Back story, I love riding bikes. I’ve done a lot of cool shit on bikes, like bike packing through the Rockies, pedaling through Tuscany and I’ve been to the Cyclocross World Championships. Ok, I didn’t actually race or even ride my bike at the World Championships, but I did drink a lot of beer while watching a bunch of really fast Europeans and a couple of Americans ride their bikes.
Every cyclist has a bucket full of dream rides and races they want to do and I would be willing to bet that the Leadville 100 is on many of their lists.
The only problem is that the race is so popular you either have to qualify by doing certain qualifier races or taking your chances with the lottery. There is also the option to apply to ride on a fundraising team. That’s the option I went with this year and was fortunate enough be chosen to ride for First Descents.
Feel free to support First Descents by clicking here to donate and following along on my YouTube channel Bikes Kill Cancer as I put in a lot of miles on the mountain bike in the months to come.
Today was the one year anniversary of the Head & Neck Cancer Support Group I participate in every month. It’s strange how I respond to this group. They keep the insanity in my brain sane.
Most everyday I think about cancer. My cancer in particular. Almost two years post treatment, several all’s clear PET scan later and I still think about it.
I think about it when I’m massaging and stretching my scar that run along the right side of my neck or when I go to shave and realize there’s no facial hair along my right jawline for me to even shave.
I curse it when I wake in the middle of the night to search for a lozenge. My mouth sand paper dry due to underperforming salivary glands.
I am just tired of thinking about it. I am over cancer interrupting my thoughts and daily routine.
I’m so done with thinking about cancer that I haven’t written in this blog in months because the idea of writing about cancer just leaves me tired.
The monthly H&NC Support group is different. All we talk about is cancer. The long term side effects of our treatments. The trouble we have swallowing. We share tips on good dental hygiene to keep our teeth healthy after weeks of radiation treatment. Cancer. cancer. cancer and more cancer.
Somedays I resent being a #cancersurvivor, a #cancerthriver, and #cancerwarrior.
The suggestion that I did something extraordinary rubs me the wrong way. Despite what the media, Instagram and the American Cancer Society want you to believe I am no different than anyone else trying to get by in this world.
I did not draw my trusty sword or put on combat gear to fight cancer. I did nothing more than what anyone of you would do when sick. I listened to my doctors, took my medicine and got plenty of rest. Cancer is like having the flu but instead of chicken noodle soup, it’s lots of radiation and the hope you can actually keep the soup down.
I got lucky.
I got lucky that my cancer was discovered early in Stage II. I got lucky that the treatment methods for head and neck cancer has advanced by leaps in bounds over the last ten years.
I was fortunate that I had a job that afford me health insurance and the time off to seek treatment and concentrate on my health and recovery.
Why resent such a noble titles as survivor, thriver and warrior?
Because when you attach cancer to the front of each it evokes pity and sadness from your audience.
I don’t need your pity. I need you to get angry, scared and ask what can I do so I and my loved ones don’t get cancer.
I need you to be the warrior.
I need you to stand up and say this is enough.
I need you to make sure your loved ones get their HPV vaccines.
I need you to stop smoking.
I need you to exercise more and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and cut down on that crap that is passed to you through your car window that you’ve been led to believe constitutes a meal.
I need you to wake the fuck up.
I need you to turn out the lights as you leave the pity part and make sure the door doesn’t hit you in the ass on the way out.
Music plays constantly in my life as I am a firm believer in creating your own soundtrack as we move through this world. This collection of musings is on various songs that help shape the soundtrack of my life.
I am not sure when I first hear the song, Love Will Tear Us Apart, but am pretty sure that it was when I was hanging out in high school with my dear friend, Susan. Susan was all things British (even though she’s South Georgia small town like me) and in turn all things cool. She was an encyclopedia of British music heavy on the 80’s synth pop goth, NME magazine and even a stent in an English boarding school. Like I said all things cool.
With out sounding too old, my time in high school was pre-digitization of music so spare money was spent on vinyl and using the local college radio station playlist as a running checklist of what needed to be added to the record collection.
My own collection ran the gamut from college radio staples like REM and The Replacements to the hard charging AC/DC and Iron Maiden. Susan’s collection leaned heavily to the other side of The Atlantic with plenty of vinyl from The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Oder and of course the band that spawned New Order, Joy Division.
The first choppy strumming of the guitar with piercing synthesizer lays down a haunting background for the opening vocals.
When routine bites hards and ambitious are low/And resentments rides high but emotions won’t grow/And we are changing our ways, taking different roads/Love will tear us apart
From here, the saddest song ever continues in a downward spiral much like the relationship that Ian Curtis describes in a voice that sounds and feels as forlorn as the lyrics.
If the second stanza…
Why is the bedroom so cold turned away on your side?/Is my timing that flawed, our respect runs so dry?/Yet there is still this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives/Love will tear us apart
doesn’t rip out your heart, then consider this.
Lead singer, Ian Curtis, suffered from both epilepsy and depression and was dealing with a failed marriage. He would kill himself by hanging a few months before Love Will Tear Us Apart was released as a single.
So why even listen to the saddest song ever?
For me it is a type of affirmation. There is no joy in others’ pain and suffering but knowing that others hurt and feel in the same way provides comfort.
The song itself provides no comfort, no resolution and little hope. Even though the song feels hopeless knowing some of the backstory of what becomes of Joy Division after Ian Curtis’s death provides a bit of a phoenix from the ashes story.
The remaining members of Joy Division would go on to form the band, New Order. The dance heavy electronic music of New Order would help to provide a more upbeat antiseptic to the saddest song ever.
At the end of the day I often find myself drawn to the saddest songs. Some where deep in their anguish and sorrow I find hope and happiness.
Music plays constantly in my life as I am a firm believer in creating your own soundtrack as we move through this world. This collection of musings is on various songs that help shape the soundtrack of my life.
Say to someone, you love Southern rock and they will think you are talking about the Allman Brothers or Molly Hatchet, but for me the Southern rock that defined my teenage and college years came straight out of Athens, GA with bands like Kilkenny Cats, Pylon and the venerable REM.
More than any band, REM has played in the background of my life from love and heartache to long drinking sessions with friend on the front porch.
Like warm filling comfort food there is no time bad time for REM.
The opening lines of Can’t Get There From Here…
When the world is a monster/Bad to swallow you whole/Kick the clay that holds the teeth in/Throw your trolls out the door
have always rang true to me. Maybe for the the simple fact that I could actually understand them. Michael Stipe is not known for singing clearly and often mumbles out words as if his mouth was filled with boiled peanuts.
This past year the words have taken on more meaning in a simple metaphor of cancer is that monster trying to swallow me whole and I will not go softly. Kicking and throwing that troll out the door.
Four days ago I went to for my annual monster check up via a PET scan. I am still waiting for the results but either way I am ready if they monster returns.
To have cancer back in my life unnerves me and makes my stomach dance with butterflies.
“If you world is a monster/Bad to swallow you whole”
So here I wait with my foot at the ready to kick back ’cause I won’t be swallowed whole.
Like many people at one point in my life I got on the wagon and took a break from social media. In fact I went over two years without posting to Facebook. Last year changed that for me. Sitting at home recovering from surgery, then six weeks of radiation treatment and stay at home orders due to COVID gives a person a lot of idling free time.
Since then, I have been investing in having a healthy relationship with social media, mainly Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. No doubt TikTok and Snapchat have their place but I am pretty sure the world does not need to see me, a 52 year old man trying to do the latest dance steps. At the end of the day my goal is to make social media enhance my life not take it over.
I won’t spend a ton of time on the evils of social media but like so many things– gambling, alcohol, drugs and even shopping there is an addictive quality to it. The question is how to dance with the devil but not get roped into to going to Hell.
Research has shown that we can suffer from feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration with our own lives when we see post and pictures from friends that can lead us to perceive that their lives are better than ours. I know, I’ve been sucked down that rabbit hole. Obsessing over getting a new bike or wondering if I need to trade in my car for a newer model, the seed being planted from just scrolling through friends’ post about their latest acquisition.
The list of ills goes on and on. I found a great blog post from Iraylo Durmonski on many of the negatives as well as how to make better use of social media. He hits on many of the same points that I will cover below.
So why the big change and the re-embracing of social media. Blame it on the two big C’s- COVID and cancer.
Just as the world was shutting down for the year in the spring of 2020, I found myself at home recovering from a bilateral neck dissection. The first in several steps to treat a head & neck cancer that I had been diagnosed with at the end of 2019.
So what’s a fellow to do when confined to the couch under doctor’s orders. Facebook & Instagram became a quick an easy way to share what was going on and how my recovery was going. Phone calls and emails from friends and family are awesome but telling the same store and providing the same information over and over is down right exhausting.
This was my first big moment of realizing what a great tool social media can be. Face to face visits weren’t possible but reconnecting with friends on Facebook provided a great boost to my spirits and morale. The trick was and still is knowing when enough is an enough.
I don’t have a magic ratio formula to tell you that you have X amount of minutes per day that you can spend clicking likes and posting pictures from college that you found in an old photo album while cleaning off your bookshelves. I may have spent several days last summer doing this and to be honest it was a blast. Reading friends comments and taking a walk down memory lane was just the boosted I needed to get me through a rough part of my recovery from surgery.
It has now been a year since I took my toe out of the water and took a deep dive into the social media pool. Along the way I’ve developed a list of rules for myself that I feel have allowed me to have a healthy relationship with social media.
No trolling unless you want people to think you’re a D bag. This is a great way to get unfollowed and lose friends along the way.
If you are getting your news and facts from social media you may want to rethink that practice.
Avoid debating politics and religion. Trust me you are not going to change my mind and I don’t believe I’ll change yours. Let’s save our energy for something more productive like debating whether or not Taylor Swift is the greatest song writer of her generation.
Only positives. This goes along with trolling but basically I follow the law my mom laid down long ago for me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.”
Get rid of deadweight. Cut loose your “friends” who are trolls, constantly post fake news and demonstrate that they are one or more of the following… racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobes or just general D bags. You wouldn’t hang out with them in person why give them your time on social media.
Use it as intendeded. Look at it this way, you wouldn’t go to your friends home and just randomly flip through their stuff. Why do the same online by aimlessly flipping through others’ posts and pictures. Take the time to be mindful and full of good intentions. Use messenger to reconnect with an old chum from school, write a review about a positive experience you had at a local business or maybe plan a large picnic and invite your friends from online to show up and actually interact in person.
A little more than a year after finishing my last (I hope) radiation treatment for oropharyngeal cancer I rode a century on my bike yesterday, but this post is not about me celebrating some incredible comeback from the throes of cancers. I’ve actually rode my bike (for my health and sanity) through out my treatments and have ridden several centuries since then including 108 miles with over 10,000 feet of climbing to the top of Mount Evans and back to my home in Denver and along the way raised over $5000 for the Fred Hutch Cancer Center. Humble brag complete now lets get on to the real champion of this post.
This post is to celebrate my better half having completed her first 100 mile ride. This is her second attempt. A few years ago as we were getting ready for a cycling trip to Italy, she was thwarted at mile 88 by an overzealous course marshal who wouldn’t let her continue due to hail, lightening and the threat of tornados. Sheesh… she’s way tougher than all three of those combined.
Yesterday, my hear swelled with pride as I watched her role across the finish line with a ride time of eight hours on the nose.
Over the last years I have watched her struggle with her own health issues while still standing by me during my own. This year only layered on more adversity as she has dealt with both a foot and a knee injuries yet she still pushed on with her training. Maybe she wasn’t able to always complete the physical aspect but that only made her tougher mentally.
That extra bit of toughness came into play on Sunday as the day got longer and hotter, she didn’t quit. As the thunderstorms and hail rolled in again, she slipped passed the course marshal and kept on riding through the rain and hail. Lesson learned, don’t let safety and common sense get in your way.
