The One Thing Harder than Ironman

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.

livestrong imageI 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.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“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.

Carlos Nunez, PhD, is a college professor, 13-time Ironman, and loving father of 3. When he isn’t fighting cancer, he can be found on his bike or in the comfy chairs at Starbucks. Though most call him “Carlos” or “Dr. Nunez,” he has also been known to respond to the name “Superman.”

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Comments

  1. What a read… Carlos, you’re a rockstar!

  2. powerful. thanks for sharing, and for fighting.

  3. I am a no-meat athlete, training for my first marathon. My mom is a Stage 3 colon cancer survivor – she is my trainer (rides her bike with my water and goo on long runs) and my inspiration. After cancer, she went on to the healthiest years of her life, regularly completing 100-mile bike races and chartering a 5k for colorectal cancer awareness and fundraising. I tell myself in the 20-26th mile, “it’s easier than chemo.” She is amazing. Carlos, you are amazing too. What a story. Thank you for sharing. Keep fighting.

  4. Incredible speech. Keep on fighting the good fight and providing tons of inspiration and motivation.

    Thank you Susan for sharing Carlos’ speech.

  5. Amazing Carlos! Thank you!

  6. Wow! Unbelievable story of strength. When life feels hard this will be one of those stories that will remind me that we have the fight in us; we just have to have the will to wield the sword. Thanks for sharing your story, Carlos!

  7. So inspiring! Thank you for sharing.

  8. If you awake in the AM, GOD still has a purpose for you! That was my dad’s motto the year he was dx with GBM brain cancer…. He is in heaven now, but I try to remember this phase on my bad days! Seending prayers! XOXOXO

  9. What an amazing story…moved me to tears! I am sending hugz n prayers for Carlos!

  10. Wow. Sending lots of love to Carlos & family…amazing human being…what a story…

  11. Amazing story, one we can all learn from. Not just about fighting when times get tough, but about being thankful for every day. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I am in tears. Carlos, I have sort of followed your story through stalking Susan on the web, but reading this from you was really moving. I am SOOOO on your side. Lots and lots of well wishes.

  13. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Steven VL says:

    What a great Story! Keep Fighting. Your story gave me the chills as I read it. Take care of yourself,

    Steven

  15. Sara "Ironman" Greene says:

    Amazing story Carlos, keep up the good fight! I’m sure you’ve taken a look at other forms of treatment (chemo just sounds evil), but just in case – http://gerson.org
    Watch this amazing documentary: http://www.hulu.com/watch/180363/the-gerson-miracle

  16. You give new meaning to “fighting the good fight” — especially against such a mean, underhanded and unfair enemy. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for showing the strength of the spark of life in yourself against truly stunning odds, that we might be reminded that we have no excuse to not do the same. Thank you for fighting. The underdog story of the ages ought not be David vs Goliath anymore, it is Carlos vs Cancer. Cheering like hell for you.

  17. Marty Cowan says:

    Carlos – your story reminds us that what we have in our lives is worth fighting with everything we’ve got. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  18. Tears are streaming down my face. As a cancer survivor, (sprint) triathlete, and mom (chronologically in that order), this touches some of my most sensitive parts. Good luck, Carlos. 75% chance of recurrance … but SOMEONE needs to be in the 25% :)

  19. Thank you for the update, Susan! I’m crying reading it. My husband is a 3-year colon cancer survivor (stage II). Like Carlos, he was young, fit and the least likely candidate for colon cancer. Cancer transformed us both in ways that I never imagined. Being an athlete, you think you have a deep well for pain and endurance but fighting for your life against cancer puts it all in perspective. I’ve thought often about Carlos since your last post so I am so happy to hear that Carlos is cancer free and still fighting. Love this post– thanks for the inspiring words.

  20. I am running for Carlos today on the Run Across America!!! Go David Go!!!

  21. You are one brave person. Bless you. One wish I would have for you would be to take a moment and check out Gerson Therapy, if you haven’t already, at http://www.gerson.org.

