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Apr 22 2011

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Post-Cancer Perspectives and Triumphs





If you saw me in my bathing suit, you’d probably notice that my body bends like one of those rain forest trees straining at an angle to grab the sun’s rays.

But I don’t care.

It wouldn’t be healthy if I was jealously gazing at all the straight-looking bodies (yeah, people like you). 

Longing for what we don’t have is a sure-fire path to misery.  If we compare ourselves to those who have more money, we won’t feel financially healthy.  By comparing ourselves with those we deem physically stunning, we threaten the health of our self-esteem.  And if we lament about our physical health by looking at where we could be– or think we should be–we’re also going to find ourselves dissatisfied.

Much of our satisfaction is derived, based on the benchmarks we set.  Sure, I was shocked when I was diagnosed with bone cancer a year and a half ago, but I was also lucky.  I remember thinking about all the great things I had: 38 years of health, a fabulous wife, a family that cared for me.  I had already succeeded in living a full, love-filled life.

Thirty eight years wouldn’t constitute a full life, if I were comparing myself to a centurion who could drink me under the table with a homemade brew, and spank me silly in a basket weaving contest.  But getting cancer at 38, comparatively, was nothing to complain about—not when I really look around.

Who was I to complain about getting cancer when five year old kids can get it?  Who was I to complain when entire families in South East Asia (and in Japan, more recently) were wiped out by Tsunamis?  Who was I to complain when young mothers and fathers get cancer, leaving their children as orphans?  What right did I have to feel that life had done me an injustice?

My Crazy Year

I didn’t have any physical symptoms before getting diagnosed with bone cancer.  Chondrosarcoma doesn’t affect a person’s level of energy until it’s widespread, so it can nastily creep up on a person, like so many other cancers can.  A few months before my diagnosis, I had won the 2009 JP Morgan Corporate Challenge in Singapore,  a running race with 11,000 people.  On the outside, I epitomized a healthy 38 year old.




Seven months later, however, surgeons were cutting out part of my spinal process, as well as three partial ribs (where they attached to my spine). 

The Second Scare

Not long after getting back on my feet, I went for my first post-surgery scan.  That’s when they told me that the cancer was back, and that it was rampant.  I figured I was a goner, and my wife and I talked about where I was going to spend my last bedridden days, watching (yeah, I’ll admit it) episodes of Ghost Whisperer, old Rocky movies, and the original Highlander flick, while suppressing the existence of the god-awful sequels that followed Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert’s original masterpiece. 

Surgery would have been crazy, so I didn’t consider it.

Then the doctors told me that they might have been wrong—that they might have been looking at scar tissue on the scan, instead of a reoccurrence of cancer.  It took a while to confirm this.  Second and third opinions couldn’t rule out the reoccurring cancer, so there were a few unsettling months before a second scan revealed “no change” and then a third scan revealed a regression.  Naturally, I was relieved to find that the cancer hadn’t returned.

Bringing on those old Rocky movies

When the surgeons extracted my ribs from my spine, they initially planned to implant a mesh/gortex/titanium piece to attach the spine to the floating ribs.  It would have been the size of my hand.  But they decided to cut some of my back muscles, and wrap them over the hole, vacated by my ribs.

If I took my shirt off, and you looked at me, from the front, you’d notice some funny things.  First, you’d see that I’m like a bicycle wheel that has been stripped of some spokes, as I bend to the left.  There’s also limited control over most of the core muscles on the left side of my stomach.  Because I’m lean, I have a 3-pack on one side, while the other side of my stomach is smooth and perpetually relaxed.

It’s also strange what I can and cannot do.  Give me a really challenging core exercise, utilizing  mostly my lower abdominals, and I’ll be able to do it easily.  But I can’t do a sit-up.  At least, I couldn’t do sit-ups until recently.  I’ve worked hard at it, and if I cheat a little, I can do about ten.

Knowing that my back’s strength is essential (considering the bone extractions)  I’ve worked hard enough to make Rocky Balboa  proud. 