With the sweep vehicles just minutes behind her, she rolled across the finish line. I’ve completed a lot of centuries in my life but I never felt the pride in myself like I felt at that moment for my wife and her grit and determination.
A couple of years ago, a friend of ours painted a custom hat for her with a large comic book like “BAM!” across the front and no doubt “Bad Ash Middleton” lived up to her name yesterday.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about about my struggles with learning and trying to meditate. I use the metaphor of trying to remain calm while moving in high speed traffic. Well, yesterday I put my metaphor to the test and meditated while in traffic.
“Amazing!”, you are thinking that in a month’s time I can find the calm and patience to meditate while driving in my truck as it moves through traffic and not crash the truck. Even more impressive, I did all of this in the east bound lane of I-70.
The truth is the truck nor any of the hundreds of vehicles in front of or behind us were moving. My, wife, two of my cousins and I were stuck in an all too typical standstill due to a wreck ahead of us. This was no fender bender that could be cleared in a few minutes. An eighteen-wheeler had left the road and crashed upside down on the lanes below a mere quarter of a mile in front of us.
This particular section of I-70 runs through Glenwood Canyon on the Western Slope and is a marvel of engineering. The west bound lands sit forty to fifty feet above the east bound lands, which traverse along the Colorado River. The truck driver while navigation a turn had lost control of his vehicle and sent the truck through the guard rail where it had flipped and landed upside down on the east bound lands. Amazingly, no one included the driver were killed.
I didn’t take me long after moving to Colorado to learn that if you spend anytime driving in the mountains you make sure to carry supplies to get you through these type of lengthy sits in traffic. Whether it’s snow, rock slides, forest fires or careless drivers, at some point you will find yourself camped on the side of the road. This means an emergency kit is always carried in your vehicle. Blankets for cold weather, extra water, food and charging cables for phones are all a must. On our way to do a hike we were well stocked to wait this one out.
As cars squeezed to the side to allow emergency vehicles through, it was obvious that we were in for a long wait. Already word had trickled down the line that there was an eighteen-wheeler overturned and it was going to be at least four hours before we were moving.
The wife and cousins entertained themselves with a round of selfies and silly videos before they decided to follow the stream of drivers and passengers walking down the highway to check out the carnage up ahead.
I chose to stay with truck. I was frustrated and disappointed that we would not make it to our destination just down the road to do the hike to Hanging Lake. The phrase, “close but no cigar” applies here.
Playing games on my phone and scroll through my list of books in iBooks was doing little to relieve my frustration. My thumb paused above a book, Meditation for Fidgety People, that I had recently downloaded. The book is about the author Dan Harris’s journey of discovering the power of meditation. A few pages in I realized that instead of reading about someone else meditating maybe I should give it a try in a real world moment. Being frustrated with something out of my control was the perfect optortunity to practice the practice.
Pushing my seat back I folded my long legs underneath me and got situated for a go at something until this point I had only tried in the quiet privacy of my home. I opted to leave my sunglasses and hat on as I was self conscious of the other motorist walking back and forth.
Eyes closed. Deep breathes. Focusing on the breath. Were people staring at me as they walked by? A quick one eyed peak revealed that no one was. A bit more relaxed. Mind wandering. Bring it back. Stop judging yourself. Focus on the breath
Sounds. The Colorado River gurgles by a hundred feet from the highway. The rumble of idling diesel engines. Bits and pieces of conversations float by. Attention to the breath. In. Out. A dog barks. Back to the breath. In. Out.
Ten minutes or has it been twenty?
Eyes open. Nothing has changed except my attitude. The traffic is still unmoved. The sun is warm and shinning on my face. One last deep breath.
Warning: As the title suggests, this post is about farting. If you don’t find farting funny then you probably won’t enjoy this post.
“Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”
“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.”
“Proper preparation can be offset by a bad case of GI tract bloat. A bad case of bloating can be cured by a good bout of farts.”
If we started with Eddy Merckx’s quote you would probably be led to believe that this post is about how I suffered on the bike to take an amazing victory at the Pony Xpress 165 in Trinidad, CO. Sadly, this is not the case. This is a post about a digestive tract gone haywire and how it feels to pedal a bike for sixty plus miles with what feels like an entire Thanksgiving dinner resting in your gut.
The Pony Xpress 165 (that’s kilometers, not miles) is a gravel road bike race that takes place in the shadows of the Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado. For the most part the gravel is smooth and fast. it’s hilly but not overly steep, and the scenery is typical: drop dead gorgeous Colorado with its blue skies, sweeping vistas and big mountains.
Here’s a brief overview for those readers who aren’t familiar with gravel riding or racing: If you can imagine a road bike that, upon initial inspection, looks like the ones seen at a bike race like the Tour de France. If you look closer, though, you’ll notice that the bike has wider tires with small knobs, much like what you would see on a mountain bike, but smaller. There are other more nuanced differences with the bikes, as well. They include gear ratios and frame geometry. This isn’t some geeky bike blog so we aren’t going to go down that rabbit hole. I guess the easiest way to explain gravel bikes is that they look kind of like road bikes but they are made for riding on… well, gravel and dirt.
When did the bloat start? Was it the Jersey Mike’s veggie sub on the way to Trinidad? The chocolate chip cookies Gary and I devoured after the sub stop? Was it my 2nd COVID shot I’d gotten just four days before?
Actually, I think it was the incredible ravioli I’d had for dinner that night. Generally, good pasta (I mean, one hundred years of family tradition passed down from generation to generation kind of good!) is no problem for my digestive track. That pasta and its sauce (especially the sauce) were so delicious that I sat on the curb and gorged myself. I must have made quite the spectacle, as families stopped to gawk and take videos of my voracious feeding.
And then, just as I finished the last of it, I regretted everything I’d just done. A sudden burp erupted from my mouth. It was quickly followed by a rush of acid reflux up the back of my throat. Time had brought about changes in my body that I was not at all used to. I used to think puberty was the last stop on the Big Body Morph. Nope. Aging, it turns out, is puberty in reverse.
I was full and uncomfortable as hell. I remained that way for hours.
As the night sky wrapped the state park in a cool Colorado evening, I thought about farting. I wanted to fart so, so bad but I couldn’t do it! My stomach was tight and swollen. My only relief was the occasional pasta sauce-flavored burp.
In the morning I had some coffee. It was effective in that it got my “stomach gurgles” rumbling but, in the end, it failed to deliver. I felt dejected and hopeless as each trip I took to the pit toilet proved fruitless.
My normal pre-race meal of cold-soaked oatmeal may as well have been a bowl of wet heavy cement. Each bite dropped into my gut with an audible plop, where it would surely sit for the remainder of the day.
I packed some toilet paper and wet wipes into the bag on my bike. I guess I was hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
As I reached the second check stop, I debated whether or not to continue. There were 45 miles left. To drop out would mean that I’d have to wait forever at the aid station for someone (and there really wasn’t anyone available anyway) to come get me OR I could reverse my course and head back to the start. Forty-five miles back or fifty-five miles forward. Might as well go for the finish, I figured.
Despite my swollen belly I had a strong start. My energy waned quickly, though. I knew that it was because all that food and hydration were just sitting there in my gut, heavy and unmoving. My gut was backed up like a line of Porta-Potties at a barbecue festival.
I pedaled away from the aid station, feeling like I’d just finished my third helping of Thanksgiving dinner. Only there was no easy chair to sit back into while I loosened my belt. My only salvation would be a series of good, hardy farts.
The secret to farting on the bikes is not to push too hard. Should anyone force the issue, perching low on a narrow saddle and bumping along a dirt road in tight cycling shorts is a disaster just waiting to happen. The last thing I wanted to do was stand on the side of the road, deep in the woods and wash my shorts out in a mountain stream.
From miles forty-five to sixty, I divided my energy between pushing down on the pedals and praying for relief. Absolutely nothing budged, though. I continued to sip on water and consume energy gels. Thinking that once the dam did finally break my body would quickly make good use of the energy sitting in the reserviour of my stomach.
As I stood on the pedals and continued to climb, I felt the flutter of sweet relief. Suddenly, there was a long and puttering escape of wind from my backside. I made a couple more hard pedal stokes and, then, to my elation, there was another sweet breeze that erupted from my rear. I stopped, dismounted and took in the view.
Had I been cured? Could I race the last 40 miles back to the finish? There was no way.
I pointed the bike downhill to start descending. The fast bumpy ride down the hill jostled loose more bottom biscuits and so I let the bike and my bottom rip down the hill. My bike and body were like a fine-tuned wind instrument.
There was still a short but painful climb left before me. My belly may have been a little lighter, but I was still residing in the hurt locker. I struggled onward, using standing efforts to free more of the barking spiders out from within the murky bowels of my body.
I felt a certain amount of airiness come over me. My legs felt fresher and my bib shorts weren’t nearly as restrictive as before. Most importantly, I was having fun again.
By the third aid station, I realized I’d become a celebrity of sorts with the middles schoolers who were volunteering. A chorus of “Hey, it’s Unicorn Guy!” greeted me. They were referring to the crocheted unicorn that I’d zip tied to my handlebar and my matching unicorn Bikes Kill Cancer jersey and stickers that I had passed out at prior rest stops.
My spirits were buoyed by the enthusiastic greetings and the ice cold water they’d supplied for us. With newly found enthusiasm, I prepared to tap out the last 23 miles to the finish.
I was just shy of cresting the final climb when I was caught by the last remaining pro rider. The pro field started 90 minutes after us average slobs. My disregard for things like braking allowed me to catch her on the downhill.
Without any words spoken, we adjusted our pace and began a hard but steady rotation. Hitting the pavement that made up the five mile run in to the finish we grunted a few words at each other and took turns dropping the hammer at the front.
I was excited to feel so good but also bummed that it had taken so late in the race to feel that way. I pushed the pace on each slight rise in the road. I’d adjusted my goals a long time ago, somewhere back around Mile 52, and finishing in under eight hours was going to feel like a win.
I still felt a bit gassy. I made sure not to let loose any more of my flavorful vapors until I’d had my turn at the front, though. I’d been born and raised in the south. I was taught that a true gentleman never passes gas in front of a lady, much less right in her face when she’s inches from my back wheel.
7 hour 45 minutes all things considered, I could live with that.
Each tough ride brings some realizations. Reflecting back on the ride the next morning after a healthy poop, I realized…
Nothing lasts forever, not even stomach bloat.
Farting is not overrated.
Your worst day in the saddle will still have moments of fun and joy.
You’re never as young as you used to be. At some point, your body is going to remind you of that in a very big way.
It’s day 10 and I can’t decide if I hate Jeff Warren or is he like one of those popular kids I use to pretend to hate in high school, but in reality wanted to be like and liked by them. And then there’s his girlfriend, Tamara Levitt, with her calm sexy voice dropping pearls of wisdom at the end of each session. Together they are the bane of my early morning existence.
I so want to sit down and start my day with twenty minutes of quite energizing meditation. Something that will take me through the day in a Zen like state that has others saying to themselves, “he’s like Outcast, just the coolest motherfunker on the planet”
I want to be Jeff, cool and in control, with a touch of Tamara, who always has just the right antidotal story to illustrate a point. Instead my brain and thoughts are a jumbled garden with bees alighting on flower after flower never taking the time to settle before they are off to the next thought.
I’ve never actually met Jeff or Tamara and despite my time with them in my head over the last ten day, I have no idea if they are boyfriend and girlfriend.
The last ten days sitting on my living room floor in the last of the night’s darkness at 5:30am with these two in my ears coaxing me towards a calmer more enlightened me have been unexpectedly hard. So far I’ve learned about equanimity (I don’t have it), my homebase, which feel likes a house party, and popping out of my thoughts with inner smoothness. I hear it, understand it but I can’t get it.
