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Dave Craig of GRYT Health: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Authenticity — our relationship with ourselves is the most important thing to start with. What matters to us and learning what we want is the place we have to start so we can figure out how we want to face perhaps the hardest thing we ever faced in the world.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Craig.

Dave Craig is a two-time cancer survivor, oncology researcher and patient experience champion. After 10 years of struggling to see his own cancer journey in the patient experience research he led for the pharmaceutical industry, he left to use his survivor heart and researcher brain to help other patients. In 2016, he co-founded GRYT (“grit”) Health, a digital oncology solutions company that empowers people to be in charge of their own health through education, engagement, and support, and has served as the chief executive officer since its inception. At GRYT Health, he and his team of fellow survivors and caregivers, use their expertise and personal experiences to support the industry and create new and innovative ways to help others navigate their journey.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

I was raised in a suburban town in Upstate New York with my parents and brother. My strongest memory from growing up is my dad’s motto, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible just takes a little longer.” And so that was my framing for childhood — that nothing was out of reach, rather if it was seemingly too impossible, we had to set longer-term objectives to achieve it. My entrance to the world was to dream as big and to be prepared for however long it might take to bring my dreams to life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ll stick with that quote I just shared — “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible just takes a little longer.” How it is relevant to my life has evolved profoundly over time. Growing up, I thought that quote was about achievements and accomplishments. To me, doing things like winning the New York State Natural Bodybuilding title, which I did October 20, 2001, was living that quote.

As cancer became part of my life and the work that I do now, my understanding of the meaning of that quote has shifted dramatically. What I’m learning from doing this work for decades, is “The difficult we do individually. The impossible we do together.”

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

I was diagnosed with cancer a couple months after winning a New York State Natural Bodybuilding title. In top athletic form and in my senior year of college, cancer was the farthest thing from my mind. But, I realized that something didn’t feel right and went to the school health office. They got a CAT scan and diagnosed me with testicular cancer right there in the office.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

The scariest thing for me was how it was going to affect the people who loved me. Seeing the reactions on my mom, dad, and brother’s faces was the hardest thing I had to experience in my 20 years of life at that point. Because of my mentality about life, I didn’t allow myself to consider what it was going to do to me. I was so focused on first beating it, and then ignoring it, that I wasn’t prepared to handle all the ways it was going to impact my life.

How did you react in the short term?

I was in complete denial. I gained 50 pounds of fat and didn’t even notice it until my belt buckle was cutting into my skin on my stomach, and I didn’t even know why. I was in that much denial.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

I forget where I originally read the expression, “life keeps teaching until we’re ready to learn.” I didn’t learn anything from my first diagnosis — I ignored everything for five years going through it. I had a second, different cancer diagnosis at 30, and I tried to handle it the same way — in denial. It was far too overwhelming with the loss of fertility, the loss of hormones, and cancer treatment-related side effects. It was more disruption to my whole life than I had strategies to cope with. It took me years until I was even ready to begin contemplating what I could do to change those things.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I come from a family that has had generational trauma. This caused us to minimize our pain and not burden others. I would like to thank the first mental health therapist that I was able to work with because she helped me learn how to start having open honest conversations with my family. She taught me ways to cope and lean into situations, which has strengthened the relationships with my family because we are now able to support each other more openly instead of hiding things out of shame or not wanting to be a burden.

