Be Your Own Superhero

The road to the top of the hill was a 9km windy, rocky and dusty journey that took two hours to trek. The Dominican jungle was alive with bustling markets and the echoes of monkey chatter. At the top of the hill was a tourist attraction known as The Monkey Jungle. Every Saturday a clinic is open for the locals to get checked for illness, most commonly STI’s. This is where you’d find Manny during the summer of 2014. Manuel Alejandro Cabrera Bermudez was 20 years old when he volunteered his time on a three-month contract to work. Three months quickly turned into five weeks when Manny could no longer walk up stairs without feeling dizzy, his sweating was uncontrollable and severe dry skin made his knuckles bleed.

Manny’s childhood was busy. He was always active with sports and his parents were always moving around. In high school Manny moved from North York to Danforth to Scarborough to Aurora, the surrounding areas of Toronto. These communities were not safe. They moved around so much because his parents were trying to find a nicer place for the kids to grow up in but after they divorced neither of them had any money. Manny never seemed to fit in because of his darker skin. His Venezuelan background set him apart from the white majority and got him into trouble. Manny has soft brown eyes, rich black coarse hair and is built like a track star. “To escape boredom, I would ride my bike. I would ride it for hours and hours until I was physically exhausted. I remember I used to take the seat off my bike so that I would stay up right the whole time, it would help me pedal faster because the slower I went the longer it would take to get back home.” Thornhill was his new home and it was a nicer community than what he was used to. “Thornhill was boring, and I was used to getting into trouble, so when I was bored I would ride my bike, it kept me out of trouble.” High school made Manny independent and strong willed. He was dedicated to rugby, dragon boating and rock climbing (being the captain of all three) and on his time off you could find him working out in the gym. Manny walked through the halls with the older crowd because his maturity came sooner than most. Once his older friends graduated he was left alone, Manny says, “it was a tough experience but it made for a tough me.”

After 5 weeks in the Dominican the dizziness, sweating and dry skin was worsening for Manny. All at once these symptoms took over his body and forced him to leave early. A flight was booked and Manny was in Thunder Bay for 1 day before being rushed to the hospital. The waiting room was docile and time felt like it was in reverse. After showing desperation Manny was finally admitted into the hospital. After taking a few blood tests three nurses rushed into the room with panic, attached 3 bags of IVs to his arms and felt that Manny was ice cold. That night the hospital was in gridlock and so his “isolation” room was a curtain swung around a single bed. The pastel beige walls were decorated with wooden framed photos of cottage scenery. The walls were blurry and the pictures were crooked in Manny’s blurred rolled back eyesight. Nurses were prepped head to toe when entering and exiting the curtain and Manny couldn’t leave the bed. The doctor finally had something to say, “according to your symptoms it is possible that you could have HIV, a blood infection, or cancer.” HIV was ruled out quickly, the blood culture test came back negative, and so the last test was a biopsy. The doctors took two different lymph nodes to test for cancer, it came back positive.

When Manny talked about this with me he didn’t show any emotional blues, if anything he talked about it with pride and strength. If I were to describe Manny in one word it would be strong.

The doctor gave Manny his cancer news and predicted that he had been full of Hogkins Lymphoma Nodular Sclerosis Type B Stage 3 for 1–2 years already. The symptoms were weight loss, itchy skin and lots of sweating; sounding like normal everyday occurrences. Before summer began Manny weighed 190 pounds, when he was admitted to the hospital the scale showed 142 pounds. During his time at the hospital Manny was trained, as if he were a little puppy, to pee in a bottle. If he tried to move from his bed to use the toilet he’d collapse. The nurse who trained him was the only good looking one he had during his eight days spent there. “I didn’t know whether or not to fully whip it out, the hot nurse saw I was having difficulty so she grabbed my penis but not quite in the way I wanted her too.”

That’s the thing with Manuel, he could be given the worst news in the world but will always take the good from it.