You only have to try and mediate or just try to sit still with your eyes closed for ten minutes to realize that mediating is hard work. Jeff reminds me of this daily, that mediating is about using brain muscle we didn’t know we had, before he puts me through another round of exercises that leaves my gray matter mushier than when we started.
I’ve come to befriend Jeff and Tamara via the Calm app. With their help and too hold myself accountable, I have paid up front for a whole year of this subscription based service that is going to teach me to meditate and in turn find a new inner calm.
That may sound a bit cliche and hokey but it’s not far from the truth. The last year I’ve spent a lot of time with my own thoughts as I laid around recovering from surgery, stretched out on a table getting blasted with radiation or just walking the neighborhood trying to get my strength back. All of this down time has helped me realize is that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did. Crazy, after 52 years, I don’t know myself completely. I am hoping that a deliberate dive into meditating will help me get to know me better.
It’s a process. I get it. Ten days is just a drop in the bucket, but come on brain, calm down and throw me a bone.
Whoooaaa! What just happened?
It’s the next day. I stopped writing the above because trying to explain mediation, much less understand it on a personal level and how to do it correctly was making my brain hurt. Yet, some how today, early this morning it all clicked. Just for a second but somehow on day 11 I meditated (or at least what I think it did) for a split second and then it was gone like a tendril of smoke I could see it drifting further and further away from me until the wind broke it in to a thousand indistinguishable particles.
The rest of the meditation session was not nearly as fulfilling as my mind kept wandering (according to Jeff and Tamara wandering is part of the process as you should acknowledge it and gently bring yourself back to your home base) back to that split second.
Imagining putting together that split second with another split second and another and evidentially those seconds become minutes have me excited for this small break through that happened while seated on the dog bed in my living room this morning.
I really don’t hate Jeff and Tamara but like anyone that pushes you into a state of discomfort there is a certain amount of resistance you have to that person as they push you. Once the break throughs happen the resistances become a challenge.
“Is that all you got?” becomes my mindset.
And yes I know that meditation is not a competitive sport but if the push to do better moves me to a place of quite contemplative deeper and better understanding of myself I’ll take it.
Let’s set some expectations right away, if you are reading this and expecting to find 100 useful, thoughtful and mind blowing words of wisdom then prepare to be disappointed.
First and foremost as I write this my list is about 70 items short. If these learnings are anything like my past educational experiences, I am gong to come up short. Think C- instead of A+. I will do my best to pay attention and be a dutiful student but in the end I’ll probably get distracted by a shiny object. This means I will do one of two things.
One, change the title to “59 1/2 I’ve Learned Since Being Diagnosed with Cancer.”
Two, call this a running list and hope that it fills itself out.
Now for the mind blowing part or lack of mind blowing. Don’t get your hopes up. This is nothing more than a list I started compiling at the beginning of 2021 for no reason other than I was just frustrated with myself. I honestly believed that having and surviving cancer was going to somehow transcend me into a deeper understanding of myself and the universe. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t, but all I know is I haven’t had that Luke Skywalker like moment where I become one with the Force and lift the X-wing fighter out of the swamp.
If you are looking for something a little more than what I have listed below then you are in luck. A quick internet search of “100 things I’ve learned” will yield 257,000,000 results. I am sure you can find something in there that will blow your mind or at least allow you to say something thought provoking at the next cocktail party you attend. Assuming we get to have cocktail parties in 2021.
“Come on Uncle Joe we need that vaccine, stat! Cocktail parties are counting on you.” says every single person who is sick of drinking with their friends via Zoom.
There are a lot of folks out there willing to share what they have learned. Many have list of 100 things and to be honest I’m a bit jealous and maybe a bit motivated, too.
There’s this red headed woman who has a lot to say. I’m not sure if having red hair makes her smarter but she does bring attention to it. For the record I am married to a red head and she is pretty darn smart so maybe this one is worth looking into.
Feel like taking advice from someone who is only been on the planet a little over a quarter of a century? Saurabh Rane is your man then. Surprisingly, his list is pretty good, too. I know when I was 28 much less now at 51 I would be pressed to come up with 100 insightful things I’ve learned. Hell at 28 I was still tending bar and going to school for a second time. Added bonus for Saurabh is the fact that he has camped at 19,000 feet, does TED talks and is trying to make the world a better place.
One last note, this list does not go 100-1, mainly for the fact that it’s hard to count down from 100 when you only have 3o items on your list. So here goes, 30 things in counting in no particular order that I’ve learned since being diagnosed with cancer.
Friends and family are everything
Strangers can also be incredible
Sleep. Sleep a lot
Listen to your body. See number 3. Sleep when your body says, “sleep”
Establish a routine of self-care
Exercise as much as your body will allow.
Learn to breathe.
Sometimes you have to eat crap food (I’m looking at your McDonald’s vanilla shake) because that is the only thing your body will tolerate as you move through treatment.
Get outside. Nature heals. Sunshine on your face is like being kissed by warm lipped angels.
Pets. Especially cats and dogs.
You don’t appreciate your salivary glands until radiation fries them
Trust the science. Someone selling your herbal cures via Facebook is trying to make a buck off your situation and fears
It’s okay to be scared
It’s okay to be vulnerable
It’s okay to frustrated with everything and everyone
Make sure you apologize to the folks you get frustrated with for no apparent reason
Share your story. It could save someone’s life
Embrace reading. TV’s great when you have no energy for anything, but reading will take you away, educate and increase your capacity for understanding.
Write down your feelings and thoughts. Share them if you want to.
More than likely after surviving cancer you will come out the other end wondering how you can give back and make a difference. Do what you can. No deed is too small to not have an impact.
You’ll realize that not all your friends will see this through with you. That’s okay because you will appreciate the ones who do see it through with you even more.
Even after you are “cancer free”, it will always be with you.
Self-doubt is a powerful and scary negative feeling
Eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies
Embrace the moment. No matter how shity it is, in someway it is making you a better and stronger person.
Just because you are stuck at home doesn’t mean you can’t grow and learn.
Get your vaccines. No one wants to survive cancer to just end up dying from the flu.
Your health and safety come first.
The “what if” game will eat you a live. “What if die? What if I had taken better care of myself? What if I had gone to church more often?” None of what you did or didn’t do matters now. You can only go forward. Try and go forward with what you have learned from your past.
Go easy on the sugar
That goes for alcohol, too
If you are a guy, you are not doing yourself and the people around you any good by trying to be tough. Cancer sucks and sometimes it makes you hurt. Be vulnerable. You’ll feel better and the people close to you will appreciate seeing the real you.
You don’t have to apologize for missing work because you have cancer. Sometimes you just feel like ass from your treatments and work just isn’t that important.
Cancer’s not funny, but that shouldn’t stop you from laughing
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
If you don’t understand the answer, ask for clarification.
The internet can be a great portal to learning more about your disease, but be careful of the rabbit hole that it can lead you down.
Drink lots of water
Write stuff, like your feelings, down in a journal. Or don’t
Cancer treatments will beat you down and leave you feeling weak and helpless. When the time is right add some strength training to your life. You will love how you feel as your body gets stronger.
I use to think walking was boring. An “exercise” for old people in Florida. I was wrong. Walking around my neighborhood was my first step toward returning to “normal”. Go for a walk.
Forty-four was Hank Aaron’s number. We could all try to be a little more like Hank.
Be okay with getting it wrong the first time, the second time, and the third…
If you want people on your team, treat them like teammates.
New friends aren’t better than old friends nor are your old friends better than your new friends, they’re just different kinds of friends. Embrace them all.
Sitting on your front porch in the sun with people you care about and who care about you is the best.
Wear sunscreen. Especially on your surgery scars and areas where your skin has been radiated.
Cats don’t give one fuck if you have cancer. They will still walk across your laptop while you are trying to work just as easily as they will curl up with you for a nap.
Healthcare professionals are people, too. They make mistakes. Cut them slack. They only want the best for you. Remember you don’t know what their days been like before they saw you nor do you know what lies ahead for them the rest of the day. There’s a good chance it has or will involve a lot stress. Remember that before you freak out because you had to wait a little longer in the waiting room.
Celebrate the milestones and then plan on how you are going to get to the next one. One step at a time.
Join a support group.
Don’t settle for just good enough.
Somedays you won’t be good enough. That’s okay. We all have room to improve.
Take to time to reimagine yourself
Sometimes the objective opinion of a stranger maybe helpful if you are trying to reinvent yourself.
Small set backs can seem huge, but probably aren’t. Stop. Breathe. Evaluate. More forward.
A lot of this list probably seems like complete bullshit as it pertains to your life, your experience and where you are in your head. It probably is so create your own list for perspective, reflection and learning.
Use your “down time” at home while recovering to get to know your neighbors. Hint- the ones that like dogs are usually the best.
Don’t discount the “cat people”
The say that it takes 30 days to build new habits. Sometimes it takes even longer. Stick with it. You’ve got this.
Buy a new laptop. Life is too short to wait for web pages to open and programs to run.
Don’t be afraid to don’t cry. See my post Boys Don’t Cry for more on this one.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Try to help others when you can.
Sit down and listen to an entire album from start to finish, not just songs on a playlist or shuffle mode. Trust me it’s different and better and many artist actually create their albums as a unified body of work to be listened to continuously.
Talk radio is not news. It is people with an agenda.
This is Bill and Ted’s favorite number.
Take time to indulge in great bad films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Sweat pants and hoodies are the best, but every once in a while you should get dressed before going out.
Don’t underestimate yourself.
Don’t try to fix others. They have to want to fix themselves. Your job is support and encourage them when they are ready.
Supplements will not cure your cancer (or make you healthier), but if your doctor tells you to take one there’s probably a good reason for it so listen to her.
Go to an art museum. It will challenge you, soothe your soul and inspire you.
Puppies smell good.
Noise cancelation headphones are a great for a quick escape no matter where you are.
You won’t realize how fucked our health care system is until you are deep in it.
Things that felt “normal” will take on more meaning & importance after cancer.
Don’t forget to tell the ones you care about that you love and appreciate them.
Learn to meditate. Hint – it takes time
Buy yourself something nice.
Buy something nice for someone else
Having cancer is like a country song- your truck won’t start, your girlfriend/wife has left you and your dog dies.
Get a cancer notebook. You’re going to be swamped with information, appointments and med schedules. There is no way you can keep it al straight in your head.
Once you are better (aka- cancer free or no evidence of disease) you will be amazed at how much more healing there is still left to do.
Experience shapes us. Don’t be surprised if you come out on the other side of all this a different person.
Make more time for the people that are important to you. The return is much higher than spreading yourself too thin.
Write and send thank you notes, not texts not emails. Actual thank you notes that require a stamp and the service of the US Post Office
You don’t know how much joy the pleasure of taste brings in to your life until radiation fries your taste buds.
Even when you can’t taste, cooking for others is still a pleasurable activity. You just have to trust they are being honest when they say the meal taste good.
Recovering from cancer can mean lots of time convalescing in bed. Invest in quality pillows and bedsheets.
Telling me your (insert relative/friend here) died from cancer does nothing to give me hope or optimism. I’m sorry for your loss but at the same time I am trying to stay positive.
Being alone with your thoughts for extended periods of time can be scary.
Being alone with your thoughts for extended periods of time can also really help you gain perspective and new outlook.
Cancer changed me physically and mentally but I’m still the same person just better.
Telling the people that you love that you have cancer is harder than hearing you have cancer. Saying it out loud makes it real for everyone.
“I got 99 problems but cancer ain’t one”
When you get that NED (no evidence of disease) diagnosis the hardest thing is trying to figure out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
Wow! I can’t believe I finished the list. If you are a cancer survivor or the care giver of someone with cancer, I would love to hear what cancer has taught you. Leave your comments below.
