Surviving Cancer with a Lot of Help

“Bring your shoulder around…flex those deltoids…keep the abs tight.” It was late on Thursday night June 2nd, 2005, and my workout partners were critiquing my posing after hours at my workplace. It had seemed like an eternity and yesterday at the same time that I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments just last year at this exact time.

This night one year ago I would have been preparing for my next chemo treatment — getting ready to feel weak and sick to my stomach for the umpteenth time. But tonight I was flexing, prepping for my next show; the 2005 Musclemania Superbody in Miami, Florida.

January 2004: After coming home from Afghanistan with the Air National Guard I was ready to go, motivated, excited, and eager to get back into serious training again. Being overseas was a unique experience and one I will never forget, but it was time to get ready to compete again. Just prior to being shipped over I had competed in two shows: the New Orleans show and the Texas Musclemania one week prior to being shipped out. People thought I was crazy for dieting that close to leaving for who knows how long, but I won the novice division and felt great. So with a win and Afghanistan behind me it was time to go to work.

Thursday, February 19th, 2004: I was driving to work after recovery from a procedure I had undergone to remove and biopsy a lymph node in my neck. I thought nothing of it. As a matter of fact I had one removed before and it was benign. It was just another speed bump, or so I thought. I got a phone call form my general practitioner saying that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an immune system cancer (which my brother had in the past and twice with my father). I was shocked and numb. I thought it should have skipped me somehow, or they had the results mixed up with someone else, or that he read the report wrong. I did not know what to do! Do I turn around and go home? Do I go to work and stay in the routine? Or do I just pull over and collect my thoughts? Right then I remembered what my dad told me when he went through cancer: “Stay in a routine.” It was the best advice for my mind and body.

Saturday, August 21st 2004: “First place: Thayer Hill!” My friend had just won the Musclemania Delta Junior title. Well over six months into chemotherapy when I am supposed to be weaker than ever and barely able to move from the treatment I had received just the day before I was filled will adrenaline! I should have been home in bed resting, attempting to eat and hydrate my body from the toxins that had been shoved in my veins. But, NO! I would not have missed this night. My two great friends Thayer (Tyson we call him) and Carey were competing. I had to see them; I had to be surrounded by my favorite sport. It had been too long. It was a great night.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2004: My birthday. I had made thirty and still on chemo. My original goal was to be done with treatment before my birthday. The reports came back that I needed a few more cycles of treatment. Surprisingly I stood up and thought to myself, “If we are going to beat it, let’s beat it for good.” So I set my new goal for my holidays to be cancer free. Looking back I feel very lucky to have made it to thirty. My dad, again, made a great point when I first started treatment: “It was good that you came back from Afghanistan when you did so we would be able to beat this thing in time.” It was great to see thirty indeed.

October 15, 2004: My very last treatment. What a ride! It’s over! I bought a few edible gifts for the nursing staff, which I could not stomach. With half of my hair missing, my G.I. tract messed up, and very little appetite, nothing seemed appetizing except for the privilege to walk out of that clinic on chemo for the last time. My friends, family, everyone at the National Guard unit, and coworkers helped me walk out that door that day whether they knew it or not. Heck, even Lou Zwick from Musclemania called periodically to check up on me. All of those doctor appointments, emergency room visits, hospital stays, and late nights — it seemed like a long and endless road but it was finally over.

Over the next few months it was back to the gym with a goal: to come back better than before, not to give into the cancer story. What I mean is, I could have easily given cancer as the excuse for all of my shortcomings. If I was tired one day and did not feel like training I could very well blame chemo. But the fact of the matter was that I was as healthy as an ox; and eating like one too. I gained an average of five pounds per week. Before treatment I was 235 and after I had gone down to about 195–198. My strength was doubling each week as well.

Weak points would be no more. I made a promise to myself: I will never be tired again! I had been tired for most of 2004 and I was tired of being tired! I had so much pent up emotion and drive during treatment it was all coming out now. Training was six days per week, no less! Heavy, hard, and strong.

June 2005: So there I was, getting ready for my first show in almost two years. Will my body be able to go through the dieting and rigors of contest prep? Will I be better conditioned, bigger, more symmetrical? All I could do was find out for myself.

I was standing in the back row on stage during prejudging looking at the top five posing it out in front of me. I did not make the first call out. I was devastated and it showed. I could feel my confidence draining out from under me like a broken floodgate with no way to stop it.

I was confused, frustrated, upset, and depressed as soon as the top five guys stepped forward and took their spots for the quarter turns. I thought for sure I would be top three, at least top five.

When that was over the judges brought us forward to do our rounds. I tried my best to give the judges a second look at me, maybe they will get the idea that I need to be up higher, I thought to myself. No luck.

After prejudging I was in shock. I had horrible thoughts of wanting to quit, to lay down and roll over, to leave Miami and put it all behind me. I had trained so hard, dieted so much and concentrated so precisely on this competition that no stone was unturned regarding my preparation. How could I have let this happen? What did I do wrong?

