Exercise For Life
I’ve been in some form of consulting for over 25 years, whether for fitness and wellness education or business coaching in various forms. I help people work toward creating and achieving something important and challenging, whether it be in their personal or professional life. Along the way I have practiced what I’ve preached (for the most part) and enjoyed the benefits of feeling strong, competitive, and athletic. Early on, helping people with their own fitness allowed me to pay my way through college. My wife and I even met in a gym, and I remember our first child picking up tiny dumbbells while we worked out together. A couple of years later, when we were expecting our second child, my life was about to take a turn and not one I had anticipated.
Our son was busily walking now, learning more words everyday and my wife and I were looking forward to all the wonderful experiences we’d share as a family when his little sister arrived. Initially I didn’t act on the odd symptoms I’d begun to notice. I often had headaches, nosebleeds, and colds that never seemed to go away. Finally, after suffering a bad throat infection and unusual bruise-like spotting over most of my body, I went to the doctor who immediately sent me for testing. In 2012, a day before my wife went into labor I was told I had a rare form of leukemia. I was 35 years old.
Listening to the diagnosis left me shocked but I knew I had to stay grounded in the moment; my wife was about to give birth. I fought through waves of emotion during one of the happiest times of our life but ever present was the doubt, fear, and general anxiety over my own mortality. The next day we went to the hospital and my daughter was born. Four days later I checked into another hospital a few hours away and began in-patient treatment.
During the first few days of chemotherapy I was determined to stay strong. I did push ups tethered to the IV but the chemo teaches you quickly what’s in your control and what was not. When I felt good enough I stayed active and exercised next to the hospital bed stretching, planking, squatting, basically whatever I could think of that wouldn’t pull out the IV. Then there were other times when my illness raged. One night a fever was so bad the doctors had me “sleep” on a refrigerated blanket. I shook so much I could hear the bed rattling on the floor.
When you’re ill it’s a fine balance between recognizing and making use of what’s in your control and coping with what isn’t. Pain grounds you and keeps you in the moment but it can also motivate you. I was focused on improving my situation. I had a mission to get back to my life and my newborn daughter who I’d been separated from four days after she was born.
In the first weeks of my illness, experiencing so many feelings on such extreme levels, it didn’t initially occur to me that even as vulnerable as I felt, I had something powerful on my side. My level and experience with exercise had not only strengthened me physically prior to the diagnosis but I noticed that it influenced the way my doctors’ viewed and handled my treatment. As a result, I had reassurance during the rigors ahead and my immune system had a head start on the comeback it was about to make.
After being in an isolation room with a constant flow of drugs pumped through me, tubes began to be removed from the picc line in my bicep. Once the last bag of chemo dripped its last drop, it was time for my body to heal on its own. Each day I would look at the blood counts and save the paper reports like I was collecting baseball cards. I knew that once the white blood cells reached a certain number, I would be allowed to go home.
Once I was home a new challenge began. My immune system was still in its infancy, much like my newborn daughter. Everyone worked together to keep a sterile environment. I still remember the floppy fingers on the latex gloves my son wore because they were too big for him. Each day was about avoiding an infection that would land me back in the hospital. I had my temperature taken often, constantly hoping it stayed below the threshold, but we were home as a family. One day at a time we worked together and I was able to see my son and daughter more and more.
The recovery took time but there was progress and eventually I began seeing clients. I was slow but steady and as the weeks passed my schedule normalized. I had lost a good deal of weight but it didn’t stop me from exercising. Every little bit I did contributed to gaining my strength back and I set goals for myself to keep me moving forward. My first milestone was to ride a bike from Penn Station, NY to the lighthouse in Montauk Point, NY, which turned out to be over 150 miles. It took me all day to finish but after my wife and children met me at a parking lot to install a headlight after sunset, I finally arrived at the lighthouse around 9pm. My second milestone was joining the Paddlers for Humanity later that summer on a charity 18-mile open ocean stand up paddle from Montauk Point, NY to Block Island, RI. I completed the journey and had closed that chapter on cancer and was moving on.
This past year I was again diagnosed with leukemia but unlike last time, I didn’t ask “how” or “why.” New doctors teamed up with some from the first time and though exercise may not have prevented my cancer, I haven’t personally met a doctor (and I’ve met many) that didn’t agree that my “fitness” played a key role in aiding me through treatment or the ability to recover from its side effects. I knew this “strength” helped me in so many ways and continues to create momentum for my recovery moving forward. I didn’t rely on exercise for prevention; I use it as a weapon that’s in my power to wield to help face any adversity.
Recently a good friend of mine in his eighties was diagnosed with cancer. I hadn’t thought to write about this until he said something very profound to me. While we were discussing some of the experiences we were going through, he mentioned an interaction he had with his doctor. He was told if he hadn’t been in such good physical shape they wouldn’t have bothered to treat him. I was confirmed in my belief that the strength we earned from choosing to exercise, helped us get through our toughest times but may very well have saved his life.
As I was writing this, my friend sent me a video of himself competing in a bench press competition at 85 years old. I can’t express the inspiration and joy that I have for him. He too is moving on to his next chapter. I once looked at exercise as a preventative activity that helped me look better and feel good. I later learned that one of the biggest benefits I never saw coming was that it may have given my friend a second chance at life. For my part, exercise fortified me to withstand cancer treatment, hastened my recovery and remains a weapon for any threats that may be around the corner. I am now cancer free and this summer we had our third child, a baby girl.
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