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.
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.
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.