Eleven months in and I thought I would be normal. Normal like, no more cancer, cured, doing all the stuff I used to do, no side effects.
There is no normal after cancer. You can’t go back no matter how hard you try. Thomas Wolfe was right, “you can’t go home again” what you thought was home has been torn down. All you can do is try to rebuild from ashes of memories.
I try to remember what eating and tasting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was like. That was my jam (pun intended) long before Leborn James and the NBA made eating PB&J’s cool.
I now have to plan before eating this delicious treat. Without functioning saliva glands two slices of bread, a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter and a gooey gob of strawberry preserves is too much for my barely functioning saliva glands. A large glass of water plate side is necessary. The water provides a substitution for lack of spit in my mouth. With each bite a swish of water, chew, swish and swallow. Like most of my food the taste is there but muted.
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never have enough” Oprah Winfrey
Obviously Oprah never tried to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without her salvia glands. No matter how thankful I am for the sandwich in my mouth, it won’t make it any easier to chew and swallow.
I get it. I’m lucky. Fortunate. Still alive.
But I’m also pissed. I doesn’t have to be like this for people who come after me. When I look around and see people rejecting science because of celebrity “experts”, politician putting careers before people and debating “health care for all” while no one bats an eye for a military that serves a few I feel hopeless and defeated.
We spend close to $1 trillion dollars a year on a military to keep our citizens safe and protect our boarders. Why not apply the same logic to keeping each other healthy and productive by providing affordable health care to everyone. Why should our normal in staying healthy and have access to quality medical care differ based on income. Normal in our current health care system sucks for so many.
I wish they could try on my normal.
Literally, you should try on my normal, because every night my normal involves putting on a vest and head gear. A vest and head piece that is filled with pneumatic chambers that pulse and massage for 34 minutes. Relaxing yes, but this is not some evening trip to the spa.
This my life, not a getaway with soy candles and trickle music performed by some Kenny G mother fucker. If I don’t put on this vest and head gear nightly after brushing my teeth as well as applying a mouth guard full of fluoride treatment to keep my teeth from separating from my face. There’s a good chance my neck will bulge with lymphatic fluid and my teeth will drop out from my mouth like pennies from heaven.
Here’s where I get really petty. I miss coffee and beer.
I still drink both but miss them at the same time.
I use to be hip as shit. Coffee snob, buying coffee beans that cost $20 a pound. Grinding ’em and brewing them up in my stainless steel home espresso machine, and talking about hints of vanilla and undertones of chocolate.
Now I might as well being grinding up monkey turds and pulling shots of espresso because it all tasted the same thanks to taste buds that were fried with six weeks of radiation.
Yet, I keep on grinding and pulling with the hope that I’ll be able to taste the next shot.
Tell me I should be thankful because at least I have my health and my cancer is in remission and I’ll punch you in the face.
I know and realize that, but that’s not the point. We bicker and fight about “health care for all” yet can’t even cure or eradicate cancer for the people who can afford to get sick, much less those that can’t. That’s fucked.
You’ve got money and health care? Awesome, step right up, we might be able to prolong your life. No promises.
No money or health care? No problem your treatment won’t be top notch but the bills you leave you family will be huge. No promises other than the bills will live on as a way for your family to remember you.
Back to the important stuff.
I miss beer. I am not supposed to drink as it inhibits the healing from my radiation treatment. Fair enough, but maybe what I miss is really tying one on.
I miss going to a show with friends, getting drunk and raising hell. Thanks COVID. Thanks cancer. You two make a shitty no fun sandwhich.
While the world spins on and continues to drink their way through COIVD, I continue to search for the new normal.
Normal now means I have a beauty routine.
Vitamin D cream in the morning followed by a daily application of sunscreen to protect my eight inch neck scar and newly sensitive skin.
Evenings are more vitamin D cream and a CBD balm across the scar. Placebo or not the CBD seems to help relax the tension in my neck cause by the scar tissue and makes the Zzzz’s come a little easier at night.
Going to sleep is the easy part. The hum of the humidifier lulls me to sleep. The kitty litter mouth wakes me two or three times a night. I get up because the humidifier is not enough to make up for the missing salivary glands. I drink a liter of water a night from the time I go to bed to the time I wake up, but that is still not enough. I get out of bed twice a night to gargle with Biotene or spit in a bottle as I like to call it. It’s not enough. The dryness in my mouth causes small sores to form along the edges of my tongue. I know they are not cancerous, but part of normal “after cancer” is always the what if?
Follow up doctor visits
Nagging thoughts of “What ifs”
My new normal sucks.
Sorry, Oprah, your words of wisdom feel a lot like they are coming from someone who can still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with relative easy.
To be thankful for what I’ve got would mean that I am okay with the next generation of cancer patients learning to live with their new normal.
Wanna rewrite what normal is?
Parents ensure your children are getting their vaccines on time. Including the HPV vaccine. Ten, twenty years from now you don’t want to pick up the phone and hear your grown child on the other end telling you they have cancer due to their exposure HPV.
Demand better from your politician. They are supposed to be public servants. Demand they provide the means to better health care for all not just those that can afford it.
Redefine your normal now. All that shit you hear about crappy diets, lack of exercise, and stress in our lives contributing to poor health, a rise in cancer rates and shortened life spans is true. Don’t be like me and wait until you have cancer to evaluate your life. If you are working and living your life in a way that is detrimental then maybe you are going about it all wrong.
Redefine your normal now before cancer does it for you.
I tried to laugh about it Cover it all up with lies I tried to laugh about it Hiding the tears in my eyes ‘Cause boys don’t cry
— Robert Smith/The Cure
I spent the first fifty years of my life trying not to cry, because boys don’t cry.
That is not to say I never cried. I cried when I got spanked as a little kid. Yep, I was spanked as a kid and for better or worse I seemed to have come out okay.
I didn’t cry when I broke my leg in two place during a high school soccer game.
I did cry why when my dog, Flea, died.
I cried again when my dog, Boo, died.
I didn’t really cry when my dad died. I did get really drunk. And then about three weeks later I cried while sitting in my living room by myself.
But for the most part, I haven’t cried that much over the last fifty year. Again, boys don’t cry.
That is until I got cancer. I didn’t cry when I found out I had cancer. In fact I worked the rest of the day and then went home and told my wife I had cancer. She cried.
Somewhere along the way after I got cancer, I gave myself permission to start crying. I still haven’t cried because I have (had) cancer, but I did cry when I had to tell others I had cancer. Seeing the pain and hurt on friends and family’ faces was too much. Screw you Robert Smith, boys do cry.
Now that I have given myself permission to cry it is was easier than not crying.
Giving myself permission became extremely important after my surgery and during my radiation treatment. These are the things I gave myself permission to do…
Feel shitty. No more tough guy and suffering through it. When I feel like crap now I acknowledge it and usually go to bed or get on the sofa to allow myself to heal.
Worry. There’s a lot of stuff to worry about when you have cancer. And people who say, “Don’t worry. It will all be okay” are generally full of shit and don’t really know that much.
Sleep. See number 1 above. Sleep is often the magic bullet to feeling shitty. 2020 the year of COVID, cancer and naps. Naps for the win!
Share my feelings and be vulnerable. My wife and sister say I have gotten much better at this. They are both smarter than me so I will take them at their word. I think this blog is partially to thank for this.
Do what feels right for myself. At the end of the day I had to own my own health and wellbeing.
Be scared. This is like worrying on steroids.
Accept and Trust. At some point I had to stop googling and reading about cancer. Second guessing everything was not helping. I had to trust my doctors and their decisions. I had to learn to accept help from others.
Cry. Because even with permission to do all of the above sometimes boys do need to cry.
My cancer journey. You see it with a hashtag attached to it and if you spend anytime talking with someone who has cancer they will often mention it.
What is it, you ask? In short, it’s a way that the cancer community politely says “I will never get used to this f’ed up lifestyle that is caused by this disease that, while the medical community continues to make great strides in curing, still throws curve balls at me, which often leave me feeling confused and alone but, despite all those associated lows, I still experience some incredible days that are full of awe and wonder.”
Really, though, what is it?
Well, it’s a journey for sure but maybe the easiest way to explain it is to think about it as a hike.
This is how the hike plays out:
One day you’re sitting around the house or maybe at work and the phone rings. It’s your doctor. You just went and saw her the other day because you just haven’t been feeling all that great. She confirms the worst fear you have about your health. Quickly, though, she lets you know that there may be help available for you in the form of a hike.
She goes on tell you that it will be a difficult hike though, tougher, in fact, than any hike you have ever done. She doesn’t say it but you infer what she means: ‘This hike is often worse than your current health issues and, quite honestly, not everyone finishes it. Best of luck to you.’
A week or so later you start hiking. You would have preferred to start immediately but there was a ton of paperwork you had to fill out first, both for work and for your insurance company. Insurance company? Why do you need permission to go on the hike, you ask? Well, you don’t. Unless, of course, you don’t want to pay for all the expenses yourself and then, well, you do.
At first the hike is pretty easy. Almost becoming routine, you march forward, one foot in front of the other. The days tick by and you occasionally pass other hikers. They’re all friendly but many of them look worn down and seem to stumble along the trail. You stop to chat. After all, you’re all on the same journey, right? You try to hide your alarm as some of them mention that this is their second, third or even fourth time on this particular hike. It is also about this time that you first hear about Ned, whose name is always said with reverence, as if he is some mythical and elusive unicorn.
By the third week this hike is really starting to wear on you. You can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that’s causing your incredible fatigue. Perhaps it’s the fact that all your food has begun tasting like metal. You know you should eat because you need the energy but somedays you just don’t feel like eating. In fact, the more tired you get, the less and less you feel like eating at all.
When night falls you are thoroughly exhausted. You’ve actually been exhausted all day but you’ve had to keep moving forward, whether you wanted to or not. You continue to pass others on the trail or perhaps they pass you because, to be honest, you’re not moving very swiftly. Some of these passersby offer their most sincere words of encouragement. They tell you that you are a warrior and inspiration! You hardly feel like either of those things, though. You just feel tired and in desperate need of sleep.
As your head moves in a slow arc toward your pillow, you smile at the restoration that you imagine will ensue. Your soft pillow and fluffy down sleeping bag, both of which were so warm and comforting just a few weeks ago, rub angrily against your sensitive skin and irritate it to no end. You seize. What’s up with you, Skin? Your flesh is so immeasurably tender that the slightest touch immediately sends a rush of tiny embers of pain richocheting throughout your body. Your skin is cracked and peeling. An Oil of Ole model you are most definitely not. You plead with your skin to mercilessly stop and allow you to sleep and sometimes, just sometimes, it relents just enough to get through the night.
When you awake the next morning, however, you are usually no more rested than you were the night before. By the way, why are there clumps of your hair floating around in the tent? Weird. You touch your hand to your head and come back with a handful of hair…
Now you are taking on the same look of some of the other hikers you’ve seen on this trail. You’ve gone ahead and shaved your head. Why bother and wait for the slow and inevitable loss? Bald is beautiful, right? That’s what all the hikers say, at least. They continue to cheer you on. Like it or not, you are now a bald and inspiring warrior. Or so you’re told. In truth, you just feel like shit.
You’re not sure how much further you can go on this hike. You talk to others and hear stories about other hikers who gave up on looking for Ned. You’re still not even sure about this Ned guy. All you know is that it is imperative that you find him. You ask them why others gave up on Ned and everyone seems to have a different explanation.
