My Journey Into Cancer and Introducing Big Nasty

03/12/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Preface: As I prepare to write this piece, I want to be clear about my motives with you, the reader. My intention is to tell my story so that others might learn from it and avoid the fix that I am in. Grandstanding and beating my chest about stage IV cancer (aka, Big Nasty) is not something I am interested in at all. But, if I can change the course of one life for the better, that will be my reward and this piece will be worth the effort.

"Just WIN baby!" -- Al Davis, Owner, Oakland Raiders, 1972-2011

From a very early age I was a sports hound. I grew up in Chicago with some of the great ones -- Stan Mikita, Bobby "The Golden Jet" Hull, Ernie Banks, Gale Sayers, Pete Ward, Bob Love, etc. After a Chicago Bears game, in the cold of late fall, I would go out in the front yard and practice my quarterback sneak move by myself. I would come back into the house muddied and bruised and my mom thought I had been in a scuffle. It was my own version of live fantasy football. In the summer, my brother and I devised our version of neighborhood home run derby. You name the sport, we gave it life in new and different ways.

Fast-forward to March 2015. I am still a sports hound and I am pulling out all stops to get my arms around a battle that is very real. It's live. And I liken my predicament to that of a boxing match, AJ Hartnett versus Big Nasty. It's Big Nasty (aka, stage IV cancer featuring chemotherapy) and me in the ring taking it to one another. I just finished round one of a scheduled six round match, and I won the round. Make no mistake, Big Nasty's punches had me on the ropes, but in the end I prevailed. I now have a sense of what to expect in upcoming rounds and how to handle the onslaught. No question, Big Nasty will make adjustments, too, with lots of bobbing, weaving and surprises, but I will also adjust on the fly. I am fighting to win.

Quick recap on the path that has led to this current blood match. Fifteen years ago, I was awakened by a phone call on a Friday morning while I was still in bed in beautiful Medford, New Jersey. It was my doctor following up from a routine exam I had had that week. I was in great shape, except for one item of note in my blood work. My PSA (prostate specific antigen) level was on the rise nearing the upper limit of 4.0. My physician suggested I see a specialist (urologist) to get a better sense of what the next steps might be. My prostate gland was doing things it should not be doing.

I proceeded to see a urologist locally that was recommended. I can safely say that this doctor had the absolute worst "bedside manner" of any doctor I have had in my life. It was like being in a used car showroom where the doctor goes back and forth talking with his "sales manager" in the back office on biopsy and surgery options, with the blood test the only hard data in hand. Needless to say, I began to search and study for a Plan B.

In my research, I found that there were lifestyle options I could employ in this early stage to help reverse this condition. I was still in my early 40s, and my body was responsive to my intensified lifestyle choices that centered around a plant based diet with lots of grains, vegetables and plant protein. In the course of a few months, I was able to get the number between 1 and 2 and was able to keep it there. I was in the safe zone.

As time went on, life happens. Divorce, job changes, moves and all the typical stresses of life in modern-day America. I even witnessed family members pass from advanced forms of this disease. I was vigilant about this ticking "time bomb" inside me, knowing that if I did not pay attention with regular check-ups and disciplined lifestyle patterns I would be asking for trouble.

Then I got sloppy. In 2012, I was in a bike accident that easily could have ended my life. After surviving that, I thought I was invincible. Nothing could take me down if I could survive multiple skull fractures, etc., etc. My vigilance waned and after the bike accident I took a break from annual physicals and tended to other challenges that life presented. I let it slide for 36 months. Bad idea.

While I proceeded to live a relatively clean life over this period, those PSA numbers quietly started to grow. It was not clean enough. A simple annual physical would have been my "caution flag" to straighten up and fly right. My bad. Finally in November 2014, I go in for a long overdue physical. Everything looked great, except that my PSA was over 200 and there was abnormal bone activity. By February, that number was over 750, with painful joints starting to creep in. Biopsy and bone scans showed that what I had been working to keep at bay the second half of my adult life was starting to control my destiny. Stage IV (advanced) prostate cancer that has spread throughout my skeletal structure. This dirty bomb had exploded and was running wild.

My medical team at the University of Chicago swung into action in mid-February. My PSA has dropped 600 points and the cleanup on my skeletal structure is commencing. It is going to be a long road to recovery but I am hopeful and very grateful for the work that has taken place thus far. I promise to do my part. Family and friends also play a lead role in the healing process as does spiritual practice and lifestyle disciplines.

Sports metaphors will be a mental tool I will use, too, as I fight to reclaim my health and well being. It's who I am. Waking up each morning and staring the clinical cancer talking points in the face, and the grim prospects that scenario presents, is not good for the mind. It immediately puts you on defense and beats you down. Not here not now. I am playing to win.

It's now Big Nasty and me. Just like I used to push that football across the goal line in my fantasy sports world as a 7-year-old, I will do the same here, going toe to toe with Big Nasty in the ring in this life or death blood match. I know I will be bruised and muddied through the process. Big Nasty will try to take me down with its arsenal of biological tricks. I will do my own version of Muhammed Ali's "rope-a-dope" and work to beat Big Nasty back each time and then for good with all the tools I have at hand. As Izzy Mandelbaum from Seinfeld would say, "It's go time!"

Final Thought: Keep regular check-ups with your physician, especially if you have a condition that warrants monitoring. Don't let life's challenges sidetrack those most important check-ins. They can be life-saving.

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