JP Morgan, 2011

 

 But I suppose that one of my happiest confirmations came last night, while toeing the start line with 13,232 other runners, at Singapore’s 2011 JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, the race that I had won, two years before.

My goal was pretty ambitious.  I wanted to finish in the top 5.

What affects do I feel from my surgery?

When I breath (which is all the time!) I feel a compression on the left side of my chest, as if someone’s squeezing it.  When I run slowly, I feel it even more.  But here’s the strange part:  when I pick up the pace from a slow jog, and start running faster, the compression doesn’t feel any worse.  So why not run hard, and try to crack the top 5 at the JP Morgan race?

I’m turning 41 next week, so I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for this sort of thing, but I still wanted to give it a crack. 

I knew that I had trained well, and (while on the start line) after identifying a German gentleman who had recently run a marathon in 2 hours, 39 minutes, I knew that I had found an experienced pacer to run with.

Since my surgery, I’ve had troubles with pacing, while running.  Call it a delusion of grandeur.  Thinking I’m fast, I often take off “conservatively”–before gasping and choking on a mouth full of humble pie and lactic acid.  Smart people are supposed to learn from their mistakes. 

My goal was to trail the German fellow for the first kilometre, and then make a decision.  If he was going too fast, I was going to let him go, and drop back.  After all, I certainly can’t run a marathon in 2 hours, 39 minutes.

After the first kilometre, I was exactly where I wanted to be—on the tail of the German gent, and loping along in about 20th position.

Here’s the funny thing about running.  Studies show that the most efficient way to run from point A to point B is to run at exactly the same pace.  If you can pull that off, from start to finish, you’ll be streaming past other runners in the second half of your race.  This holds true for just about any distance event.  And for the person running evenly, they experience the illusion of going faster and faster, as they dole spoonfuls of humility into the oxygen-deprived mouths of those who (at that point) are probably wishing they had stayed home to watch TV.

I had definitely chosen a smart man to trail.  My biggest concern, though, was whether I could hang on to his pace.

Singapore’s Heat

People from colder climates can’t look at Singapore-based running times and suggest that they’re slow, unless they’re used to running in a sauna with a Japanese airport-edition medical mask.  Every day, it’s 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity runs close to 100%.  And I could tell that my German friend, despite being a faster runner than me, was starting to wilt in the heat.

After 2.5 kilometres (of the 5.6 kilometre race) I ran past him, but he didn’t give me more than a three-stride lead, before passing me again. 

But what did it matter?  We were still in 15th and 16th place at the halfway point, and I was a long way from my top 5 goal.

A pack of runners was cruising along about 20 seconds ahead of us, and I decided to pass the German—more assertively this time–and head for the group ahead.

Bridging a gap like this can drain your energy.  But we had a slight headwind, so I was hoping to catch them quickly, and then tuck into their slipstream for an easier ride.

However, they were also feeling the effects of the heat, so instead of catching them and then tucking myself behind, I ran straight past.

And I continued to pass others as I reached the final mile.

Just two runners were ahead of me with a mile to go.  I was running in third place.

The frontrunners were cruising along at roughly the same pace I ran the race at, two years before—so they were out of my league.

But it didn’t matter.  I crossed the finish line in 3rd place.

Perspective

I could have been dissatisfied with that, if I had looked at the two runners who beat me, and not at the 13,230 behind.

Dissatisfaction, I think, comes from looking at what you don’t have, and satisfaction comes from embracing what you do have. Sometimes, that can be a challenge. I realize that. 

But happiness doesn’t come from what you can accomplish, nor does it come from what you have.  I think it comes from looking at life through the most positive lens you can find.

At least those bent trees are still reaching for the sun.

Live well, my friends. 

 

 

 





About the author

andrew hallam

I'm a freelance finance writer, lucky enough to have been nominated as a finalist for two Canadian National Publishing Awards. I'm also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School, a book explaining how I became a millionaire on a teacher's salary, while still in my 30s. Working to empower people financially, I'm available to motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and index investing. I'm happy to comment on your questions, first, please read the Terms of Use.