Many hikers simply run out of money, as their insurance companies (if they even have that luxury) provide such little financial assistance that they have no other choice but to make the futile attempt to pay for their own medical expenses. Almost inevitably, those people are overrun with debt, which is so incredibly burdensome that it weights on the them like a 500 lbs backpack. With each step forward, this gross and unrelenting weight on their backs causes people to bend over further and further until they can hardly lift their heads enough to see the trail ahead of them. You think back to your first “bill” for this hike (a whopping $36,000!) and count your lucky stars that your insurance covered as much as it had so far.
Absolutely NO ONE has chosen to go on this wretched hike, yet it becomes obvious that some are better prepared than others. Some wear fancy hiking boots and carry carbon walking sticks. Some are even afforded a sherpa to carry their packs for them. Others, however, walk along on their tired and badly blistered bare feet, all their belongings stuffed in a paper bag.
This rude lack of equality weighs heavily on you but, like so many others on this trail, your own pack has gotten so heavy that all you can do is trudge forward, eyes on the ground, one foot in front of the other. You promise yourself that when this is all over you’ll give back and help make a difference. Again, though, you’ve got to find this Ned guy first.
What sucks is you still can’t eat. It hurts to swallow. Hell, it hurts to breathe. You’re losing weight. As the pack shifts and pulls across your shoulders it leaves weeping open sores. Some of your fellow hikers tout different kinds of miracle creams to help with the painful sores. Their suggestions help but only temporarily. You often wake up stuck to your sleeping bag in the morning, as all the sores oozed and then dried throughout the night.
The sun has beaten you when you arrive at your next camp. It is quite dark and a small group of hooded hikers sits around a fire. You stand on the edge of the shadows and listen to their quiet conversations. They talk about those hikers that are still seeking Ned. Some, they say, will find Ned and move forward, continuing to contribute to society for many years to come. Others, sadly, will come close but never actually find Ned. The figures roll the bones and make notes on their tally sheets. Your eyes grow big in horror. Tonight you sleep in the bushes, as you’re afraid to enter the circle of campfire light.
Your feet drag like the days. On and on and on. And then…
NED, 1o Miles
You can hardly believe it! For real?! Your pace and heart quicken. The day, however, drags on as does the next one and the one after that. NEVER has ten miles taken seemed like such a long and unattainable distance! You try to remain optimistic about the rest of your hike but worry and doubt have pushed against your thoughts and they slowly take over.
What if Ned isn’t there? What if I don’t make it?
You keep pushing and pushing yourself until one day you look up and you realize that you’ve finally found him!
No Evidence of Disease. His is the name that every cancer patient wants to hear. Some hear it sooner than others while still some never do. Others hear it more than once, as their cancer journeys often start over. Sometimes months later. Sometimes years later.
Finding Ned is undoubtedly the most joyous day for every hiker on this path. The grueling back-breaking pack of doubt, worry and anxiety you’ve been carefully balancing has finally and mercifully been removed. You take a deep breath and stand up a little straighter, a little stronger. You are now ready to face whatever is next for you, which, hopefully, is a trek far, far removed from that which you just endured–and survived!
The miles were ticking by under the steady systematic whir of bike gears and the cereal like crunch of Kansas’s flint gravel. My body was on cruise control and even though I was only 70 miles in of the 200 mile Dirty Kanza I was confident that I would finish before the sunset at 8:45pm of what was turning into a perfect summer day. The wind was at my back and I had dodged the early mechanical problems that befell many riders in the first muddy 20 miles. I was dancing on the pedals as I passed other riders on the steep punchy hills.
And then the wheels came off the wagon, more specifically my pedal came off. An overlooked regular maintenance of my pedals had caused the body of my pedal to come detached from the spindle. The pedal body was still attached to the metal cleat on the bottom my cycling shoe and after removing it was I unable to reattach it to the spindle. I stood road side and watch riders I had passed a short while ago zip by offering words of encouragement.
Screw encouragement, what I need was a new set of pedals. Standing in the middle of the tall grass prairie of Kansas it didn’t seem very likely that a pedal was going to drop out of the sky. I was in fact up the proverbial shit creek without a paddle. To take it one step further I was now the one legged man in an ass kicking contest.
It was time to HTFU. I could do this. Only 30 miles to the 100 mile check point
If you made it this far in the blog, you are probably saying to yourself, “I though cycling was supposed to be fun.”
No doubt cycling is fun. If it wasn’t we would not have seen the boom in cycling this year during COVID. In fact according to an article in the LA Times urban bike use is up 21% in 2020, the Rails to Trails Conservancy has seen trail use skyrocket by 110% and swing into any bike shop and you will see quickly that there aren’t that many bikes for purchase due to the run on new bikes.
For the longest time I have belonged to the small tribe of people who know the freedom and joy a bike brings. I am happy to see that tribe grow. Within my tribe there is even a smaller tribe (though it is growing too) that gets a thrill out pushing themselves beyond what most would consider normal on the bike.
Interesting the tribes of cycling tend to embrace cliches as mantras and a way to identify each other. Whether it’s the ones I used above in my opening paragraphs or to embellish my stories post ride when I talk of “dropping the hammer” and “riding on the rivets” to bring back the break, the cliches exist. They act as a way for one fellow cyclist to identify another, to create a sense of cool and intended or not to alienate those who aren’t in our tribe.
This year I joined another tribe and quickly learned that we too have a whole host of cliches designed to motivate, give hope and encouragement. I always thought of myself and other cyclist in my tribe to be tough, but quickly learned no one hardens the fuck up like the cancer community.
Once the word is out that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer you are quickly labeled a warrior, a fighter and inspirational. For some this doesn’t sit so well and before I was diagnosed with cancer this year I often thought it felt a bit dramatic. Now, I am not so sure. Once I heard those words, “you have cancer”, I quickly found myself grabbing every cliche out there and attaching it to myself like a comfort blanket and suit of armor all rolled into one. This wasn’t a fucking pedal falling off my bike. This was my the cells in my neck and throat growing out of control and crowding out my healthy cells. For Pat Benatar Love is Battlefield for me my body was a battlefield and my tumor on my neck was literally the Battle of the Bulge.
So when do cliches help and when do they harm? For me and I think for many with cancer, they provide a bit of fantasy for us to hold on to in a time of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear. If a person can imagine themselves as some type of strong leather clad sword wielding warrior who despite tough odds is standing up to fight another day, then I say go with it if it makes getting through the chemo or another round of radiation a bit easier.
Let’s pull back and look at it from another point of view. Cliches like stereotypes can be, intended or not, hurtful and demeaning. That same person you call brave, a true warrior and an inspiration to others as they battle cancer may feel a ton of pressure an anxiety when you drop those labels on them. There is actual research that those cliches that we often think of as being supportive and encouraging are actually inappropriate and anxiety inducing.
I would like to think I am a fighter and a warrior but the reality is I can’t fight my cancer. Punching myself repeatedly in the neck is not going knock my cancer out.
In the end I’m glad I am inspiration and that you are rooting, praying and thinking about me and every other person who has cancer. I would ask that you take it one step further. Forgo the cliche statements and take action and help make a difference.
Donate to cancer research
“Let me know if you need anything.” act on that cliche. Most people are too proud to actually ask for help so instead do something for them without being asked.
Get your vaccines and make sure your family does too. The HPV vaccine greatly reduces the risk of cervical, anal, penile and oral cancer. Flu shots not only reduce your risk of the flu but keep people with compromised immune systems safe.
Wrapping this up and probably the only thing you can think about is, “Enough of this cancer shit. Did you finish the DK 200?”
Hell yeah I did. I reach deep into my “suitcase of courage”, rode 30 miles on one pedal, got a new set of pedals from my support crew at mile 100 and then engaged in a 100 mile sufferfest while “deep in the pain locker” in to a headwind. That shit was easy compared to cancer. The Dirty Kanza has a finish line. Cancer always has a what’s next.
I appreciate the chances to come and hang out with you and your family this weekend. It’s been a crazy kinda of COVID year and doing something as normal as a picnic just felt good. So, thank you.
Meeting your friends and family got me thinking and appreciative of my cancer. It’s kind of tough to say that there is anything about cancer to be appreicative or thankful for, but this year I am starting to see the silver lining in things a lot more than I use to.
On the surface it would be easy for people to say that there is no reason you and I should be friends.
You like Keystone Light, which if he were alive I know my dad would appreciate. I like overpriced locally brewed IPA’s.
You love to fish and I can’t even cast a line without catching the closest tree branch. Instead I spend my time relaxing perched on top of a skinny bicycle seat pedaling away for hours.
You’re a smoker and I am an asthmatic. But let me say I admire the big fuck you that you give to cancer by continuing to smoke even though I am sure your doctors have told you to stop.
You’ve got a large wonderful family of kids and grandkids. I’ve got three cats. In common we both have wonderful wives who love us and for that I know we are both grateful beyond words
The picnic today proved you have an infinity for all things meat cooked on the grill. I’m a vegetarian who still loves the smell of brats and hamburgers sizzling over an open flame. It was all I could do to not fall off the veggie wagon today.
So why are we friends?
Well as we both discovered at the picnic that we like those little shooter of Honey Jim Beam, but I think it’s more than that.
It would also be easy to say that we are friends because we both have been fighting cancer this year and our radiation appointments where next to each other Monday through Friday at 845am and 9am, but it’s more than just hospital administrative scheduling.
I think for people to be friends each person has to offer or bring something to the friendship that the other person might be lacking or in need of to improve themselves.
For me, the first time I heard your booming, “Alright, alright. It’s a good day.” bouncing down the hallway of the radiation office hallway my spirits where lifted a little bit higher at a time when I couldn’t always be so optimistic.
I know I am not the only one who felt that way. I would catch the nurses and technicians smiling at each other when they heard you. You brought a little bit of joy, optimism and sunshine into a place that just doesn’t see enough of that every day.
For that we are all grateful.
I remember the first time we exchanged cancer diagnosis info standing outside Swedish Medical. I realized quickly you were one tough son of a bitch. Here I am thinking I have it bad with six weeks of radiation treatment and you are rattling off the brain surgeries you’ve had, the fact that you are doing a chemo treatment and radiation therapy. Not once was there a bit of self pity or feeling sorry for your self. Like I said, one tough son of a bitch.
During my treatment I was reading a book about the legendary Boston Celtics player, Larry Bird. He was known for his toughness and ability to play through all sorts of injuries and pain never letting on that he was suffering. You, my man, are the Larry Bird of cancer treatment.
I’m telling you all this because I feel it’s important for you to know that even though our friendship is new and has been brief you’ve had a real impact on my life.
So, thank you for taking the time to show me what strength and humility look like during the toughest and shittiest times of our lives.
I start this letter with hesitation. I know that I can be preachy, a know it all and just a general pain in the ass. I can read a book or listen to a podcast and all of sudden I’m expert. In fact I’m pretty sure I could preform open heart surgery if the book had step my step illustrations.
Knowing this about me, know this letter comes from a place of love and concern. Here goes…
First things first. I don’t want you to get cancer. I’m sure you don’t want it either. There are some things that no one wishes for.
Statistically about a third of the population will get cancer. The lucky ones will get it very late in their life and it will have no or very little effect on the quality of their life. I want you to be in the two-thirds group from start to finish.
Here’s a another truth about me. I am a selfish individual. Going through my own cancer treatment has sucked. I’ve been sliced opened, biopsied and radiated until I glowed nuclear green. At the end of the day that’s all temporary and I think I did a pretty good job of sucking it up and muscling through it. They (not sure who they is but they are credible) say that our bodies can’t remember physical pain. I would agreed with that as I can’t actually recall the pain and discomfort I went through.
What I do remember is the pain and sadness on your face when I told you I had cancer.
I remember the look of hopelessness and concern on your face when I came out from under the anesthesia after five hours of surgery.
I remember how you would quickly ask what was wrong when I shifted to get comfortable on the hospital bed or at home on the sofa as I let out a groan.
