren’t worth wasting time on. They aren’t worth the expressions we give them. And I see this, because I see it in others now, expressing and complaining and spewing selfish cathartic releases just as I have in the past. And it saddens me. Because I know where it comes from and I know it doesn’t have to be there. There is another way out. There is a great realization of our mortality and a calm in coming to terms with it, moving on and shaping our lives how we want them to be…even in the face of all our daily frustrations. We can let them go.

We can let them go and it doesn’t even take waiting to BE changed. It just takes making the change yourself. I was fortunate to have embraced personal change and progression earlier in life, constantly seeking to be a better person through my actions and perspectives, and equally as valuable, I’m now able to use this cancer experience to help change me too. I’m becoming more of the person I want to be, while I have the opportunity to be that person and experience the value of doing so.

So yeah, it’s often said that having cancer will change you…but it doesn’t. How you choose to view adversity, of any kind, and how you engage with that experience will allow you to change yourself.

We are fortunate to be able to contemplate our mortality and even more to be able to do something about it.

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Winter Is Coming…Run Faster

Last winter was undoubtedly the hardest of my life. I had to suddenly adjust to living alone after my marriage quickly fell apart. I was incredibly burned out at my job, but stuck there for financial reasons. And running was a struggle, day in and day out. I didn’t know what was going on at the time, but I confided in my coach that something just felt “off” and that I couldn’t get into a rhythm. Still, I refused to relent. As the cold and dark descended and pushed against my will, I responded by pushing back. I’m not one to just let external forces dictate my life for me, so every day I prepared for the next, to make it as easy as possible to get up in the morning, go for my run, eat, ride to work, get through the day, make it back home and start all over again. I fell into a rhythm that was at times reliable and at others, felt like an ever tightening rope that was about to snap and send me plummeting into a blackened cavern, of which I didn’t know what lay at the bottom.

Still, I pushed on. Every morning I got up and ran in the bitter cold, knocking out ten milers, intervals, mile repeats, and so on…hoping against all unseen obstacles that SOMETHING, something I couldn’t name, would finally relent and I would break through into my old pattern of easy running and continuous progression.

But it didn’t.

The cold wore me down, physically and emotionally. I struggled so hard to keep running, to keep waiting for that moment, that breakthrough. That breakthrough that would prove all my previous efforts leading up to that point as not futile. I ran a couple winter races to keep me motivated and although I had relative success in them, they were certainly not where I wanted to be, where I thought I SHOULD be. And so I couldn’t help doubt myself. Was I hitting my running plateau? Was aging holding be back?

Hell no. I refused to accept those fates and continued to push against the cold, against the dark, against the accumulation of effort making only little progress.

It was the winter. I knew it was. I knew I just had to wait it out…to keep pushing until the weather broke and I could be set free in my running. When I didn’t have to mentally battle against the idea of running with fingers burnt from the wind. When I didn’t have to labor over the decisions of dressing appropriately. When I didn’t have to wear tights and could move unrestricted. When the sun would light my morning paths and wake my mind along with my body. I kept running, but was hunkered down too, just waiting it out.

And then that day came, when my friend and I went out for that 30 miler. The sun rose by the time we hit the trailhead and after the second loop and some previous shedding of layers we made the decision, an incredibly liberating gesture, a shaking off the snow from our shoulders…to run shirtless. The wind was dead and the sun was alive. We took off our shirts and ran out for the third loop. The feeling was indescribable and I couldn’t hold back, extending my arms and fingers outward to absorb it all as we shot into the woods, our bodies generating any necessary heat lost in the shade of the leafless limbs.

Winter was over. I knew it. And with that I was going to break free and run with an ever increasing speed and strength.

But then, no. Three days later my life was turned upside down. Cancer.