I wasn’t a chemo patient any longer. My heart and soul went into training. That was all I thought about during treatments was coming back on stage and winning.

I went to the pump up room with no words said. Silent and stunned, I put my clothes on, gathered my things and out the door I went.

After showering for 45 minutes to get the tanning product off I sat down and had to deal with this blow somehow. I had to put it into perspective. Earlier I felt my flaws were exposed and judged. I felt what I had brought to the table was not the preferred design. The Musclemania Superbody was too big and too soon for me.

The other athletes had trained for a full year in good health; I had only six months of training and dieting under my belt post chemotherapy. I had to get my mind screwed on right for the finals the next day. This was not like me. I am a positive person.

I had gotten so many of my friends to compete naturally over the years and they were all here to see me compete and do well. I had to let go and bask in the thought that I was blessed to even step on stage let alone be alive. Let go I did.

After an all day photo shoot by the pool and beach at the hotel it was time for the finals. I was so laid back with no worries. I wanted to pose down and have a little fun up there. I tanned up, put on my smile and squeezed every fiber that I had.

We all arrived at the restaurant at around 1:30 a.m. Eager to eat filling food, I decided on pasta and a big sugary dessert. After downing the cake in less than 30 seconds my body went into sugar shock and I nearly passed out in the restaurant.

What a way to cap off a weekend of competition! Recovered and nauseous I went to lie down in the hotel for a final night.

It was late on a Friday night and I found myself registering for the 2005 NGA Natural Louisiana. After Miami I was back training, dieting, and focusing once again, this time with better intentions and attitude.

My mind was right for this one: no unrealistic expectations. Compete for the love of competing, win yes, but the love must come first. This show would be me against me — improving my conditioning, mass, shape, and symmetry.

Once on stage the announcer read my bio. Under titles won I jokingly wrote “cancer survivor.” My posing routine starts with my back to the crowd. When the M.C. read that I had beaten cancer the entire crowd was applauding.

I looked back a bit and found many were standing as I gave a thumbs up and smiled. Chills went up and down my spine and a thought came over me; I was happy to be here indeed. I felt so cared for by the crowd, family and friends.

I placed second in the heavyweight class and I was elated!

I am truly blessed to have the parents that I have, my siblings, extended family, and friends. Without them I would not have been able to walk out of that chemo clinic for the last time and onto that stage.

Principles Of Motivation

This was my story of coming back from cancer, recovering and competing again in the great sport of natural bodybuilding. It was an interesting uphill journey from being sick from chemotherapy to posing onstage in front of hundreds of people. It was a long road which now seems like a lifetime ago. Traveling to the clinic, getting filled up with chemotherapy, dragging myself back home and feeling sick to my stomach for months seems like it was all a dream sometimes.

I sometimes get wrapped up into what I am currently doing in my present day routine that I have to stop and think about what I really went through. It is very surreal to think about now. I have survived and I am alive and I am thankful for it, but I am scarred. Obviously I am scarred physically from the procedures performed on me — the cutting and puncturing over nearly a year’s time. I am also talking about a scarring of a different kind.

I feel like my soul has been scarred, which is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I know my father and brother feel similarly. I am sure they have there own way of dealing with their scars, of using it to their advantage (my father twice and my brother both had cancer). To me, it is a very real reminder of my life and how it could have ended very quickly at a young age (I was diagnosed at 29).

After I had recovered I stepped (more like ran) right back into the gym and started to train hard again for the upcoming season. Without missing a beat I was back hammering away at the weights envisioning myself back onstage. In my head I was healthy and strong again like an ox! I was very motivated and promised myself I would not complain about being tired again.

I would use my time wisely in the gym: train hard every time, no excuses. I felt I was on the right track. I was working full time again, healthy, and feeling great. The first section of this article outlines the outcomes of the contests I had entered. I had learned lessons and found out a lot about myself — my abilities and many things I could not control. Cancer was a lesson in life I will never forget.

One lesson that really stands out is how I coped with life’s everyday routines while being sick. I took for granted the ability to do simple things with ease. For example, I do a lot of do-it-yourself things to my car, but I had to go to the shop to get the tires rotated. I couldn’t take just standing there watching this guy do it for me.

I thought he was just looking at me shaking his head in my mind. I had to learn that not everyone in society is fully capable of doing things in a speedy manner. Any number of people could be on chemotherapy at any given moment. Anyone could have a disability we are not aware of or a sickness we have never heard of, so I had to rethink my view of society.

Real Recovery

I had gone from zero to 200 in three seconds without looking back. All I was doing was looking forward, planning, building, and taking action. It was a good feeling. Unfortunately something was wrong. Something had been missing in this whole recovery process. I was healthy, my scans were coming back clear, and I was feeling fine, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I felt like I was suspended in air, I wasn’t grounded. I started to fall back into my old routine and way of thinking and became disappointed in myself that I was not a changed man like I wanted to be.