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

That is a big question. I’ve been a researcher my entire life and a patient experience researcher for a decade. What I’ve learned about the word “experience” is that the experience with cancer means that life has betrayed our expectations. To answer that question, I have to recognize that many of the things I thought up to the point of cancer, were impacted or interrupted. Living the experience of getting cancer and surviving has been about how I redefine life on my terms, to choose what it means to me, and acknowledge that I no longer see the world in the way that I used to.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

I think regardless of the type of cancer or experience, when it enters our lives, cancer forces us out of control. A doctor is the expert in treating us and everybody else has recommendations or things from their experience, but the common theme for the individual going through cancer is a loss of control. You’re now facing something bigger than you, that you never expected to face. For me, recognizing that what I want and what I’m learning about myself is the only right answer, is my only way of making sense of that. It wasn’t about my degrees, or my life goals, or what I thought I should portray myself as, or any of these constructs I was born into. It’s now about acknowledging that the experience of going through cancer gives you new power to create your life free of those guardrails.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

Five years ago, I started GRYT Health with my three co-founders: Kenny Kane, Dr. Brad Love and Shelley Nolden, as a way to help other people who are earlier on their cancer journeys than we are. We have all gone through the patient or caregiver journey, so it was about us helping the people we used to be when we didn’t have that help ourselves. Today, that still rings true for our staff, as 80% of our employees are also survivors or caregivers.

My girlfriend, who I met through this work and who is also a young adult cancer survivor, was diagnosed with widespread metastatic melanoma last Friday, and I am in a place that I have never been in before. What I tried to do to give back to the world five years ago, I find myself at the start of right now. I’m grateful that the transition from tackling things individually to doing it together, that I was a part of co-creating, I am now a part of living.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

The only real thing about facing cancer are moments like this where we acknowledge how painful and how hard it is. The system is engineered to look like it knows what to do. That is not the reality. Cancer is sitting in the scared and uncertainty and figuring out how you are going to go forward in it. I would tell anybody not to feel like a system knows the answer, or that you have to do what any system tells you. Whatever you, in that moment with the people around you who love you, feel is right, that’s the system you want to be a part of.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

I can do it in three things, not five! I say three things because we have three core values at GRYT Health that have gotten us through this intensity both individually and organizationally. They are: authenticity, relentlessness and together.

  1. Authenticity — our relationship with ourselves is the most important thing to start with. What matters to us and learning what we want is the place we have to start so we can figure out how we want to face perhaps the hardest thing we ever faced in the world.
  2. Relentlessness — this is my dad’s quote. This isn’t something that is going to be solved today or tomorrow, and in many cases, it is something we’re solving for the rest of our time on Earth. It’s about acknowledging and creating the life that you want. Whether that means one day or five decades, it’s about showing up present and intentionally to figure that out because we have that ability to recreate our lives after a cancer diagnosis.
  3. Together — we only hang out with people who build each other up and never tear each other down. Your experience and my experience and everybody’s experience is going to have similarities and profound differences. Things like our ethics, our sexuality, and identity — there is no right, there is only what is right for us. Getting to sit in places with people to understand what right is for them, is among one of the most intimate ways to live in this world.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I believe movement is the power of the individual voice. The individual voice is our humanity, it’s how we know that we matter and seeing someone find their voice is the most humbling thing I’ve ever been a part of. When I find moments to give voice to things inside of me that were too scary to face, it’s taking power back from that which I felt powerless over.

It is this idea of empowering cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, family and loved ones to find and use their voice in the face of a diagnosis that we are trying to achieve at GRYT Health through our Global Virtual Cancer Conference (GVCC). This conference, which is virtual and free, was created to meet cancer patients where they are regardless of geography, treatment status or finances. It addresses topics that are critical to improving cancer-related outcomes and experiences and focuses on empowering those impacted by cancer through connection, education, and advocacy.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

Brené Brown has taught me about vulnerability and as a man, that wasn’t something I was naturally equipped to do. So much of this relationship with myself comes from reading her work and watching her videos. If I could have a chance to spend a few minutes with her to understand how she overcame her own shame, like I’m trying to do, that would be the most meaningful.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would invite them to follow us at grythealth.com as a starting point and also check out our Global Virtual Cancer Conference.

I had to face in my 20’s that I would never be a biological father and that was one of the hardest things for me to overcome. At the time, I thought it meant I would never have a legacy. Now, every time someone shares a story or finds their voice, that is my legacy, and I would love for others to be a part of that.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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