Picture a bottle of carbonated water. Now shake it. Shake it real hard. Open it. Now wipe yourself off, you are soaked!
My life lately has been that bottle, with each bubble of carbonation representing something in my life that I let fester, but would better serve me out than in.
On September 10th, 2013, at age 30, I was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer. This is a serious cancer that affects the digestive system. Mine began at the junction of my esophagus and stomach, and unfortunately also spread to my liver, as well as other sites in my body.
This diagnosis came as a shock to me, not only because of my young age but also because I have been an active and health-conscious individual throughout my life. I was confused and lost, and felt as if my body betrayed me. All those countless hours of my life dedicated to being healthy, to becoming a Division 1 scholarship athlete, to eating right -- where was all of that now?
Throughout my healing process, I have become aware of what holding things in do to a person. We all do it, but sometimes it leads to small things like a nervous stomach, and sometimes it leads to bigger things -- things that brew inside of you. No matter the outcome, we all should learn to become more aware every day of what should be released, and if we do we will be healthier, better people in the end.
Below is a list of ways that I released what was inside of me -- and so helped myself to heal and to grow.
Sweat. I have made exercise a part of my daily routine. At times, combating the side effects of treatment made this chore extremely difficult, but I have always believed that a body in motion tends to stay in motion -- apparently I paid attention in physics class. It would be too easy to just take a seat, to lay down in bed all day. 'No!' I told myself. I willed myself to keep moving every day, no matter the challenge. Whether it was a quick walk outside with some fresh air, or an intense full-body workout, I was determined to squeeze that sweat out.
My post-illness routine is nothing like my pre-illness one. Before, I would go on five-mile runs, and then hit the gym, insatiable for more. After the diagnosis, the treatments left me with much less endurance, and transformed me from a hairy, warm-all-the-time guy to a hairless, shivering body. But that wasn't going to stop me.
When I headed out, even on the warmer days, I was layered like an onion. I became highly resourceful, making use of desks and entertainment stands for elevated pushups, and even using candleholders and packages for curls. One of the first times I attempted body squats, I actually fell to the ground. My mom came rushing in to see what had happened, and there I was hysterically laughing at myself as I came to the acute realization that I would have to build my body back up.
Slowly but surely my walks grew longer, my pushups got deeper, and packages and candleholders were replaced by heavier items like actual weights. I found myself putting on the ever-so-needed weight -- but in the form of healthy muscles, not unhealthy fat.
Exercising also helped me feel normal again. I had exercised my whole life, and I was resolved to feel as much as the old me as I could, even through this testing time. Regular exercise also made me feel like I was taking control of the situation, as I watched my frail body fill out again. I noticed myself feeling satisfied, even proud, of what I achieved every day, and even feeling as if I weren't being pumped with poison every few weeks. I felt confidence cascaded through my veins, not the voracious venom that was eating away at healthy cells. As the sweat poured out of me, my mood improved. The roller coaster of emotions I had found myself living through became a little more balanced too as I watched my appetite and energy increase. I had repossessed many important things I had been stripped of -- all due to exercise. Better out than in.
Stress/Anxiety. When I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, I felt as if I had no control, that my life was going astray, heading toward a deeply uncertain future. I was full of new emotions. Most of all, the prospect of the unknown ate away at me -- how long did I have, am I going to die at age 30, how can I win this battle? I reflected on my life and although I had experienced stress before, this was the first time I felt inadequate to find my place in the world. I felt truly alone, isolated from the world I knew, the one I loved so profoundly.
But I realized that this was a chance for me to prove what I was made of.
And so I began to grow mindful of what was causing me tension, causing me concern. I forced myself to open up wider than ever before, and identify the sources of anxiety in my life. If I were to conquer those penned-in pessimistic thoughts and feelings, those forces of aggravation, that were eating away at me, I had to identify exactly what they were. My goal: to create an environment within myself that would heal and nurture me.
After recognizing this, life began to present itself in a different light. I started seeing what was important, what fell on the healing side of things and what fell on the aggravating side. This systematic identification and analysis of my life became a daily exercise. I was able to admit that being in an environment filled with people rushing for no reason, a place that was permeated with pollution of all sorts, was making me ache with tension. I recognized there were things in my life that made me feel like a boiling kettle filled to its brim and ready to bubble over. I had always lived a life of getting involved with other people's problems because I cared. I saw that taxing myself in such situations was a burden I shouldn't bear now that tiring myself with unnecessary stress had become a matter of life and death.
For the first time in my life a part of me became selfish. I finally put myself first. It was illuminating, and it taught me to love myself again, from the ground up. To care for every cell in my body, to relieve my core from any unnecessary burden, became a mission, a mission that I deemed necessary for me to go on in this world. I began to see that I was healing overall, not just from my illness and treatment, and that awareness empowered me. I was becoming a better person in the midst of a terrible situation. I chose to heal, to create the best environment to achieve that. The stress and the anxiety were better out than in.
Tears. From the beginning of this journey, I was nothing but confident I would win the battle. I was as positive as ever and I thought this was merely a life experience that would teach me many lessons, lessons that most people never have the opportunity to learn. I knew I was set on a course that would alter my life path from any I had expected, but I chose to believe that it would lead me to bigger and better things, things that would fill my life with what it was meant to be filled with. At times, however, my situation overwhelmed my body, thoughts, and sentiment, like a powerful surge of despair. I often thought to myself why me, why was I on this path, why was I going through the torment of treatment, why were my loved ones suffering that same unknown that haunted me?
When these feelings washed over me, I discovered that admitting their existence, even listening to them and reacting to them, was a natural and beneficial way to cope. Frequently, I would lay in bed alone and allow the floodgates of tears to open wide. I distinctly remember one evening towards the beginning of this chapter, I was laying in bed and realized that I hadn't cried since being diagnosed. I wasn't allowing myself to show weakness. I wasn't letting myself give cancer a moment of victory. After a few minutes of considering where my life was and that it might end, I found myself sobbing and gasping for air. The tears themselves burned as I sobbed, being filled with the poison that was being used to treat this illness. That made me cry more; it was a harsh reminder of the situation.
I must have cried for an hour straight, putting up with that stinging sensation, thinking of the uphill climb I was facing. It felt as if I had this congregation of emotions ready to sing and burst out of me, and in fact that is exactly what was happening. By letting my tears out, I was able to set free emotions that were trapped inside me. Recognition of what was causing those feelings were part of the process, but allowing them to flow freely was paramount to feeling aligned and balanced, situated and grounded.
This periodic "emotional perspiration" has granted me the freedom to see clearly, to alleviate stress, to elevate my mood, to release toxins, to make me feel as if I was mortal with my own unique emotions and feelings. I found during these times of extreme emotional outburst that shedding tears was a healthy response to what was going on in my life, and that if left bottled up would hamper my healing process. These bawling bouts suited me better out than in.
By reading this, you are a part of this, you are allowing me to feel human again, to not feel like a lab test being poked and prodded and filled with poison. You are making the choice to be a member of this story, to be an element of my journey, to grant me the ability to express myself and fight to win this battle. Above all, I want to let you in, and thank you for being a factor in the healing process while allowing me to prove to the world that sharing my story is something else that is better out than in!
Read more by Alex on his website www.SmilesForNiles.com.