Permanent link to this article: http://andrewhallam.com/2011/04/post-cancer-perspectives-and-triumphs/

38 comments

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  1. avatar
    Jean

    There's little more to say, Andrew, than what an inspiration you are. What an impressive accomplishment given your relatively recent circumstances (and challenges). Thanks for sharing your story and perspective on your blog, and may you continue to live well and provide insight to others.

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Thanks Jean,

      I think we can all provide encouragement and insight for each other. Thanks for being a source for me as well!

  2. avatar
    Annika

    Amazing write! I almost lost it several times… but at the end my eyes were really tearing up. You are so inspirational… I love that you are grateful and not spiteful for what has happened in your life.

    I'm so proud of your race! you are seriously amazing… I'm so proud to call you a friend.

    Keep it up! You are really inspiring so many people you have NO idea!

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Annika,

      Thank YOU for always checking in on me last year while I was recovering. That's the kind of thing a person never forgets!

  3. avatar
    Keith

    Awesome Andrew – thank you so much for sharing your story. Truly inspirational!

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Thanks Keith!

      And let me know when we can run to work together!

  4. avatar
    Ravi Gupta

    Great article! Very inpsiring. I can't wait to go home and start running again (stuck in the cold here in Iowa). You've given me a new topic to right about. I'm a big money man who has written about having more fun but have done nothing to accomplish that. Your article has given me a push and today I have a goal of having some fun.

    Thank you.

    -Ravi gupta

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Cheers Ravi!

      And I look forward to reading your next story!

  5. avatar
    Chris Strubbe

    AMEN Andrew! What a great story to wake up to on this Good Friday heading into Easter weekend! I'm inspired- Chris the Truck Driver

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Thanks Chris!

      It was more fun to write, as well, than my typical money post. I'm glad you liked it. Have a great weekend!

  6. avatar
    Jessie Kerr

    Hello Andrew, I am Lisa Cooke's mum and good friends with Simon and Erin. I am amazed by your story. Yes, in my life I have faced great challenges, and attitude has helped me to overcome them. Thank you for writing this piece. It is inspirational on all levels…All the best to you, Jessie

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Thanks Jessie!

      The Buddhists say that life is suffering, right? That's one way to look at it, I suppose. And while it's partly true, there are silver linings in the darkest corners too. I think we met once before, in 1996. Do you remember?

  7. avatar
    The Dividend Ninja

    Andrew as someone who used to run and cycle all the time, your article is truly inspiring :) Though I have been blessed with good health, your 3rd place win is above and beyond 1st place in anyone's eyes.

    You have obviously overcome a lot this year, but you are obviously an inspiration to both your students and readers!

    Cheers

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Thanks Ninja!

      Do you still run and cycle sometimes? I used to do a lot of cycling, but I can't risk falling now, so I'm careful about where I ride. How about you? Still riding and running a little bit?

  8. avatar
    Bri

    Wow, what a great read! You are such a stud! This inspired me beyond words. With my first sprint triathlon tomorrow, I will be thinking about you the whole time. Much love to you my friend!

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      Good luck on that triathlon Bri!! Enjoy it…then dig deeply on the second half of that run.

      I love telling the story about how I met you and Dan.

      Dan was cycling, and we were sleeping in a van (Provo, Utah, right?) on a dead-end road because we were too cheap to pay for a campsite. Honestly, we really were getting ready to go to bed, and Dan said, "You have to stay at my place." He knocked on the van to tell us this. Then he cycled to a payphone to call you, and see if it was OK. But by then, we were on our way. I'll always remember your hospitality, and I can't wait until we can meet again!

      Let me know how the triathlon pans out!

  9. avatar
    Shelly Donahue

    Well said friend! You are a blessing and a joy to so many. We are grateful the past 2 years are PAST!

  10. avatar
    Andrew Hallam

    Thanks Shelly,

    Those times were tough, for sure.

    I distinctly remember wishing that you were my nurse when I was in that hospital. Do you remember the stories I came back with? That one about the nurse not putting the bucket under the wheelchair/toilet commode was classic!

