Don’t be a ‘tough guy or gal”. This is a hard road to walk alone, and your family can only help you so much. They try to empathize, and we appreciate their efforts but at the end of the day, they can’t fathom what we’re going through. It makes a world of difference to engage in conversations with people who are in the midst of their own battle with cancer or have survived the disease and can impart their knowledge of how to get the most out of your treatment with the least amount of side effects.
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 Luis (Lou) Torres.
Luis (Lou) Torres is a former musician who “got a real job” to marry his wife but has since returned to writing and recording his own music. Since his retirement in 2017, Lou enjoys spending his time helping others through community service. He currently lives in North Carolina.
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 born in New Jersey but grew up in a small town in Long Island, NY. As the third oldest of four children, I witnessed my parents work tirelessly to provide for us until their divorce when I was 9 years old. At age 11, I experienced a life-changing injury when I plunged 65-feet to the ground while swinging out over a high ledge. I crushed my left arm, broke my back and my leg, and was forced into a full body cast for one year. Unfortunately for me, my accident occurred in the 1960s which meant I couldn’t prop up an iPad and attend virtual class from a hospital bed, so I missed an entire year of instruction. By the time I returned the following year, I’d fallen so far behind my peers and had to spend the rest of my school years catching up until high school graduation. I left home at the age of 17 and supported myself through college by working several jobs along the way (musician, carpenter, electrician, hospital worker and more.) In short, my childhood was challenging, but it helped me understand how to manage life and depend on myself and those around me to survive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, it follows:
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” My entire life into my early adult years, I operated out of fear. I had an unhealthy desire to always be perfect in whatever I was doing and if I wasn’t, I immediately felt shame. After high school, I began working under a psychiatrist at a local hospital, who put things into perspective for me one day: “Humans, on average, perform 1,400 actions each day,” he said, “Yet so often, we’ll focus on the one or two mistakes we made that day instead of the 1,399 things we did right.” From then on, I made the conscious effort to live my life freely and appreciate all the positives I have going on in my life instead of concentrating on what isn’t right or out of my control.
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?
Yes, of course.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
It took a few months to receive a definitive diagnosis, but when you’re waiting to find out if you have CANCER or not, a few months can feel like years. Once I was diagnosed with stage 1a lung cancer, my mind immediately went to the worst outcome: dying.
How did you react in the short term?
Once I understood that there was a great chance that I had lung cancer, I began to “catastrophize” and went into a state of anxiety and depression.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
I jumped online and started researching everything about my form of cancer but most of the information online is either too general or too specific, so it wasn’t very helpful. In addition, many of the statistics about survival and prognosis are based on multi-year averages and don’t reflect the present state of treatment and patients’ response to it. It was a tough time for me as I was also a full-time caregiver to my wife of 42 years who suffered from early onset dementia. I constantly worried about her care and what would be needed for her future. I kept the news mostly to myself before finding the LUNGevity Foundation forums which instantly changed my life. Through LUNGevity and their Lung Cancer Support Community (LCSC), I had a team, a tribe, if you will, of people who understood exactly what I was going through and could reassure me that my life wasn’t over. For the first time since my diagnosis, I finally felt hopeful that there could be life after lung cancer. With the support of my LUNGevity “tribe” I had a restored sense of faith and determined that I could improve the chances of my outcome if I could lose the negative attitude. I even increased my workouts to better recover from the surgery I was told I would need.
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’m fortunate enough to have a small, yet impactful network of people who have helped me along this journey — Curt, Lexie, Michelle, Tom and several others all come to mind. Around the same time, I connected with another survivor via the LUNGevity patient forums by the name of Eric Byrne, who shared a rather inspirational story about a man named Robert who, despite his symptoms and the harshness of his treatments, never let his will to thrive with cancer waver. Here I was — no symptoms, doctors telling me they could only see a single nodule and I had a great potential for a good outcome, but I was mired down in fear, doubt, and anxiety for what would happen if I didn’t survive. Robert died in 2012 due to complications from a severe chest infection but was cancer-free at the time of his death and is regarded as the longest surviving dual lung cancer patient in the UK, having survived both SCLC and NSCLC for almost 20 years. His story prompted me to change my perspective on life and be grateful for every day I have on this earth. That along with the people I now consider family prepared me to face this challenge with knowledge and a sense of empowerment I had lost during the original diagnosis.
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?
