Recently a group from Pittsburgh Fitness Project took on Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's (LLS) 'Race to Anyplace'. It's a cycling competition in which the PFP team, of course, won. Our very own client, Steven, has graciously allowed us to tell his very own client story about LLS. He shares his experiences and discusses why these types of events are so meaningful to him and so many others.
You see, no one ever thinks they'll get cancer.
I've always been a healthy guy. I come from a family of athletes, I was raised with a football in my hand. I grew up in the gym, played sports year-round as the seasons changed, and later educated myself on eating a clean, healthy diet.
I felt like I was one of the people 'doing it right.'
I was having a ton of pain in the Fall of 2014, which I naturally attributed to my college football days. It seemed like every day my neck was sore, my feet hurt, a joint creaked here or there. I still went to the gym, still ran, but damn it hurt. It wasn't enough for me to see a doctor, but I had an annual physical scheduled for January and I planned to ask him about it.
A week before my physical, on a bright, shiny New Years Day in South Florida, I set out for a run along the beach. About a mile in, my thighs started cramping and lighting up like I was finishing a set of 1000 box jumps. And why was I breathing so heavily?! It didn't make sense, but again, I explained it away as nothing more than a reminder of my New Year's Eve celebration. I was out of shape and hungover, what did I expect?
On physical day I was busy with work. I ran out of the office to my appointment. The doctor did the usual poking and prodding, but when he asked 'is there anything you'd like to talk about?', I simply said 'I'd like to know why I'm in so much pain all the time.'
This led to a quick exchange about habits, but he couldn't pin me down on anything. I exercised, I ate healthy, I had no allergies. He was convinced it was a reaction to something I was eating, some previously undiscovered allergy. He drew my blood, promised to run a battery of tests, and sent me on my way back to my office.
At around 7pm that night, I was tired and hangry, and was packing up to head home. My phone rang as I was grabbing for my office door and I briefly considered letting it go to voicemail. Instead, I picked up, aggravated, and my doctor launched right into his speech:
Doc: Steve, where are you right now?
Me: Just leaving my office
Doc: I need you to head to the Emergency Room
Me (hangry): Doc, I haven't eaten, I'm tired, I'm heading home
Doc: I understand...but this is not a joke. Your blood work came back and it's a pretty serious situation
Me (still hangry and now with an MD): I'm sure it's a mistake. I feel fine. I'm not going to the ER so I can sit for 3 hours and have them tell me I can go home.
Doc: I've already called the ER. They're expecting you. You will go to the front of the line.
Me: So what's the issue? I'm not going to the ER unless you tell me why I'm going.
Doc: Your white cell count is the highest I've ever seen. You could pass out at anytime, or worse, have a stroke or heart attack.
Me: Why does it do that? Could it be a mistake?
Doc: I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never seen a mistake. A white count that high is consistent with acute leukemia
And that's it. That's how you find out you have cancer. There's no breaking-in period, no chance to get ready, to acclimate. One minute you're healthy, in your prime. The next you are being told you could literally drop dead at any moment. Your life changes instantly and irrevocably, and without an instruction manual.
Now to make a long story less so, three years have passed and I'm healthy. I still have a measurable percentage of cancer cells in my blood, but they're not enough to cause me harm, as long as I medicate daily. For my disease, it's considered remission. I thought I'd share a few thoughts after 3 years in the trenches vs the big C:
- I was saved because of a class of drugs called Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs)...that bunch of bio-jargon means it stops my cancer from growing. I get to live a normal, healthy life, as long as I take my pills. My drug was approved for widespread use in 2009, that's how recent the science caught up. The story of how TKIs emerged is miraculous, it spans generations of researchers, countless failures, and it took nearly 50 years for the lab science to find its way to a viable drug. Organizations like LLS, and well-meaning volunteers and fundraisers like the cyclists of Race to Anyplace, make these things reality. Your dollars and time really do save lives, and if you ever doubted that, I've given you a real-life example. I'm 3 years past my diagnosis and it's very likely I would be making final preparations to die if not for the generosity of so many that have come before. I am forever grateful.
- Be healthy, and trust your body. Embrace a healthy lifestyle, and when something doesn't seem right, don't be stubborn, go get help. I was almost too macho to go to the doctor, and I almost died because of it.
- Live. Your phone call could come any day. It's as cliched as you can get, but when someone tells you you may die at any moment, it's the best motivator there is. I wish I could sell that feeling of urgency and clarity. We all walk around as if we have indefinite time, a long list of things we'll eventually get around to doing. Don't wait, whatever it is you aspire to do, get after it today.
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