I remember the guilty look on your face as we ate dinner and you were enjoying your food while I had to use lidocaine to numb my throat just so I could swallow mushy bland foods. Strangely I still love and eat oatmeal for breakfast almost every day.
I don’t want to to be in the position that you have been in for the last six months. I’m not sure I could deomonstrate the type of strength you have shown.
So help me and do a couple of things to take care of yourself and put the odds in your favor that you want get diagnosed with cancer.
Here comes the preachy part. Can I get an amen!
Don’t use a tobacco. That’s a no brainer. We’ve heard it all our lives and the tobacco industry finally came clean, that yes maybe they had been suppressing data for years that using tobacco was bad for you. So don’t start and if you already do use tobacco, stop. And no vape pens are not a healthy alternative. Plus is makes your look like a tool sucking on that glowing electric phallic device.
Exercise. Get outside– walk, run, hike, ride a bike or skip across a meadow. Just move. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it a lot and sometimes do it hard. Your body will thank you for it.
Eat well. Eat more fruits and vegetables than you do meat. Avoid processed meats. Question foods that say ‘fortified’ Why would a company remove all the nutrients just to add them back in? Drink lots of water. Avoid foods with added sugar and artificial sweetners.
Maintain a health weight. See numbers 2 and 3 above to help you with this. There is no magic diet that will help you loose weight and keep it off. Strive for balance and consistentcy
Limit alcohol. Yeah this one kills me too but the data supports it. Less alcohol in your life lessens your chances of having cancer in your life. Following this will help with number 5.
Ensure your kids get immunized. My particular neck/oral cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) also causes cervical cancer. A simple vaccine can greatly reduce your or your child’s risk. While you’re at it practice safe sex and talk to your children about how to practice safe sex. HPV, of which there are over a hundred types, is the most common sexual transmitted disease in the United States . Between the ages of 11-12 is the best time for the vaccine to be administered but can be started as early as age 9 and adminstered up until age 26.
Know your family medical history and follow your doctor’s recommendation for screenings
Avoid long bouts of unprotected time in the sun. Wear sunscreen especially on your face, neck and ears. Don’t ignore that weird growth that seemed to show up overnight on your neck. Get it looked at by a doctor.
So please, love yourself as much as I love you. Take care of yourself. I need you in my life as long as possible.
P.S. Bonus points. Share this with someone you love.
No I am not a doctor but at the same time I did not make up the above advice. No #fakenews was used to write this blog. I write from the heart but the science is real.
There are a lot of great credible sources out there that I have used to educate myself on my cancer journey. Below is a short list.
Eeeeeeek….. the piercing scream of the small child shattered the quiet murmur of the grocery store. Even the soft 80’s rock being piped in from the speakers of above seemed to pause for a heartbeat.
“Mommy! It’s the cereal monster!”
“Shit” I was in the cereal aisle. Cancer and COVID hadn’t killed me but all of sudden I was in danger of being ripped to pieces by a cereal monster. Whatever the hell that was.
“Caitlyn! Hush! It’s not nice to point.” I heard a frantic mother admonishing her child. Looking to my left I could see the exasperated mother quietly trying to correct her child while pushing her young stubby arm down. I realized too late that the child was clearly pointing at me.
Instinctively, my hand went to my mask-covered face and touched the visible scabs and dermatitis which were left by weeks of radiation to my throat and face. There’s no doubt that the dried scabs resembled bloody cornflakes. From a vampire’s perspective, I probably looked like a a heaven-sent breakfast. To a small child, however, I looked exactly like the Cereal Monster. The irony of the situation did not escape me. Looking like I did, I was indeed standing in the cereal aisle, directly in front of the corn flakes.
I toyed with the idea of raising my hands above my head in my best Lon Chaney* impression and advancing on the still terrified child and her mortified mother. From a monster’s perspective, the child was worth terrorizing before consuming. She had obviously been plumped for maximum monster diet satiation from a steady diet of sugary cereals. In the end, though, I let her scurry off with an oversized box of Lucky Charms clutched in her grubby hands. Truly, it was her lucky day to have escaped the Cereal Monster.
I’ve been noticing the side effects of my radiation treatments for several weeks but, like anything we live with, we tend to forget about or at least push them to the back of our minds. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change, right? For others, though, coming across my new radiation enhancements was a bit startling.
I actually felt pretty fortunate, as many of my side effects didn’t show up until late in my treatment. The ones that did were likely to go unnoticed. The splotchy hair growth on my face was a great example.
One month into the COVID “Shelter at Home” order I didn’t look much different than many of the zombified dads I saw trudging around my neighborhood with kids in tow. There are only so many times you can mow your grass in a week. So many of these dads had been recruited as de facto baby sitters by moms with jobs or moms who were just sick of doing all the heavy lifting. Moms inevitably sent Dads and their broods out into the neighborhood.
This new Dad Look of dirty sweat pants, uncombed hair and patchy razor stubble from half hearted shaving attempts came from the hard realization that home schooling kids for eight hours a day, providing three square meals and being a constant source of entertainment was hard work. And to think that so many of us complained about the quality of public education pre-COVID! Walk a mile in a teacher’s shoes and you will be singing a different tune.
My look, while similar to those shell-shocked dads, was cultivated from a lack of energy and the inability of my facial hair to grow back where the radiation had entered and exited my face and neck. Along the way, the the radiation also nibbled away at my energy like a mouse does cheese.
It’s human nature to want to pick and poke at growths and oddities that arrive on our skin. And there’s clearly a reason that a show like DoctorPimple Popper not only exists–but thrives!
Running out of your own zits to harvest? No worries! We at TLC have your “Summer of Pop-A-Palooza!” I kid you not. That’s precisely how the show was advertised.
That leads me back to the time I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror and marveling at my patchy hair growth. I rubbed my finger across the stubble and was surprised to feel the hairs come off under my fingers. I was my on Wolly Willy.
I began by rubbing out some totally to-die-for hipster side burns. As I began to work on creating an ironic jaw line facial hair, I ran into a problem. Not only was my facial stubble coming off but so was my skin! Not wanting to rub down to raw bone, I immediately stopped, turned on the faucet and rinsed my facial hair stylings (and a bit of skin) down the drain.
Fun and games aside, when I’m not terrorizing small children and trying to create my own “non-dad’s frazzled sheltering-in-place look,” I’m busy trying to force food down my gullet. The oncology medical teams preach trying to eat healthy and enough(!) in order to maintain an appropriate weight during treatment, just like a Pentecostal pastor preaches abstinence and waves poisonous snakes above his head. The body needs those nutrients and protein as it battles to rebuild the healthy cells which have been knocked out by the radiation. Losing too much weight can result (in my case) of my mask not fitting properly. That could result in having to have a new mask made and, with that, new points mapped on my head and neck to ensure the radiation still targets the correct areas.
How hard could eating possibly be? It actually wasn’t too bad the first week or two. Slowly, though, the radiation began to do strange things to my body, specifically to my taste buds, my saliva glands and the entire interior of my mouth.
Have you ever been punk’d by someone who gives you what you think is one food but it actually tastes like something else? I can remember being punk’d as a kid and punking others with baker’s chocolate.What looks like sweet milk chocolate can be bitter and disappointing.
Radiation Therapy is the Ashton Kutcher of medical treatments. Ashton Kutcher has been living in my mouth for five weeks now and punking me along the way. Everything that passes my lips taste like wet cardboard despite my expectations. I’m not talking about a really nice high end cardboard that you might find a box of Jimmy Choo’s nestled in. I am talking about the cardboard you find in a basement coated in years of dirt and cobwebs.
And because I have a hard time producing saliva, I eat with a water glass in hand to help moisten the cardboard as it slowly dissolves in my mouth into a thick paper mâché. Ashton is no help either. He sits across from me usually with large piping hot large extra cheese pizza in front of him. Laughing as I gag my food down.
The other day Ashton got a taste of his own medicine. As he was shoving a slice into his maw, I could tell something was wrong. His moans of food pleasure suddenly stopped. With his mouth agape, he bent forward and expelled the bubbling hot pizza back on to his plate.
“Ahh..ahg…my mouth.. so hot…burns”
Pizza cheese burn. Culinary napalm that sticks to the roof of your mouth and leaves sores, blisters and the inability to eat anything crunchy for days.
Welcome to my world Mr. Kutcher, where the inside of your mouth is raw and tender. Chewing becomes not only a challenge but a small victory when you can masticate your food into small enough bits that swallowing only hurts as bad as the chewing–and not worse.
Shortly after the pizza incident, Ashton packed up and headed back to Hollywood. Evidently California has some of the best pizza burn doctors in the world many will often throw in a face tuck or a shot of botox for a nominal charge.
Lucky for me, my mouth seems to be on the rebound, as well. Each day it gets a little easier to eat. I’ve graduated to a better tasting cardboard and the sores inside and out are starting to heal. Now if I can only find a surgeon who can do something about this cereal on my face.
*Interesting fact. After writing this sentence I did a quick Google search of Lon Chaney as I couldn’t remember if it was Lon or Laun. Turns out that Chaney was diagnosed and struggling with bronchial lung cancer which was exacerbated by artificial snow made with cornflakes that became lodged in his throat during the filming of Thunder.
No one ever accused me of being a star student. In fact I spent the first part of my early childhood education in “behavior disorder classes”. Being a pre-Ritalin child there was not a magic pill to keep me in my seat so I was sent to the BD class to give the teacher and other students a break from my exuberance. High school and college were better but I am not sure that I learned a lot that moved me forward in life. Instead I took so much more away from the informal education that was provided to me. Waiting tables and bartending, I engrained the mantra of my GM, Dick Rowe, “kill ’em with kindness” into my brain so that it resonates even today in my head when I deal with an upset customer in my current role as a outdoor retail store manager. Racing bikes taught me the value of creating and following a plan. If you want to go faster and farther then you better have a plan to get there and make sure you stick to it.
This is not to dismiss formal education. Without a formal education most of us would still be counting on our fingers and toes and reading and writing on a level of a student in a school run be Betsy DeVos. Where would high school grads be without the idea of furthering their formal education by heading off to college. Universities often tout this higher formalized education as what shapes and molds young adults into productive members of society. If I remember correctly formal education was Monday through Thursday (I never took classes that met on Friday) and the weekend shifted away from Friday to Sunday and instead begin on Thursday as soon my last class ended. The real learning began on those long weekends.
Once the weekend begins the informal learning began. Some of these informal courses that I and my keg buddy peers dabbled in that were offered in the informal class room of life included- Finance for Beginners- How to Drink on the Cheap all Weekend Long, Discovering the Science of Optics with Beer Goggles, Your First DUI an Introduction to our Legal System, and Math for Beginners- negative numbers in your checkbook are less than zero.
Informal learning never stops and this is the case when your are diagnosed with cancer. Yes, there is plenty of formal learning that happens. I know I regret not having paid better attention in some of my science classes. If I had paid attention instead of doodling penis and boobs in my anatomy and biology books, I might have actually remembered that we have hundreds of lymph nodes in our body and not the six to eight I thought I had. Surely this would have saved me from an internal freakout when the doctor told me they removed 18 of them from the right side of my neck. In my mind I was now down negative ten lymph nodes. Lucky for me a quick formal lesson from the doctor set me straight. Obviously and thank goodness he got much more out of his formal education.
Since my diagnosis the learning for me has not stopped. I am learning more about cancer than I want to, discovering things about myself and realizing that friends and family are the shit when you are going through the shit.
The formal education started shortly after my diagnosis as I began making the rounds to the various doctors that would be part of my treatment. Armed with a stack of pamphlets, I headed home for some formal education. There was much learning to be done around the human papillomaviurs (HPV), what a bilateral neck dissection is, and which is worse P16+ or P16-.