I would say that my cancer’s message would be that life can change in a minute and forever. Therefore, I try to live every day as someone who looks out for others who need help. We’d all like to leave our mark on this life and we never know when that door might close.
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?
Through this process, I’ve learned the importance of helping others in need. My worldview has always been flexible and developing but now I try to be one who does as much as I can for others. In the past I would shun “support groups.” I felt very independent and had handled anything that came at me with courage (maybe bravado) and strength. But my LUNGevity support family has taught me that a group of like-minded people can come together and do amazing things for one another.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
Prior to finding LUNGevity, I didn’t know how I would survive this harrowing experience. Through the organization, I gained a strong support system of lifelong friends on similar journeys and felt empowered to become an active decision-maker in my treatment process by utilizing LUNGevity’s educational patient resources and participating in survivorship programs. I found the peer-to-peer support to be most valuable in my process, so I now moderate the online LUNGevity message boards, constantly looking for newcomers who are seeking answers or, in some cases, support. When I’m not scouring the LUNGevity message boards, I donate my time, and sometimes money, to various food pantries and women’s shelters while also being an active member of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver Support Group and Al Anon.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
In my case, for people I support, it is that Lung Cancer (like many cancers) is no longer an automatic death sentence. Treatments are advancing so rapidly that “Dr Google statistics” do not reflect what is happening today with the ever-evolving treatments. The most important rule to remember is to get appropriate cancer checks (breast, lung, colon, etc.) because early detection improves your chances of survival and provides the best options for treatments.
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.
- Get appropriate checks before you’re diagnosed with cancer. You won’t develop cancer from a scan, but that scan can save your life. My cancer was found from a kidney stone CT scan. I was diagnosed as Stage 1a, went through surgery and have been cancer free or NED (No Evidence of Disease) for over two years.
- Learn about your disease. I’m not saying to look for prognosis or longevity statistics as they are almost always averages and not the best data. Rather, you should learn about the disease; what is it, what causes it, what protocols are considered “gold standard” as well as the testing that should occur during your diagnostic phase. In my case, I gained a lot of valuable knowledge from my LUNGevity peers and that helped me to be a better advocate in my diagnosis and treatment.
- Make sure that your Primary Care Physician (PCP) is a good one. Some folks only see their PCP now and then and may not have a great relationship or trust in their judgment. This is the person who will likely help you to put together your cancer team (Oncologist, Surgeon, Pulmonologist, etc.) In my case I had a pulmonologist and surgeon, but no oncologist. My “tribe” at LUNGevity helped me to understand the importance of a full team and I made a change that helped me significantly going forward. The oncologist was more specific and detailed in the testing he required during my post-surgery period.
- Don’t be a ‘tough guy or gal”. This is a hard road to walk alone, and your family can only help you so much. They try to empathize, and we appreciate their efforts but at the end of the day, they can’t fathom what we’re going through. It makes a world of difference to engage in conversations with people who are in the midst of their own battle with cancer or have survived the disease and can impart their knowledge of how to get the most out of your treatment with the least amount of side effects.
- Choose to live (something one of my LUNGevity brothers preaches). We all know that attitude is key in how our bodies resist disease and heals from injuries — and cancer is no different. You need to be determined to live. It may sound basic, but my initial reaction was to plan for my demise. After I found a support system, my pessimistic attitude changed and I increased my workouts to gain more strength, opened myself up to others about my disease so they would better understand, and started looking for ways to improve my overall health. All this before I even had a final diagnosis.
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?
If I had the power, I would love to show people that our differences are normal, and we should judge ideas based on their merit instead of judging each other. In my view, we’ve become like human bear traps; always ready to spring with steel teeth if we hear or see something we don’t agree with. Heck, I grew up in a family where folks would even debate during dinner and then all went out together to have some fun. No harsh judgments or hard feelings. I miss those days.
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. :-)
He’s neither a business, financial nor sports figure… but, as a musician, I’d like to have a lunch with Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens). His music influenced much of what I did and still do. I’d welcome the opportunity to talk about what influenced his music to be so creative and real.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
While I don’t operate a personal website and interact with family and friends only via social channels, I’m constantly searching the LUNGevity Lung Cancer Support Community message boards for new members to embrace. Joining a community of people who knew exactly what I was going through and could provide advice to help me along my journey was instrumental in pulling through my anxious state. Nowadays, I pay it forward and do the same for others who — if they’re anything like me — fear what the future holds and are uncertain of where to start in making their next health decisions.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!