  22. Nappie Dee says:

    This is the clearest testimony ever of the grace I have seen enter the lives of people with cancer. A profound, deep, intuitive understanding and acceptance that comes to so many people fighting and living with a terrifying illness. Not all people in this situation are able to come to it, but Dr. Nunez has and he articulates it with such clarity and so movingly. Thank you.

  23. I am in awe of this story, this amazing human being, his courage and love and the inspiration I felt just by reading it… Thank you!!!

  24. This is incredible. Keep fighting, it’s the only thing to do. You are amazing and an inspiriation to many.

  25. Steve Rink says:

    I am Carlos Nunez!

  26. Christina Brodzky says:

    Absolutely amazing! You are such an inspiration to never give up and to fight for those you love!

  27. Inspiring story Carlos! You are a rockstar. Keep fighting for both you and your son. He is lucky to have such an amazing father.

  28. Vanessa G says:

    What an inspiring story! I pray that you continue to be a David and that you shine for the Almighty healer! What a testimony you have.

  29. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Keep fighting the good fight. You are an inspiration. Namaste.

  30. Lucy Núñez says:

    Thank You! I am sooo proud of you.
    Keep on fighting :D

  31. Wow!! I’m in awe. What a amazing and inspiring story. Never stop fighting Carlos.

  32. Wow!! Congrats on recovery… But do look into “The Gerson Miracle” documentary… Link was posted above.. Well worth watching.. :-). Hugs.

  33. JeNnifer Lange says:

    Thanks for sharing and continuing to inspire us all!

  34. Brave Heart! The story moved me to tears. What an incredible, inspiring fight. My prayers and lots of best wishes to you Carlos!

  35. You, sir, are a gentleman. Thank you.

  36. Keep fighting my friend. I am a 8 year colon cancer survivor, stage 4. You are right if is positive attitude, taking care of your self, and also faith that God will carry us through our darkest hours.
    I am starting round 4 of chemo soon. I will also continue to fight.
    My kids are different than most, the family is very close, and they are blessed with a Lot of compassion for others. They watch their parent fight this and become brave themselves, it is something you can not teach as effectively.
    May you be blessed in you fight,
    Susan :)

  37. Thank you for sharing. For making the small things that get to me seem so trivial in comparison. You are amazing.

  38. Awesome, inspiring story. Dr.! Your fight and determination are to be applauded and, no doubt, a huge part of winning your battle. May I ask what your diet is during this battle/everyday life? I assume vegetarian/non-dairy, per the site that your story is on?
    Thank you for any thoughts and God bless and keep up the fight–you will win!
    -Sheryl

  39. Wow. What an amazing testament to the power of the human spirit. Way to go Carlos – and thank you for sharing so honestly.

  40. What an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing!! I hope you don’t mind that I shared it in my blog. I wish him the best!

    -Cait

  41. I am in absolute awe- this is an amazing post. Thank you so much for sharing your strength and perspective. I am going to share it with everyone I can.

  42. I’m wishing you a full recovery, Carlos. You have certainly inspired me today. Thank you for sharing your amazing story of courage and determination.

  43. chrissy parks says:

    amazing. thank you for sharing.

  44. Superman!
    What an inspiration.
    I have so much respect for you.
    Wishing you all the best.

  45. Matthew Murdza says:

    Thank you for making me cry at work today! I mean it. It felt good to be punched in the heart. To make me realize that those qualities you poses are the ones i want. To be the man,to my son and wife, that you are to yours. God bless.

  46. Jay Rodriguez says:

    Never quit fighting Carlos! Your story is incredibly powerful, and I pray it inspires others to battle their Goliaths as you have! God Bless!