When the doctor told me that I would need radiation treatment after my surgery I was super excited. As a Marvel comics fan I quickly begin to envision all the super powers I would be blessed with. Maybe even better I could pick the ones I would have. I could have the doctor tweak the dials for super strength and invisibility. Sadly my formal education had failed me again and the doctor shortly after he explained lymph nodes to me also explained that the type of radiation treatment I would be receiving would not endow me with super power. I was obviously confusing cancer radiation treatment with radioactive spider bites `a la Peter Parker.
The formal educational pamphlets provide a ton of insight and helped me understand in not too scary terms in what I could expect before, during and after my treatment. There is always a big emphasis on every person is different in how they respond to treatments and the phrase “you may experience…” showed up a lot when reading about the various side effects and outcomes I could expect. Fare enough but what I learned is you don’t know until you know.
For example when they talk about people experiencing a metallic taste in their mouth during radiation treatment, what I really learned is that unless you have sucked on a handful of nickels while trying to eat dinner then you really can’t comprehend that metallic taste.
The formal is transcribed into the informal learning on almost a daily basis before and during treatment. When my doctor explained to me about my bilateral neck dissection and partial tonsillectomy, I could not comprehend what he meant when he said I would be in a lot of pain and discomfort after the surgery. I quickly learned that having a tonsillectomy as an adult hurts. Not like in a John Cougar Mellencamp “Hurts so Good” way but like swallowing a metal spikey ball way. And because there is only so much damage you can do on the inside of a person’s mouth and throat, I was also filleted open along the right side of my neck. I got a small taste of what it might be like to have a stroke as I woke to find I had reduced control of the right side of my face and shoulder. Evidently you have to go through a lot of muscle and nerves to get to those lymph nodes.
“You may experience…” also showed up, in a lot of the literature I was given, when talking about energy level, brushing your teach, and dry mouth. I now know what it feels like to be an old outdated iPhone. I could start the the day with a 100% charged battery but after just a few hours of use I would be flashing the 10% battery life left warning. I often felt like an iPhone 6 in an iPhone 11 world.
Brushing my teeth which I had always taken for granted now became a thing of abject misery. A sharp pointy stick poking repeatedly at the sores on the inside of my cheeks, I quickly learned could not have felt any worse than my toothbrush. I am still pining for the good old days when I could just turn on my trusty Sonicare toothbrush and let its vibrating bristles work their magic on my teeth.
There is not enough water on the planet to cure the dry mouth caused by the radiation treatment. The “you may experience” dry mouth and will need to ensure you are staying adequately hydrated sections of the formal cancer literature should be replaced. Instead it should state “to understand the type of dry mouth you will experience please do the following. One, take a hair dryer and turn on to highest heat setting. Open mouth and allow hair dryer to blast hot air into your mouth for five minutes. Next shove 10-15 saltine crackers into your mouth and begin chewing while still running the hair dry at full blast. Once completed if you still have any moisture in your mouth repeat.
Trying to solve dry mouth by drinking copious amounts of water only creates other problems. I spent so much time through out the day getting up to pee that I actually got a call from my utility company. They had noticed a spike in our water usage and were calling to let me know they suspected we had a water leak at our house. I thanked them them and let them know that we had just been eating a lot more saltines and in turn had upped our water consumption.
The list goes on and on for the day to day informal lessons cancer has provided my body. Who knew that pain killers caused constipation? A reason unto itself not to get addicted. Who wants to be strung out and full of shit?
Radiation treatment around your head and neck region shortens shaving times. With hair only growing back in patches I can shave my entire face with out having to lather up with Barbasol.
Surgery and radiation are (at least according to my stack of literature) effective treatments agains cancer, but naps and naps with cats can do wonders, too.
Not all my cancer learnings have been about the physical. Friends and family are a must (It goes without saying that great doctors and medical staff also help. I’m very fortunate as I have all of them in spades) in making sure you can push through the shitty times. Here’s a short list of how I’ve leaned on friends and family these past months.
Leveraged my illness to get lots of cookies by telling them that my doctor actually encouraged me to eat cookies to maintain my weight.
Same as number one but insert beer for cookies. No I have not been sitting around the house drinking beer during my treatment but I did have a couple of beers once I was able to after I healed up from surgery and before I started radiation.
Trick them into helping me knock out my Honey Do List. This actually happened by accident when I mentioned to an electrical engineer friend that I was going to replace some wall receptacles as soon as I felt better. It took him longer to go to the hardware store to purchase them that it did for him to actually replace them. I’m still looking for someone to trick help with some painting.
Food, food and more food. At times I felt like I was in a foodie wet dream. Our fridge and freezer were stocked with homemade soups, pastas and chilies. Four weeks after my surgery we were still living off the kindness of incredible friends who also turned out to be amazing cooks.
Companionship. Sometimes just having a friend or family person in the room was enough. No words needed.
Had a laugh at their expense by making inappropriate cancer jokes.
Letting myself be vulnerable and letting people help me. This was tough me for me as I like to think of myself as being pretty independent, but I realize that my friends and family were there because they wanted to help and support me and I needed to let them do that.
I am not sure that I am going to come out of this cancer thing on the other side any smarter but I am hoping for a little bit more wisdom, humility and compassion. I use to roll my eyes when I heard someone talk about how cancer changed their life or scoff at the idea of pink ribbons and charity rides. Maybe some of that came from my own stupidity (okay maybe a lot of it came from that) or some sense of invincibility that because I ate healthy and exercised that I wouldn’t get cancer.
Cancer has changed my life. No I don’t have super powers but I do have super friends and family. I don’t have all the answers but I do have a new way at looking at my life and how I view others. I don’t have everything but I do have a chance to help others have more. And that I didn’t have to go to school to learn.
The high speed crunch of gravel under my bikes tires was the only sound that punctured the quite of the Appalachian forest.
The day had not gone as planned. Exploring the back roads outside Asheville, NC I was convinced I could find a gravel road that would take me up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. If my map skills were correct I would pop out just a few miles below the start of the climb to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.
The gravel road turned to a a large rocky double wide track and soon my map reading skills (or lack of) were confirmed as the road narrowed to an overgrown trail.
No worries. The climb to this point and had been long and hard. The way back would be fast and fun.
And here I was, flying down the gravel road.
And then there I was flying over the handle bars. Flying for so long I begin to run through the options of what would happen when I hit the ground. Broken collar bone. Concussion, Cuts and bruises. Or worse.
Oof. My face and helmet slowed my acceleration as I skidded down the road. My bike laid behind me. Stopped in place with a large rock that had flipped up wedged between the tire and the front fork.
I laid in the dirt accessing my injuries. This turns out was not how I would die.
I would test the death by bike theory a couple of more times in the years to come. Once more by launching over the handle bars during a sprint finish at a race. Thirty two miles an hour face first into the pavement didn’t kill me
The inattentive old man in the Honda CRV couldn’t get the job done either. Despite the illegal u-turn in downtown Morrison, CO that sent me over the hood, into oncoming lane of traffic and again face first on to the pavement. The theme was the same but fortunately for me the result wasn’t death.
How do I die?
Thanks to David Baron, author of The Beast in the Garden, I was sure for the longest time that it would be death by mountain lion. Baron lays out in chilling detail the beauty and stealth of the American mountain lion and how they have come back to the reclaim the land we stole from them.
Long before I moved to Colorado, where we have mountain lions like dogs have fleas, I was convinced that every solo bike ride or hike was solo only in that I didn’t see the mountain lion stalking, scrutinizing, and evaluating me as a meal option. Only after it realized how scrawny and lacking in meat on my bones was I passed over as a meal. Sometimes it pays to be lacking in caloric value.
Baron hypothesizes that anyone who spends any time in the wilderness in mountain lion country has been stalked or observed by a mountain lion. Often on late night commute homes, I felt lucky to make it home alive. I would thank my lucky stars as I pulled up in to my driveway. Amazed I hadn’t been snatched by a mountain lion from behind the wheel of my car while sitting at a stop sign or attacked from behind while pumping gas. Yes, the mountain lions in my death scenario stalk hapless white suburban dudes late in the evening. At the bottom of the urban food chain my time on Earth was destended to be short. I was convinced they were every where. It was only a matter of time.
You would think a vacation to the beach would help ease my mind but where mountain lions could not tread sharks waited for me to place my tasty little toes in the water. Vacations to the beach are relaxing for some, but for me they are nothing but a long sandy funeral procession.
Death by shark began long before the paranoia of death by mountain lion set in. Growing up in Georgia every summer required a family vacation to Florida. As we crossed the state line a bulletin would go out and the sharks like horse flies swarming on a cows ass would begin to gather off shore.
Maybe age six was a tad to young to see Jaws and maybe age six is also way to young to begin thinking about how you will die.
Feigning fun splashing in the ocean as a child I would pee in my little swim trunks hoping that sharks would find the taste of little boy mixed with urine unappetizing and at the least not very nutrious. At the same time standing in the water shivering with fright, wondering if the scab on my knee had been loosened by the warm salt water and was now sending out an invitation for sharks in a hundred mile radius that there was a young boy like a wheel of stinky French cheese marinating in salt water and urine ripe for the eating.
At some point I stopped thinking about how I was going to die. Occasionally as I pedaled solo through an eerily quite grove of trees or sat on a surfboard bobbing off the coast of Oregon at Otter Rock, I would be struck with a moment of “Oh, shit!” this it. Then a bird with chirp or an curious otter would poke her head from the water to inspect the strange creature floating on the board and the thought would fade from my head.
It wasn’t until my doctor called me a in January this year to tell me that I had cancer that I began to think that maybe the mountain lions and sharks would not get me after all.
But this is not how I die? Actually I don’t know this, but I believe it’s true. One bilateral neck surgery and half way through six weeks of radiation treatment I feel strong, confidant and resolved to keep on going.
Radiation sucks but it doesn’t feel like the life is slowly being drained from. I am tired. My throat is dry and sore. Food taste metallic but I force myself to eat.
I am fortunate.
I see the eyes of some of my fellow patients and can tell they are fighting. No, deciding if the struggle is worth it. I don’t know their diagnosis or their treatments but they are obviously worse than mine. Maybe the chemo that is poisoning their bodies while killing off the cancer is just too much for them to handle. I hope not. Maybe this is the second, third or fourth time their cancer (It is always our cancer. It’s too personal to be anything but ours) has come back. The fight that was there in rounds two, three and four has disappeared. I hope not.
Their stress is real and palatable. We all wear mask, because this year fighting cancer got a little bid harder when COVID19 showed up. Fighting for our lives just got a little bit harder. Like running a marathon while being chased my mountain lions but now someone is shooting at you too.
The mask dehumanize us and the encouraging or friendly smiles are lost behind the surgical material and cotton that shroud our faces. We try to be human to each other especially since what is happening to our bodies feels some inhuman.
Monday through Friday I pass a gentleman in the hallway. I leaving my treatment and he is headed for his. I call him 9am, the time of his morning treatment, but don’t actually know his name. This doesn’t stop him from always greeting me with a big hello or telling me to enjoy my weekend. Maybe he calls me 845.
I like his optimism. Somehow I don’t think he is afraid of sharks or lions. We don’t have time to. We both have bigger battles to fight.
I’m not even sure where to begin this post. Over the last month I have been “quarantined”. Okay not really quarantine but laid up in the house recovering from cancer surgery. I had what is referred to as a radial neck dissection (large L shaped incision on my neck followed by the removal of 16 lymph nodes) and basically what amounted to a right side tonsillectomy with some biopsy on the base of my right tongue thrown in for good measure. The tonsillectomy or should I say the recovery from the tonsillectomy was some of the most pain I have ever experienced. I am sure there are things that hurt worse but I have no desire to discover them.
