"There is someone you have to meet."
Those were the words of my friend, Jeremy, and normally when I hear those words, they rank about as high as the words, "Can you help me move?" Or, "Smell this."
Jeremy, however, is one of those rare birds who seems to have a knack for knowing what I like. I remember once we had to come up with a concept for a commercial about an over-the-air TV antenna. On the surface, we might as well have had to come up with a step-by-step instructional video about how to properly watch paint dry. Yet as we got into it, we took his original idea and turned it into something that not only defies any reasonable logic, but also became the most hysterical film set I've ever been a part of.
The commercial has never been shown to the public... yet. TV stations have shied away from it. They said it had something to do with standards and practices, a public mooning, a murderous chef who "stuck it to the man," and a ring-girl in a postage stamp black bikini who may or may not be in talks to work for the UFC. I still don't see why they said, "No %#$@ing way are we running this!" I think it's some of the best work we've ever done.
"Who do I need to meet, Jeremy?"
"Teri Griege. Dude, she'll change your life."
My informal introduction to Teri Griege actually came via a magazine article that Jeremy had written about her. In a nutshell, I read that she was a 51-year-old mom who completed the Kona Ironman Triathlon while battling stage IV colorectal cancer.
Yes, you read that right.
I immediately asked Jeremy to set up an introduction. Two weeks later, we met at a Panera Bread in west St. Louis County. I arrived early and ordered a coffee. As I sat down to wait, I realized that I didn't have the slightest idea of what we would talk about.
Here was an elite athlete who did things most humans couldn't physically comprehend. I only run when chased. Here was a woman who is battling a form of cancer that doesn't even have a 10 percent five-year success rate. I was 12 years removed from my battle. What could we possibly have in common?
As I found out, we had more in common that I could have imagined. Our initial meeting started with a handshake. It ended with a bear hug. I had now met my hero, my mentor, and my friend in a very unlikely package.
And after this past weekend, she has forever changed how I look at battling cancer. She may just change yours, too.
When I went through my own battle, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to "be a burden" on anyone. I'm not saying that I didn't have people close to me, but I would only let them in so far. The woman who would become my wife was there, as were my parents and brother. And a couple of friends were let in, but only as far as I wanted to let them in. I knew early on that my testicular cancer would not be a surgical strike against "lefty." There would be lots of casualties caught up in the carpet bombing, and it was up to me to minimize the damage. In other words, I took on the responsibility of falling on the grenade.
And had you asked me about it up until last Friday evening, I would tell you that I would do it again the same way.
Teri and I had coffee last Thursday. She gave me a dedicated copy of her book, Powered By Hope, and asked if I'd give it a read. I told her that I would read it in a few weeks when I would be on a plane and have a lot of time to invest in digesting it. And truth be told, I really had no intention of reading all 202 pages by Sunday at 2:24pm.
I'm a voracious reader, but usually it's limited to online news, commentaries, blogs and sports. I'd rather watch the news or Sportscenter falling asleep instead of reading a book. The last book I actually read was a year ago. And what's sadder than that? The second-to-last book I read was actually the last book I read. Yes, I read the same book twice in a row. How ridiculous is that?
And before you ask... no, it's NOT Horton Hears A Who.
I ended up opening the front cover, and by page 8, I had a hard time closing it. I knew I liked Teri, I knew I respected Teri, but what I didn't know was that she had the ability to utterly change my outlook on how to fight cancer in just 202 pages.
Teri caught the triathlon bug later in life. In 2005, while running on her home treadmill, she watched the 2005 Ironman from Kona on NBC. That year, a man named Jon Blais competed while battling ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. His dream had always been to compete in the Ironman, and he knew that his time was limited. In his words, "Even if I have to be rolled across the finish line, I'm finishing."
And in a single act of defiance, at the end of the race, he got down on the ground and literally rolled across the finish line. It struck a chord with so many people that to this day, the "Blazeman Roll" is still done by many Ironman triathletes in honor of Jon, who died in May of 2007.
So Teri trained like a madwoman, and competed in a different Ironman competition in the Midwest. What no one knew was that Teri had been experiencing some anomalies that she chalked up to hard training. The blood in her stool and fatigue proved otherwise.
In the midst of missing the qualifying time for Kona by less than five minutes, stage IV colorectal was rapidly trying to kill her. As advanced as it was, the survival rate was paltry: just 6 percent of patients survive. And the ones who do have to do what I call the unholy trifecta of the battle: radiation, chemo, and surgery.
Teri realized that she could not outrun the cancer alone, like so many of us think we can, or worse, should.
Instead, she formed an army. Before she knew it, literally hundreds of family, friends, and even friends of friends had enlisted, and they were in this for the long haul. They provided meals, a shoulder, prayers, and a spirit that helped to lift Teri out of her lowest lows. In turn, she provided something that so many of us lack on a daily basis: hope.
Did she always have a smile on her face? Of course not. What she did always have was the knowledge was that she was not alone, and for many of us battling anything of significance, that is immeasurable.
Cancer can be a lonely, desolate experience. There are usually far more valleys than peaks, and as any triathlete will tell you, the ascents to the peaks are sometimes pure hell. But when you know you're not alone on your journey, when you have others to pick you up, when you only see one set of footprints in the sand and you realize they're not yours, it is the emotional equivalent of a "Blazeman Roll" across the finish line. Because as Teri says, "People who complete an Ironman know that they didn't do it by themselves.
As I finished the final page of Teri's book, I realized that for maybe the first time in my life, with the knowledge I now possessed, I might have actually done something different. But that's the beauty, and sadness, of hindsight.
As for Teri? In 2012, after radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, Teri competed in the Ironman in Kona as an inspirational athlete, and finished WELL BELOW the full time limit. She still has cancer, and undergoes maintenance chemotherapy every month. She also still competes in marathons, and she just happened to go on a little sixty-mile bike ride to celebrate her 53rd birthday last week. She also travels the country telling her story.
So to Teri, thank you for being who you are. Thank you for giving so many people hope. And thank you for your story, Powered By Hope. After reading it, I know that I'm now a better cancer advocate, and possibly a better human being.