And after I had time to really stop and think about it, it all came clear. That unpredictable rhythm. The deep, deep cold. The emotional struggle. The compromised runs. The lack of progress. It wasn’t the winter…it was cancer. All along, it was an unnamed, unknown force deep within me, and now I could finally understand the confusion in my words when I told my coach that something just felt different, just felt “off”. It wasn’t the burden of life changes, the losing of love, the weight of financial struggles, the biting cold of winter…it was cancer.

No wonder that winter was so damn hard.

And that brings us to today. Photos on my Instagram feed already show snow falling in other parts of the country where distant friends react with varied excitement or dread. The mornings have already become blanketed in cold, the ground in frost. A jacket and thin gloves no longer cut it when leaving the house. The heater hums a comforting song in the basement. The dark creeps in.

And it’s only going to get worse. Winter is coming.

For me, where that dread of pushing through the slowed pace of the dying season once took a hardened fortitude, now lies a different sort of concern, yet a similar pushing back against the forces of winter. Although my physical efforts are severely compromised, I’m still driven to keep at it as much as I can, to keep mind and body as strong as possible, but that entails working against the cold with new obstacles created by the effects of chemotherapy treatment, the incredibly sensitivity to cold. I feel driven inside to the comfort and warmth of the gym treadmills, but that still demands a bike ride through the darkened cold to get there, and a subsequent ride home. The comfort of my home beckons me to a state of consistent passivity, against my need to push back and remain strong. I could, of course, throw down the cancer card and hide under the covers until it all passes, but I know that’s just not going to happen, that the feelings of regret and defeat would far outweigh the benefits of warm skin, soft morning music, slow risings and ceaseless passivity. No….that’s not how it’s going to work.

Winter is coming…and it’s going to be yet another battle. Despite the conclusion of last year’s winter, I still came out on top. I still battled through and made it back into the sun with a shirtless run as a gesture of victory, and this winter is going to be no different, though my battles may be. I will be rallying against the continued accumulation of chemotherapy, the freakishly problematic side effects of cold sensitivity, the need to remain as strong and healthy as possible against the darkened mornings, and the general desire to curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee as companionship instead of the feelings of accomplishment that come with battling through adversity.

No…we’re going to make it through again, in some form or another. Because when winter comes and the cold cuts deep, there is only one thing to do. Run faster.

Cancer or Cold. I’m going to make it back into the sun again.

Another Start Line

My alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, but for some reason I was already awake, probably triggered by the anticipation of meeting a busy day with a run first thing. Of course, no matter how awake I was or how prepared I was to head to the gym for a run, the routine of excuse making began a dialogue in my head.

“It’s going to be a busy day…you don’t HAVE to run.”

“That pain in your leg is probably still there, maybe you should wait another day.”

“Rest is good for you…it’s probably better that you sleep in.”

But this time I managed to muster my own responses.

“Yeah…but I haven’t run in three days. I know it will feel good.”

“Yeah…but I’m sure my leg will be fine and it won’t keep me from actually running.”

“Yeah…but…but I actually am hedging my bets that activity is probably better for me right now than rest.”

And finally, the one that got me out of bed.

“Look, you’ve been given the privilege to start the marathon tomorrow..and the people that gave you that privilege did so because how you’re handling this whole experience…not just because you got cancer…and if all those people can make the sacrifices to get up and run tomorrow, then the least you can do is get up and run today.”

And just like that I was out of bed, going through my morning routines and heading to the gym for a run, inspired by the countless friends and runners taking part in the Monumental Marathon Saturday morning. I got to the gym, made it to the treadmill and, wouldn’t you know it, the run felt effortless. I decided to arbitrarily put in 5 miles and was instantly cruising, my lungs expanding and contracting without strain, my legs feeling relaxed and strong….but then…my feet. Just halfway in and I started to feel the familiar pain and abrasiveness to the soles of my feet. And it got worse each half mile. This was after a full 3 days of rest, which tells me the side effects are still lingering pretty heavy in my hands and feet. Still, I knocked out each mile with ease throughout the rest of my body and finished the full five miles, invigorated by the effort. However, I was still left hobbling a bit, unable to favor one foot or the other as they both hurt equally. The frustration of the awareness that these side effects are starting to really inhibit my ability to run consistently and so stay as strong as possible dug itself deep within me for the day, constantly reminded with the weight I put into each step.