I also felt extremely disconnected from everyone and not appreciating the smaller things in life. I was going down, spiraling out of control into something I was scared to become: depressed. I refused to deal with it and told myself it was just a phase and I would grow out of it naturally. The longer I waited the worse I became. This was becoming a problem in my personal, professional, and not to mention my emotional life.

Real recovery in my life came to me in the form of another person: my wife Courtney. Once I fell in love with her I started to feel things in life I never had before. I am a creature of observation. I learn through observing others and then try to apply it to my life. She was (and still is) my true recovery from what I had been going through. I started to watch her and learn from her.

She appreciates the little things in life. She has taught me how to relax, to not worry so much, to be happy with what I have and to appreciate my life after cancer. She recommended counseling, she understands things about me that no one else can, and loves me unconditionally. I am such a better person now because of her.

What I found out was that I had never dealt with the mental and emotional strain cancer and chemotherapy had put me through. I was suffering from a kind of post trauma from my experience. I had gone to Afghanistan, fought cancer, and went back into training without a breath. I had always been good at the physical side of obstacles — go through it without missing a beat. I knew how to set goals, prioritize, work hard, and sacrifice to get the job done.

What I did not know was how to deal with something emotionally that I had no control over. Cancer was something that happened to me and medicine was the only weapon I had against it. Much of it was out of my hands. I needed to stop, take a breath and take stock of things and what was important in my life. Cancer was over and I needed to take care of myself and Courtney showed me how.

I took a break from the hard grueling training and lightened up a little. I wanted to enjoy life a little. There would be plenty of time to hit the heavy weights again, diet and compete, but for now I wanted to relax myself and enjoy my new relationship. I ended up proposing to her on the anniversary of my diagnosis, February 19th and she became my wife shortly thereafter. I know that if I am ever sick again she will be there by my side every step and I will not worry. She is my little rock.

A Real Comeback

Presently I am training hard again and looking to compete next year for a real comeback. Now things are different. I am much more balanced in my life and enjoy marriage. I plan on being better than ever and promoting the natural, healthy lifestyle of bodybuilding. I will truly be REBUILT in mind, body, and soul.

Recovery in all aspects is so important especially if you are trying to succeed in life or just make a better life for yourself and your family. Please do not neglect yourself in any situation. If you have gone through or are currently going through a difficult time in your life seek help. Reach out to your family, friends, coworkers, counselors — whoever can help.

How does this all relate to bodybuilding? If you have read the above information you can understand. Weight training has always been a large part of my life. It enables me to connect with others in such a way with regards to overcoming obstacles and helping others. I feel my story can give a little hope to some out there going through what I went through.

Success in bodybuilding is not achieved alone. Every successful competitor has help whether it is a wife, training partner, family member, or coach. Keep seeking knowledge, keep asking questions, and have an open mind.

I have compiled a few principles I follow in training and in life to help anyone looking to succeed the old fashioned way: hard work!

  1. Clear your mind before entering the gym and leave the troubles behind. Devote yourself to the physical and mental aspects of the task at hand. Think about pushing yourself to personal bests. The training itself (sets, reps, form, etc.) should be the focus for the moment.
  2. Visualize first. Visualize what the lifts look like and feel like. Mentally picture it in exacting detail. It’s easier for the body to accomplish what the mind has already experienced. Dr. Rob Gilbert once said, ”Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success.”
  3. Work hard in the gym. Have integrity, power, growth, strength, durability, and endurance in your training. Tighten and tense the entire body on every movement to increase power.
  4. Put enough weight on the bar to insult your pride, but do it safely. You must challenge yourself. Heavy free weights and compound movements is the way to go. Don’t wimp out! Pro bodybuilder Gunter Schlierkamp said, “It’s important that you always reach for something outside your immediate grasp.”
  5. Consistently modify and change your routine to suit your goals. Document your workouts and make appropriate adjustments. Gather information, talk to others, and read all you can, but take it all in with a fine-toothed comb. Don’t believe everything you hear and see. Be critical and try everything you can (within reason) with regard to your personal goals. “The real secret of success is enthusiasm.” — Walter Chrysler.
  6. Make sure your nutrition is sound and in line with your goals. Don’t cheat yourself especially if you are contest dieting. Educate yourself on the latest facts on nutrition and supplements. Be safe and don’t overdo it because nothing will produce results better than real food and hard training.
  7. Finally, there are three things I live by when training and dieting: Patience, Consistency, and Persistence. Keep pushing even when you doubt things in the gym or with your diet. You will break through the walls you face. Pay your dues and you will receive. “Men are born to succeed, not to fail.” — Henry David Thoreau.

Those are just a few things I like to think about when training. I hope they help out with whatever goal or goals you are trying to achieve. Train hard and stay healthy.

(Re)Build yourself.

“We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.” — Frank Tibolt

  • The above was originally shared in 2005.