After eight days Manny was released from the hospital, he had blood transfusions done in order to increase red and white blood cells. Not the last step but definitely on the road to recovery. After his release Manny was surrounded by the Lakehead rugby team every step of the way. August 1st was the day he let out which means the rugby season was about to begin. He craved to play for the team with every cell in his body. He wanted to repay them for how supportive they were of his recovery. Rugby started in September; he was able to play half a home game.

The next step of recovery was chemotherapy. The first stage was a medium level given once a week for the length of twelve weeks in total. Manny told me in a voice softer than usual “during chemo I decided to pause my education and drop out of school because I didn’t know how my body was going to take it.” I think this is a part of his journey he might have resentment towards. He didn’t know his own strength. Effects of chemo included insomnia and stomach pain. He would pass time working on puzzles and playing video games all night.

Manuel took his cancer as an opportunity to help others. He was inspired to test the limits of physical activity with the effects of chemotherapy. The school denied him to do any type of testing on his body and so he took matters into his own hands. He organized the chemo to be exact to the hour everyday, 5 o’clock. Manny started hitting the gym, working out and working out and working out. “I remember the first time I tried to run, I paced myself at level seven but almost passed out at 3 minutes and 44 seconds. I weighed myself every day, kept a strict diet and worked out periodically.” He started to gain weight back. He decided to experiment by skipping exercise on one Friday and noticed that the next 2–3 days after he felt exhausted, ill, depressed, his heart was pumping in slow motion and struggling to beat. “Putting myself in a deeper hole of pain helped me jump out of the dark hole even faster.”

The cancer came back mid summer of 2015. He wanted to stay in Thunder Bay because he wanted to fight his own battles, he knew the possibility of gaining an eternal strength inside of him, he wanted to feel pain because it would’ve helped for him for the future when feeling pain wouldn’t hurt so bad. Round two of chemo would include radiation. The effects hurt him a little less this time. A different side effect was shown, people believe when they are on chemo they become unattractive. Manny looked to intimate relationships because it made him happy to have someone beside him that cared and thought he was attractive. A flash-forward to the end of December and Manny goes to Toronto for high intensity chemo. During his time here he received messages from other patients telling him he inspired them to keep moving forward, this was his goal all along. “There is always an opportunity to make yourself better one way or another.”

“Be your own superhero was a quote that I used to uplift other patients on my floor.” He was the youngest one there. Every day it was mandatory for the patients to do three laps, Manny requested for a stationary bike to be brought to his room. As the other patients passed by and saw Manny’s motivation it was inspiring them to exercise too. Manny exercised every day because it was the only thing that kept him happy. After Manny was released from being quarantined on the 7th floor of the hospital radiation began in February.

“Nobody understands how horrible it all is because there is so much censorship and distraction by statistics.” Manny wanted to show people the truth. He has never smoked a cigarette, drinking habits aren’t out of the ordinary, he wanted to show people it could happen to anyone even the healthiest of the crowd. Manny tried to make the process look easy on purpose because it would show others that a healthy life style can help get rid of cancer so imagine what it could do to them if they changed their lifestyle. This journey taught Manny to love himself; his focus came from helping others and motivating them. “My biggest fear wasn’t to die, because I wouldn’t allow that to happen. My biggest fear was reproduction.” This sparked my interest on how its changed today, I asked “What is your biggest fear now” “Before I was sick, I was cold hearted which I enjoyed because it made me block out pain and fear. I’ve learned a lot of things to better myself, but today unintentionally I’ve become softer, my heart has become softer to feelings and to people. It makes me feel weaker, I don’t want to be affected by stress because holding myself back as I used to was a way I dealt with stress.”

The road down the hill was a 2-year trek of bad news, fighting and conquering. In the middle of his heart deep in the pits of his stomach Manny overcame scary roadblocks. He managed to climb back up the hill to find that he is his own superhero.