Still, it felt good to put in that effort, to in some way share the running experience with everyone coming into town, who will hear my words just before I signal the start of the race.

That afternoon I attended the expo to listen to a presentation and see teammates and friends. What I didn’t expect was the near continuous meetings with friends and acquaintances that I’ve known from the running community or through social media. Many recognized me and had read the welcome letter that was sent out to all race participants last week and the attention took a little getting used to, but I was grateful and humbled by all the thanks and encouragement I was given. Through it all though, it just felt good to be in that environment, surrounded by the organization booths, hearing about everyone’s progress, watching all the nervous tension and building excitement. I only wished I could have experienced those feelings myself. Instead, I was left talking about my cancer and problems with treatments, unable to offer a story of survivorship, to deliver the hard truths about chemo complications and the final questions that remain hanging above me. It’s somewhat awkward getting so much attention spawned by a disease I had no part in actively creating, which I understand the attention is actually about how I’m handling the experience, but it’s harder for me to separate the two. I don’t WANT to be the guy with cancer. Hell…I don’t even want to be the guy who NO LONGER has cancer. I want to be the guy running for a PR again.

I left the expo after what seemed like non-stop conversations with friends and strangers alike, suddenly left alone as I walked to my car….except not alone, still with my fucking cancer again. And somehow that realization made me feel even MORE alone.

Last week I ran into a friend at a coffee shop, who informed me that he was diagnosed with ALS 2 years ago and has been given an ESTIMATED life expectancy of 2 1/2 years. I was stunned. He admitted he doesn’t tell a lot of people about it unless it’s necessary, but we then went on to have the type of conversation individuals facing down our mortality tend to have. It was a comforting conversation, even if that sounds weird, and one thing he said has stuck with me since.

“Other people just can’t understand. I mean, they can get it, and they can think about what it’s like, but until you’re ACTUALLY facing it down, they just don’t understand what we have to deal with.”

And it’s true. There is so much to this experience that goes untold, which is a big reason why I try to be so candid and descriptive through my writings, to share the good and the bad, to detail the story so others aren’t so blindsided should they find themselves facing a similar situation. And yet, I still can’t possibly explain all the emotional intensity of this experience, again, both the good AND the bad. And maybe I’m cursed by honesty, but lately it seems like a greater deal of this experience has been bad…to potentially worse.

Which is, in part, why I’m so grateful to be a part of the marathon that will begin tomorrow morning, to be included in the build up, to attend the expo and at least be in the vicinity of the excitement, and to even directly start the race. Because things are rough right now and I often feel alone, if not in company, then at least in facing my own circumstance…and that’s something I’m unable to shake. But sometimes I get a reprieve, like when I’m talking to my teammates about their hopes for the race or their problems with training or…well….ANYTHING that isn’t cancer. Anything that isn’t an ultimate consideration of if I’m going to be alive to see this race again in a year, 2 years, or 10.

So maybe the people that allowed me to be the Honorary Starter tomorrow just felt compelled to offer a nice gesture to me, or felt sorry for me (I trust that isn’t the case), or just felt I would be a good addition to the festivities….I don’t know, but for me, the whole experience holds a much greater meaning and I’m deeply grateful to a part of it all. So although I’ve said it many times in the past, it will never be enough, but thank you. Thank you to all my friends and NEWER friends who compel me to keep to my previous life as much as possible, to take me away from the considerations of cancer, and allow me to focus on what makes my life worth living. Every small gesture is actually quite large.

So although I often find myself alone these days, it will be a great reminder that I’m certainly not when I see you all at the start line tomorrow. Thanks for sticking with me through this…I’ll see you at the finish.