    And here's the classic nurse quote I will never forget:

    "Hospital have no more blanket"

  11. avatar
    The Passive Income E

    Outstanding Achievement! Congratulations Andrew. It's very inspiring and so true that we need to look at what we accomplish rather than focus on what you haven't accomplished.

  12. avatar
    Joe

    Congrats Andrew! You are the man (but I still beat you in the paper airplane contest out your window) :-)

  13. avatar
    Myke@In Search of Sa

    A double meaning:

    Congratulations on your Victory!!!!

  14. avatar
    Matt & Vicki

    What's left to say that hasn't already been…? "Inspire" just begins to describe how significant and appreciated you (and Pele!) are in the Rameker-Rogers kampung.

  15. avatar
    DIY Investor

    Incredible story. It will get a lot of people realizing that our day to day worries are miniscule and that there are many facing real challenges. You are a true inspiration for those seeking to beat those challenges!

    Embracing "what you have" is great advice.

  16. avatar
    Mike Holman

    Amazing story – kind of like Terry Fox, but with a happy ending.

    I can't believe you would want to watch your last days watching Ghost Whisperer! Ok, I admit that I watch it too – but it's a bit lame. :)

    1. avatar
      Financial Uproar

      I've been known to watch a few minutes of Ghost Whisperer, but mostly because of Jennifer Love Hewitt. She is quite lovely.

      A story like this really helps put things in perspective. Andrew, you truly are a remarkable guy.

  17. avatar
    Think Dividends

    Thanks for putting things into perspective Andrew!

  18. avatar
    My Own Advisor

    WOW. Really. What else is there to say?

    All my best to you for future health and happiness Andrew.

    Most importantly, continue to keep that positive lens of yours wide open :)

    Mark

  19. avatar
    larry macdonald

    Andrew:

    Truly amazing for you to finish the race so well after what you have been through. Congratulations. For your second book, how about a biography? It's sure to be a bestseller.

  20. avatar
    Bill Boutilier

    Hey Andrew,

    In the past I would tell you stories about the old timers in the Sayward Valley and about the the haywire guys I worked with. Now my stories are about the amazing friend I have in Singapore. I know that I will have many more to tell in the future!! We love you, Bill and Roma

  21. avatar
    patsymckenzie@hotmai

    Thank you for sharing. You have been through so much and are so inspiring. Pretty amazing. All the best to you, thanks, Pat

  22. avatar
    Invest It Wisely

    I haven't had to go through what you've been through, Andrew, but my mother smoked and drank during her pregnancy, and my whole body is basically a little off kilter, with one leg a bit longer than the other and things like that. When I had a knife massage in Taiwan, the guy was asking me if I had fallen down on my side!

    Random shit happens to all of us that we had absolutely no control over, and sometimes it's bad shit. Nonetheless it won't make my life any better if I spend my energy thinking about that. Gotta be thankful for what we do have, even if our own minds sometimes work against us.

    You're a great inspiration to me, Andrew, and don't ever stop sharing your story. I can't wait to read the book. :)

  23. avatar
    christian

    I just went to my counselor to switch into your class next semester. After your lecture today and reading this, I can't wait.

    1. avatar
      Andrew Hallam

      I'm glad that you liked my talk today Christian. And I'm absolutely thrilled that you'll be in my class next semester! You're welcome to comment or ask questions on this blog at anytime. I have a group of smart readers who can help with your questions as well!

  24. avatar
    Andrew Gillott

    Hey Mr. Hallam long time no talk!

    Some idle time on Google brought me here and, while I'm shocked that you went through what you did, I'm not the least bit surprised that you bounced back from it so well. Send me an email sometime as it'd be great to catch up with you.

    Your old cycling pupil,

    Andrew Gillott

    andrew.gillott [at] gmal.com

  25. avatar
    Trisha and Bruce

    Wow Andrew! What an amazing story! Congratulations on your fabulous run. We would love to see you when you are next in Victoria.

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