I was just a week away from returning to work when I got the news that my company was shutting the doors through March 27th. While engrossed in my shut-in, the world went bat shit crazy and I find myself with millions of new roommates only we can’t share a room much less a work space, a pint at the local bar or even a hand shake.
I wish at this point I had tons of wisdom to share after my 30 days of being homebound but I am afraid it’s really just what has worked for me and hopefully you will gleam a couple of nuggets from it…
Yes, stream Netflix, Apple+, Amazon Prime and so on and so on but do it with intention. Just like beer sometimes you can have too much of good thing. Take a break with the intent of learning, discovering and growing.
Trade your favorite stream for a book or two or three. I have always loved to read but this hiatus from real life has made me realize how little I had been reading the last couple of years. I just finished books number seven and eight yesterday. Yep, I now find myself reading more than one book at a time.
Write a letter or a postcard. I was besieged with generosity from friends, family and co-works while I have been out. After I began feeling better, I sat down and wrote them all thank you cards (Yes, the old fashion kind made from paper and you put them in an envelope with a stamp). It felt good and I am sure that at least some of them enjoyed the surprise of getting something other than their 2020 Census form in the mail. I enjoyed it so much I am continuing to send out cards to folks to just say “hi” and let them know I am thinking of them.
Get outside. Go for a walk, take a bike ride, or get to know your neighbors from a far as you practice social distancing.
Work from home. Strive to be productive and get everything done a quickly as possible. I bet you will begin to realize that so much of your time at work is spent doing things that are unproductive (e.g. meetings, office politics, herding cats)
Online courses. Maybe reading alone is not doing if for you. There are tons of fee and paid classes online.
Cook. I have made so much bread lately. Warm bread with butter never gets old
Plan your summer. This won’t last for every. I have been having a blast pouring of maps and articles on the Colorado Trail as I get ready for my bike packing trip this summer.
Spring clean now. I rescued an entire room in our basement. It’s organized and I repaired a vacuum cleaning that had I had squirreled away down their two years ago. I now own two working vacuum cleaners. I guess you could say “Life doesn’t suck.”
Stay informed but don’t get sucked in. Just because your friend repost something doesn’t make it true.
Resist the urge to panic buy and horde. Remember Y2K?
Support your local food bank with a monetary donation. Most of these food banks are short on volunteers to process and sanitize food donations. It is much easier and safer for them to leverage your cash donation .
Give blood if you can. Call you local Red Cross or blood donation center for details.
Start a blog or a journal. I did. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads it. Sometimes it helps to just get things off our chest.
Take another nap and then go outside again. Sunshine and fresh air are free.
Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegatables. Challenge yourself to cook some healthy meals. It’s safer than take out. https://www.thugkitchen.com
But, order take out from a local restaurant to support your local business.
Do push ups, jumping jacks or body squats. Your gym ( you know the one you never go to) is probably closed. Working out at home is easy and you will be amazed how sweaty you can get even with out that fancy gym equipment.
Meditate, read the Bible or Koran. Strive to bring some peace back into your life. Be patient with yourself and others.
Earlier this year I wrote a very long list (100 items long, to be exact) of things I learned throughout my cancer journey. The downside to the list was that I had to actually be diagnosed with cancer to learn all the stuff. The only way for you, dear reader, to verify I’m telling the truth is to take me at face value or get cancer yourself and see how many things on the list pan out for you.
Well, good news! This new list doesn’t require one to have cancer. All one needs is a bicycle and said list. You may even find the following helpful for general day to day living, as well.
I’ve been riding bikes for most of my life. Graduating from a Big Wheel to a PeeWee Herman type bike around the age of five has allowed me a lot of time in the saddle. Granted, my love of the bike waned in high school, as riding a bike wasn’t cool and if you didn’t have access to a car you did the next best thing, which was befriend someone who did.
It was in college that my love of the bike slowly reblossomed, as finding parking in a college town was a major hassle I didn’t need in my life. Besides, riding home from the bar on my bike somehow seemed safer than driving, but was probably just as dumb.
After college I woke up one random day to discover that at some point over the past four years I’d gained sixty pounds! Weighing 210 lbs just wasn’t much fun. At all. Dusting off my trusty steel college steed allowed me to begin to shed some of those extra pounds. It also helped me feel better about myself and rediscover, again, my passion for riding bikes.
I believe that riding a bike has the power to teach us so much about ourselves. It offers a way for one to discover the world in a way that is not possible from behind the metal cocoon of a car. It offers an opportunity to learn a life lesson or two along the way. The beauty of all this is that the more time you spend perched on a bicycle saddle, the more the above ideas come true.
In no particular order, this is what riding a bike prepared me for as I faced cancer last year, which undoubtedly made me pause to reevaluate my life. That part is still ongoing. I’ll be sure to blog about it once I am done and have figured it all out.
Riding bikes can teach you how to suffer or, more importantly, how to deal with adversity and keep moving forward even when you don’t want to.
I’ve done some pretty dumb and hard stuff on bikes. For instance, I ride 200 miles (twice actually) in one day on gravel roads through the flint hills of Kansas. I attempted to bike-pack the Colorado Trail just two months after finishing my radiation treatments (spoiler alert- I didn’t finish but you can see the video here). I also spent a lot of time racing bikes as an okay amateur cyclist, which is actually fun but there are just way too many A-type cyclists out there. They can cause things to get a little squirrelly at times and wrecks seem inevitable. (Ow!) Really, people, winning isn’t everything–especially when it’s for a gift certificate to a local restaurant.
Above all else, it was the 200-mile rides that I did in Kansas that taught me the most. No matter how much training you do and however prepared you think you are, at some point, you will go to a dark place while riding 200 miles. During that dark time there really isn’t much you can do about it. There is no follow vehicle behind you that allows you to just get off your bike and get in the backseat for an air conditioned ride back to the finish line. You really only have one choice: Keep riding.
It starts with feeling sorry for yourself. You just have to continue pushing on the pedals and moving forward. You do this knowing that forward is the only way out of the dark space. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is ahead somewhere.
Fighting cancer is no different. You will go to some pretty dark places—probably way darker than you could ever go on a bicycle, but, again, moving forward is your only option. This may mean dragging yourself out of bed for another radiation treatment or forcing yourself to swallow food despite the large open sores in the back of your throat. It can be so hard, in fact, that there are times that giving up seems like the easiest option. Do not give up. Keep pushing down on the pedals and moving forward.
Dress to impress if you wanna go fast. Now granted, there is no way (that I am aware of) to move through having cancer faster, but if you look good, you will feel good (or at least better).
I am a big fan of being all matchy match on the bike. At the least jersey, shorts and socks should all work together. Glasses, helmet, shoes and gloves should all add flare and style to your entire outfit. Bonus points if your bike complements your outfit.
Take note- you can never go wrong with an all black kit. Yellow armwarmers, socks and helmet add pop. Subtle highlights on the bike frame compliment my outfit. At the time this photo was taken I was about half way through my radiation treatment so, trust me, I was not fast. I remember this ride and getting all kitted out, which was part of what made me feel so good about myself. That, and the fact that I was still riding despite having cancer. The sunshine wasn’t too bad either.
There will be a lot of days that staying in your sweats and laying on the couch just makes sense. Cancer treatment often leaves you feeling chronically fatigued. It’s on those days that just making the effort to shower and shave and throw on a sharp outfit can change your mood and mindset. Love yourself and treatyourself to the respect you deserve. Dress to impress, even if it is only yourself you are impressing.
All too often while training for a big ride or race, I’ll be deep in a training block and feeling strong, as my fitness builds. Then the fatigue starts to set in after several days of hard riding. Thinking that I can just push through the fatigue and that one more hard day is what I need to achieve even better fitness, I suffer through one more hard workout.
Bam! The next day I am wiped out and can barely even think about riding my bike much less another workout.
The problem was simple. I didn’t give my body time to recover and should have taken a rest day. You should be doing the same while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Some days you are going to get beaten down. It might be radiation, chemo, surgery or a combination of them. No one is going to be impressed that you muscled through it all and kept working or stayed up all night baking cookies for the company party. Listen to your body. Take the rest. Have a mid day nap or go to bed early. Repeat until you feel better.
Garbage in, garbage out. I have a buddy that I used to ride with on a regular basis. He was younger (by 20 years), faster and better looking than me. On any given day for the first two hours of the ride he would hand my ass to me over and over. At the two hour mark I could visibly see him weakening and slowing down. His legs no longer had the same pop and his endurance would start to fade.
The reason was simple. More often than not he would show up for a ride poking down the last of a breakfast burrito from McDonald’s or a slice of last night’s cold pizza. I on the other hand had eaten my typical breakfast of oatmeal cold soaked in kefir with fresh fruit. I was running on high octane fuel while he was fueling up with crappy gasoline cut with kerosine.
Your body also needs the good stuff when it’s fighting cancer, too. Fresh fruits & vegetables, lean meats, healthy carbs and the good fats (think avocados and olive oil). Not only do you need to eat well for the benefit of the vitamins and minerals your body needs but keeping a health weight is super important while undergoing treatment.
All that being said, cancer loves to throw you a curve ball or six. During my own treatment my throat became so raw and food started tasting so bad that I was having trouble eating or wanting to eat even the simplest foods. “More calories” became my mantra and the only thing I could tolerate for one two-week period was fountain Cokes from McDonald’s and vanilla shakes. During that time I consumed more Cokes and shakes in two weeks than I had in the last ten years.
Wanna get faster or go farther on the bike? Have a plan. A training plan provides focus, creates goals and provides metrics to measure your progress.
Wanna fight cancer? Then build on the plan your doctor(s) have laid out for you. This is going to look different for each person based on their treatment and what they are capable of doing physically. For me, it was starting my morning with some light yoga before radiation treatment. Even if I felt like crap the rest of the day, I could at least tell myself I got in some exercise before my day went to shit.
For the last four months, I’ve been waking at 5am to meditate. Ok, not really. I’ve actually been getting up to walk our Great Dane puppy, who walks, poops, eats and then goes back to sleep. By this time, I’m wide awake and decide to make good use of the quite early morning to practice meditating.
Granted, the meditation practice did not come from riding the bike but I have found many numerous benefits that I can apply while riding my bike. I used to be a stick-the-earbuds-in-my-ears-and-go -for-a-ride kind of guy. I now find myself choosing to leave the music at home so that I can enjoy being present in the moment as I ride.
I wish I could tell you that meditation cures cancer, makes you a Zen master and helps you reach a new height of enlightenment, but it doesn’t. In fact, meditating is pretty difficult. It takes practice. It can be frustrating and uncomfortable. Like anything that requires effort, the payoff is worth it, though.
Mediation has helped me deal with stress, allowed me at times to pause and respond in a more thoughtful versus a reactionary way to things that piss me off. I try to start my day with a clear and focused mind. My only regret is that I didn’t come to the practice until after I’d already finished my treatments.
Riding bikes is one of the most freeing and beautiful things in the world. For me, it captures a piece of my childhood and allows my heart to swell in gratitude for the freedom, health and joy it brings.
On the flip side of that, though, cycling has (or rather my efforts and failings have) left me bruised and battered, disappointed and angry at myself because I didn’t win a race, wrecked and caught myself with my face or failed to accomplish a specific goal like riding the Colorado Trail from Durango to Denver.
Somewhere along the way I learned to allow myself the grace of being okay with not always being okay. I figured a lot of this out last spring while riding my bike through cancer treatment. Some days just sucked. My throat was raw, my skin blistered and peeled. Yes, I was on the bike but , compared to my “healthy me” pace, I was barely creeping along.
Cresting a hill with the crisp Colorado morning sun on my face or speeding down a long windy road with the wind licking across my body, I became okay with the joy of just riding my bike, knowing that, in that very moment, I was alive.