Years ago I made the decision to lose weight, strengthen my heart, live a more joyous life and frankly, find true optimal health. It was a long and winding journey. ... I followed a strict detox program, purged unhealthy people from my life (which still pays off handsomely today), made vital changes to almost every part of my being -- and started to see results very early in the process. I lost over 150 pounds and looked and felt my absolute best. I was young and impressionable, and making a life change at 23 felt so easy, almost en vogue at the time.
I remember catching myself judging the people around me who weren't "healthy enough" or didn't do enough to practice a healthy lifestyle -- maybe they drank too much, they smoked, they didn't drink enough green juice or they ate way too much animal protein ... you know, it could have been anything. I thought I was riding the high horse of good health; I was feeling like a million dollars and I wanted others to feel the same way. And I spent the rest of my 20s that way ... I was feeling great, I was in good physical order, I was surrounded by wonderful people but something must have been amiss. A very dear friend once said to me, "You are only healthy until the moment you aren't anymore." Very true words.
Fast forward to a few months ago when, now age 34, I was enjoying a few days in London for meetings and decided to take a morning run in the park. Unlike New York, the parks of London are immaculately clean, lined with ancient monuments and graced with Her Majesty's perfectly trained animals ... so a sunny morning run in London is the perfect start to any day. I was pumped and ready to blow off some steam when I noticed, only a few moments into my run, that I was feeling really weak. Almost jet-lagged -- but of course, I made myself push through. It was even tougher after the first mile, but again, I kept pushing and made myself stay on pace. I wasn't enjoying the beautiful scenery and environment, I was just focused on getting to the finish line -- very unlike me. I made it to the end in my standard time, but I was knackered. I was tighter than ever and my left calf and leg seemed to be strained. I spent extra time stretching and then needed to take a rest just to relax my body. This was all new for me ... typically after an invigorating run like this, I would have been charged and ready for the most productive day in no time, but this day was different. A part of me thought I was just tired and had a strained calf, but another part of me thought something felt a bit off.
Being the hardheaded man I am, I continued to push through runs every morning while in London, even to the point where I was feeling a bit dizzy. I kept stretching my calf and working through the pain. Upon returning home that week, I made myself a promise that I would spend a seven-day period relaxing my body, getting massages and NOT running or doing any cardiovascular activity. So that's exactly what I did. I got massages, I stretched and relaxed while getting back into the swing of work -- but the pain only kept getting worse and I was starting to feel pain in my back and chest. It was so very unlike me.
I wasn't sure what the was going on, but I finally rang a friend -- an adorable spinal doctor whom I once dated during his residency -- and he insisted that I make an appointment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is exactly what I did. I got an appointment the following morning, and was told I simply had a bad case of sciatica, a sort of pinched nerve. I knew that wasn't right. I wanted it to be, but I just had a sense there was something more going on. They say you know your body better than anyone else, and I totally agree. I knew something was wrong and it wasn't a pinched nerve.
After a few MRIs, I met with my lovely doctor at RIC, who softly and somberly gave me a bit of news: The doctor opened my MRI image and showed me that looked like a large white mass ... and continued to say that what was actually causing the pain in my left leg was in fact a 6.5-centimeter tumor on my spinal cord. I remember thinking for a moment, "Wait, I have a tumor, not a pinched nerve?" The room started to feel very warm and I started to pant with questions ... What do I do next, who do I see, will my leg be ok, will I be ok, what does this all mean, doctor? I just kept throwing out questions and repeating them. She grabbed my hand delicately and tenderly and told me I was already set up to meet a neurosurgeon that week. A neurosurgeon? That week? My heart about dropped to the ground.
As soon as I got my composure back, she had one last tidbit of news for me. While reviewing my MRI, the radiologist noticed another tumor in my kidney. I almost started to choke when I heard that ... my kidney, my spine -- what the hell is happening to me? It was like an endless nightmare that seemed to only get worse. I asked the doctor to give me a few moments alone in the room and for about 10 minutes I just started crying -- ugly crying, like that sort of crying that's a mix between hyperventilating and choking. I was like a child and all I really needed at that moment was my mother and my father, God rest him.
It took me a few minutes to get it together. Things just kept flashing through my mind. I felt like my body was overtaken by something I had no control over and, being a full-time type A control freak, I was crushed and 100 percent out-of-sorts.
I got in my car and made a few calls to my brothers and family members (not my mother of course, she needed to be dealt with delicately), and I started to cool down and catch my breath. I drove laps around the Gold Coast in my car just thinking. All the meaningless BS of life that day and week and year all melted down to life or death, right at that very moment. It was like I was driving in the car but the world was totally still around me. I felt like the world was asking me if I wanted to live or die and thankfully something so powerful and passionate overtook me with this unwavering desire to live that, frankly, I had never felt before. At that moment, I wanted to live more than I had ever wanted to live in my entire life. So I decided to make that my choice. I made a decision that very second that there was no way, no how these tumors, this cancer, whatever I was to have, was going to take me down, period. No way.
As it turns out, a few days later I learned that my ailment was actually significantly more serious as I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin diffuse large B cell lymphoma, an aggressive and late-stage cancer of the lymph nodes and the blood. The tumors, of which many more were later revealed, were all associated with this cancer and by the grace of -- I am not even sure who, to be honest -- I was still unwavering in my gratitude to be alive and my mandate to live.
This is the beginning of my story. My story to take a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and unravel it into my license to live. In fact, to live an even better and richer life than I ever could have imagined possible before cancer. Follow my story through what will be a battle of all battles -- but one that will leave me with the final blessing of a beautiful life.
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