It was one year ago that I told you about Carlos and his cancer diagnosis. Many of you responded to “You Have to Fight” and the follow-up columns about him, “The One Word to Ignore” and “Out There: Never Stop Fighting” with an outpouring of support for him.
For weeks, I’ve been working on a one-year update for you. It’s been difficult to write — every time I sit down, I’m filled with tears, laughter, and pride for my best friend.
Recently, Carlos was asked to give a speech about his experience as a cancer fighter. As soon as I read it, I threw all of my drafts for this article away. No one can tell the story better than he can.
I am not here for pleasant conversation.
I write to you about things that happen to people — bad people and good people. Things that make some cry, and question life’s fairness and God’s existence. But it’s OK, because I know I am in good company. Many of you have likely gone through hell and back. I know, like you, how it feels being in pain, scared, hopeless, helpless, defeated, cheated, and alone.
But I also know we are made of some tough stuff. Every one of us is equipped to climb over obstacles. We are all made to fight and never give up.
One year ago
I was what people call “super-fit.” My sport makes regular people cry in pain just watching it on TV! Ironman consists of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running 26.2 miles, a full marathon, in less than 16 hours. I have done this 13 times in races across the United States and Europe.
I was in the midst of training for yet another Ironman last April when I suddenly got sick. It wasn’t a gradual, progressive illness. One day I rode my bike for 6 hours, and the next I had emergency surgery. In an instant, everything changed.
One year ago, I was told that I had Stage IV colon cancer, the most advanced stage of cancer.
The tumors in my colon had metastasized to the lymph nodes and to the liver. With luck and chemotherapy every oncologist said I could live another year, but the odds of survival beyond that were slim. Liver surgery is an option for some with my cancer, but I was not a candidate for it, as I had too many tumors.
The doctors didn’t say it outright, but I could tell what they were thinking: Start writing your will.
“Dad, are you going to die?”
I was in denial. I sought a second and a third and a fourth opinion. This type of thing shouldn’t happen to me. This is a disease that affects old people, the overweight, the sedentary, the smokers. There is no cancer in my family history. I am 20 years younger than the average colon cancer patient.
After being diagnosed with cancer, my main concern was how to break the news to my 10-year old son. The prospect was daunting: How do I tell my son that his father is going to die soon? I took him for a walk but it was difficult to even touch the subject.
“Dad, are you going to die?” he asked.
I tried to be philosophical: “We are all going to die, son.”
He replied, “Yeah, but you know what I mean.”
I couldn’t lie anymore. “I have a very, very serious, dangerous, mean, disease that kills many people.”
Without flinching, he looked at me. “Yeah, but you will fight it, right? You will beat it, I know you will.”
It broke my heart. “I promise you, I will fight this harder than anybody in the world has fought it, I will always fight, I will never give up, and I will never be afraid of it.”
“Dad, I think you are going to be the first person to beat cancer and finish an Ironman!”
And that was it. If he could believe and hope for the best so could I. I decided then that I was going to fight cancer with everything I had.
Goal: To cure
I asked my oncologist for the most toxic chemotherapy poison he had, and to double the dose. He smiled at me and said, “Look, I’m an aggressive oncologist but we want to kill the cancer, not you.”
We made an agreement: As a symbolic gesture to this fight I was going to start, he was going to change the goals of chemotherapy in the medical record. My file originally said, “Goal: palliative care, to extend life.”
He scratched that out and made a new entry: “Goal: To cure.”
Chemotherapy was a bitch. Sorry, but that’s the only one word I can use to describe it. During those 6 months I didn’t feel like I was getting better, I felt I was just dying faster. Fatigue, pain, nausea, insomnia, constipation, loss of motor function, permanent numbness of hands and feet, rashes; you name it, I had it.
A blood test in month 4 of chemotherapy revealed the worst: Chemotherapy was not working. I was going to die.
I drove to Mexico that night to say goodbye to my parents, my brothers and sisters … but halfway there, I turned around. I was ashamed of myself.
This was not fighting, this was giving up. And I made a promise to my son I wouldn’t do that.
Goliath, meet David
That night at home, I wrote in my journal and to my friends on Facebook:
The other day, I read an article picking apart the credibility of the David and Goliath biblical story. Could a teenage boy with a sling and stones really have killed a well-armored, trained-to-kill warrior?
It was a funny question, I thought. Davids have been slaying Goliaths for centuries! Every day all over the world, people like us, little Davids, get up in the morning and beat giants against all odds.
Tonight I have decided that I am David and cancer is my Goliath.
It’s a huge opponent; an experienced, mutant killer. This fight is being held in a coliseum and I don’t want to be here.
But Goliath is not well liked, you know? He doesn’t have a fan base. All the spectators in this coliseum have taken my side and that makes a difference. They seem to think I am special, stronger, tougher than I actually am. It gives me pride, and for them, I can’t quit. I am not fighting alone.
In spite of the bad news that the chemotherapy wasn’t working, I continued anyway, never missing a session even when I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore.
Five months into chemo, a new CT scan showed some tumors shrinking. By the end of my six-month chemo treatments, I had learned many tumors had shrunk in size, and many more were dormant.
Because I had fought, because I had stuck with it, the liver surgery that was impossible six months before was now possible. I had the first surgery on December 29th, the second on January 5th.
Then February 7th, after a seven-and-a-half hour surgery, I was cancer-free.
The road ahead
It’s not over completely. I still have three months of chemotherapy left, beginning Thursday.
I have to tell you, I cannot wait to start. I am going to own these four rounds of chemo. I did over six months before, and three months pales in comparison. This is going to be cake!
There is a chance that cancer will come back: a 60% chance that it will come back in one year, and a 75% chance that it will come back in 5 years. If it happens, I guarantee you I will fight it again.
Cancer may destroy my body slowly, entirely, and definitely. But through it all, cancer will not touch who I am.
Why cancer can’t win
Cancer can take away my ability to run really hard in the mornings.
But it cannot take away my ability to enjoy the last few stars before sunrise while I slow-jog and walk.
It may one day take away my weekend bike rides with my friends up my favorite mountain and the breakfast after.
But it cannot take away the camaraderie and love we feel for each other.
Cancer has already taken away my ability to swim in the evenings, but the love of the sport doesn’t go away. I still dream of swimming, and in my head I am Michael Phelps.
Cancer has taken away, more than once, my enjoyment of a restaurant dinner with my family when I had to run to the bathroom to puke… but it cannot take away my love for them or their love for me.
Cancer can destroy my colon, take away my liver, clog my kidneys and choke my lungs, but through it all I refuse to let it grab hold of my heart or destroy my mind. Cancer won’t make me a bitter person before it kills me. Cancer can destroy me but it will not defeat me.
I may not be strong enough to put my son on my shoulders anymore, but cancer won’t ever take away the walks we already had together, when he held my hand and in his mind there was no one stronger than I, when he thought I was untouchable, indestructible.
Cancer cannot win. It will not win.
Whatever your fight is, when you are thrown in the coliseum to fight, you become a gladiator too. Half naked, with nothing but stones and a borrowed sword.
If cancer comes back, it will be more aggressive, meaner, mutated. Honestly, I am not worried anymore. I am little David, Cancer is my Goliath.
And we all know how the story ends.