  47. Wow! Very inspiring. You are a true hero. People who battle everyday. I wake and complain about small things have many excuses but after reading this it shows how precious life is and we all need to take advantage. What about other options? Dr. Breuss or Dr. Byrnyski treatments in Texas? Well I hope this story will have a happy ending. God bless and love to all:)

  48. Luis Fernando Nuñez says:

    cause only someone like u can be called superman! iloveyou tio. show everyone who you really are. its time to show the world who is the real superman.

  49. yet another Amber says:

    Pain is universal, but so is the strength of the human spirt. Thank you, Carlos, for reminding us of this, and know that friends and strangers alike believe in you.

  50. That was so touching. It really makes you do a reality check for yourself. Thank you for sharing.

  51. I just wanted to say thank you!

  52. Dear Carlos: I am a new cancer thriver-survivor and this site was sent to me by one of my beloved friends who is also a thriver-survivor. Your words went straight to my heart and I feel compelled to thank you for your courage and stamina, to thank you for slaying Goliath with your faith, love, and endurance. Thank you for showing the world what a braveheart looks like today. You are a beacon of hope and love and strength and your words shine forth to bless us all. God bless and keep you and your entire family. — Roni Java

  53. That was powerful!

  54. Thank you for sharing! Inspired to stand up to my Goliath.

  55. Melody santos says:

    Wow, my nephew sent this to me as he has just begun this painful journey! I can only tell you what an impact you have made on both of us. He is a strong intelligent young man (23) and has exactly what you talked about in your article. I hope he too can be in such a hopeful place.

  56. Susan, thanks for sharing Carlos’ story.

    Carlos, I’m sorry for the hell you’ve been through. I’m glad you are doing as well as you are. And thanks for sharing your story… stories are what help us grow and help us live life well.

    One minute I was running on the Malibu beach, then next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital to find out that I’d almost died and almost lost my leg in an accident 12 days earlier.
    Doctors didn’t know if I would ever walk again and they definitely said running was a thing of my past.

    Four years post-accident I returned to running… this past year I’ve run 4 half-marathons to see how my body holds up. It’s doing well, so I’m training for my first post-accident full marathon. While I’m excited to do it, I’m also scared… but your story has given me more motivation to do the best I can…. because I can!

    Thanks!

  57. What an amazing and inspirational read that deserves the worlds biggest applause.

    I am a David too and have been fighting a Goliath since 2010 being breast & liver cancer. Thanks for giving me the extra kick today to keep me going when I felt down :)

  58. Stella says:

    This is art.
    The art of not getting bitter,
    the art of loving.

    Your story gives me goose bumps, man, and inspiration, too. I have fought cancer as well and know what this is about.

    You are not only strong yourself, you are forming a wonderfully strong man, your son, by showing your weakness and tenderness and by teaching him, when to be hard and when to be soft.
    :)

  59. You are an amazing man, person and spirit! Your speech, your views are so incredibly inspiring. You keep going. Don’t ever give up! I will pray & meditate for you!
    Namaste

  60. You are DAVID and I am praying for victory! Tears rolling down my cheeks as I know somewhat what it feels like to talk to your children about cancer. It sucks. We have a 11, 9 and 6 year old and it just plain sucks! My husband was diagnosed with cancer in October and it has been a battle ever since! Thank you for sharing and inspiring others! God gave us each other for a reason! Enjoy every miute my friend!
    FIGHT!!!

  61. God bless you. Your action and courage speak so loudly.You have
    incredible gifts and have claimed them outright – Your light and fight
    liberate all of us from fear.

  62. The most inspiring post I’ve read in a long time. You have the spirit, will and drive to beat this effin’ thing. Fight!

Trackbacks

  1. […] The One Thing Harder than Ironman […]

  2. […] wrapping this up with a tough post about one man’s battle with cancer – I love reading Susan’s posts on No Meat Athlete, and the story of her friend Carlos […]

  3. […] epic than David versus Goliath, Carlos versus Cancer is by far the most inspiring, kick your ass story that I have read in recent memory. Thoughts go […]

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