They've asked me to make a speech today. The trouble is, I don't really know much of anything, so I'm not very good at making speeches or delivering lectures or preaching sermons or anything like that. Mostly, I'm just a story teller. They want me to talk to you about losing weight, licking cancer, and living strong, and it just so happens I know a couple of stories about those things. I tell you three, then maybe I'll shut up and you can tell me some of yours.
|My sister Beth and Me|
Eating was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about the grief and the rage that battered me like a hurricane, but I could control what went into my mouth. The more I ate, the more in control I felt. Being sad made me eat. Eating made me fatter. Getting fatter made me sad. And that's how addiction fuels itself.
|60 inch jeans, XXXL shirt.|
Now, here's my second story.
|So, that's what cancer looks like...|
Well, it turned out that it was cancer. Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a very particular kind of skin cancer that affects the inner linings of your body. It had started under my tonsil and grown into a 6 centimeter tumor. It had metastasized into the surrounding muscle and the lymph nodes in my neck. They removed 9 nodes, a portion of my neck muscle, my jugular vein, and several nerves; but they never found clean margins. The surgeon cut out everything he could find, but he was sure he hadn't found it all. I was going to need radiation. I was going to need chemo. It was going to be really, really bad. And then the surgeon told me these words that changed me forever.
"I've been treating people with cancer for almost 20 years. Some of they live, too many of them die. They have good attitudes and bad ones. They get angry or spiritual or serene or generous. They travel the world or they go home and call people on the phone to tell them they love them. No matter what their attitude, some live and some die. But the ones who give up... they all die."
"Your cancer has a 50% survival rate. You only have one chance, and that is to fight for your life."
But wait. I was the fat boy, remember? The unhappy kid? The depressed man? My life was miserable. Why would I want to pass up a chance for it to finally be over? It should have been the easiest question in the world, but it took me days to answer it. "Why do I want to live?"
|The Hill in my dream|
It came slowly. There were days when I couldn't make it from my bed to the bathroom. On my 50th birthday, my mom had to help me to the toilet so I could wretch with all my might, as if I could somehow choke up the cancer along with the sick that the chemo was forcing out of me. There were days when the burns on my neck looked like charcoal, and the blisters in my throat felt like glass shards when I tried to sip water. I spent my mornings bolted to a table while they shot me through with radiation or strapped to a chair while they filled my veins with chemicals so toxic that the nurses had to wear haz mat suits to handle them. But through the Percocet induced haze, when I closed my eyes, I could look down and see those country roads as I flew past. I was going to beat this thing. I was going to run.
The first time I tried to climb the steps, I had to sit down on the third one and call for my wife to come help me back to bed. But I remembered what the doctor had said. The ones who quit, they all die. I refused to quit. I walked to the door and back. Next day, to the porch and back. Then the sidewalk. The corner. Around the corner. Around the block. Weeks went by and finally I was strong enough to try to jog a few steps. Jog two strides, then walk a minute. Jog 10 seconds, and walk two minutes. Never give up. Never quit. The day I jogged a mile for the first time, I felt as if I had just won the Boston Marathon.
I knew that day that I was no longer just a survivor.
I was a victor.
I hadn't just beaten cancer. I had kicked its ass. And I had become a runner.
My third story is about Living Strong.
Now during the six months from the day of my diagnosis until my first clean scan, I lost about 90 pounds, most of it muscle. I could walk. I could jog a mile, but I was still weak as a kitten. I was determined to keep losing weight. I called it "cancer's silver lining." I kept walking. I ate more and more whole foods, fewer and fewer baked goods. I stopped eating french fries and burgers. No more chips and cookies. I found that my treatment had changed the way a lot of things tasted to me. Cake was like chewing rags. Tomatoes, a food I had never really liked before, suddenly tasted like an explosion of summer air. I learned to love foods that looked like food, not just shapes in a bag or a box. I kept walking. I lifted weights. The pounds kept falling, but I wasn't really getting stronger. I needed more, but I didn't know what.
When I learned about a program called LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a three month, free membership. I could use the pool, the weight room, the cardio equipment. I thought it sounded like a sweet deal. I had no idea how sweet.
|The original Eight and our coaches|
And three amazing women: Carrie, Chelsea, and Melissa, our trainers helped to turn us into warriors. When they looked at me, they didn't see a fat, sad boy. they didn't see an obese, depressed man. They saw - of all the crazy things in the world - they looked at me and saw a Marathoner. The first time they said it, I thought they were nuts. I thought so when they made me run twice as much as my classmates. I thought so when I was lifting weights and jumping and lunging across the basketball court. I thought they were nuts right up until the May morning in 2012 when I finished the Pittsburgh Marathon in 6:21. And I raised $3600 for the LIVESTRONG at the YCMA program. This May, I finished the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, cutting my time by almost 40 minutes. And I raised $7411 to help our program to thrive. And I did it because of my brothers and sisters in LIVESTRONG.
For Becky: in a nursing home this morning, her doctors are waiting for her to get sick enough to die, but she hasn't got the time. She's laughing, visiting with friends, joking, remembering fun days together. When Death comes for Becky, he isn't going to find her waiting. He's going to have to go catch her.
For all of them. For John and Mary who supported one another through each of their cancers. For Emma whose greatest fear used to be stepping off of a curb. For Pam who beat stage 4 lung cancer and for Frank who never quit until he could finally bench press a 10 pound bar.
They will never quit. They are not "survivors." They are champions.
They know what we all know.
The cancer can always come back. The cancer can always kill us... but it can never defeat us. Not if we live strong.
And those are my stories.
|Never give up.|
The ones who give up all die.
Never give up.
Never stop fighting for your life.
Never stop living strong.