“How brain cancer put me in the high-speed lane towards creating and experiencing the life I envision.”
(step 8 of my 8-step plan to get you back on track towards pursuing the life you envision despite a cancer diagnosis or other major life-altering event).
STEP 8 Part III:
Shortly after returning home from my week-long stay in the neuro-ICU at Duke University Medical Pavilion and receiving my brain cancer diagnosis, my psychotherapist helped me to understand and accept that my life had just changed completely, and seemingly overnight. As I began the new routine of daily radiation and chemotherapy treatments, I realized that my life was suddenly VERY far from what I considered to be normal; a visual impairment caused by the radiation treatments, and my overall lack of awareness of time and space, meant that I could no longer drive a car. Losing my independence meant that I had to rely completely on my wife Ashley, family, and friends to get me to and from my daily treatment and therapy appointments; to and from my job that was temporarily reduced to a part-time role; and I felt generally useless as a husband to Ashley because I couldn’t do a relatively simple and mundane chore like run to the store to pickup a few groceries, among other things. I began to crave normalcy, and anyone who knew me during that period of time knew that, more than anything, I just wanted life to go back to normal. I desperately wanted to FEEL and BE normal again. Realizing that the only way out of this situation was FORWARD, I began to do what I do best: I set some big, lofty goals and worked hard towards achieving them. This was perhaps the first glimmer of normalcy in my new life post-cancer diagnosis, evidence that I was still alive and that I was still ME.
My first goal was to be able to drive again and regain my independence. I worked diligently with my physical, occupational, and psychotherapists to rebuild the fine motor, reaction, visual, and cognitive skills required to successfully and safely operate a motor vehicle. This culminated in me passing a visual fields test with my neuro-ophthalmologist and a driver-readiness exam with my psychotherapist. With Ashley in the passenger seat for my first few times behind the wheel, I was finally cleared to drive. Check that box!
My next goal was to get my old full-time job back, not just for my own mental well-being but also for my and Ashley’s financial well-being (medical bills were starting to pile up in a big way, we started making mortgage payments on the new house we had just built, and we were essentially reduced to one income). Being cleared to drive a car played a big role in this, as I was quite literally able to get on the road again and finally able to get myself to and from work every day at the times that I needed to be there, without having to coordinate with Ashley to be my Uber driver and thereby disrupting her own work multiple times per day. After piecing together a regular work schedule for a few months, I was finally able to convince my employers that I was ready to return to my full-time role, and thankfully they agreed. Check that box!
The next goal was to pursue a physical goal I had set before my cancer diagnosis – I wanted to run the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. This was a goal that came about right after I completed my first ultra marathon back in February of 2015, just four months before I learned that I had a grade IV glioblastoma growing on my right thalamus. At the time, I was in arguably the best physical shape of my life and had just successfully completed the hardest voluntary physical challenge of my life, the Uwharrie 40-mile Mountain Run. Feeling like I could seemingly do anything at that point, I declared that I wanted to do a 100-miler, because that’s what all the “real” ultra runners did, and the Umstead 100 was my target. The Umstead 100 is a local race in Raleigh, North Carolina that is generally billed as one of the country’s best first-time 100-mile races. Remember how I said I wanted life to feel normal again? Well, normal for me was committing to some kind of big crazy physical challenge, one that would serve as a “carrot” to hold me accountable for my own regular physical conditioning and training. The Umstead 100 was just what I needed, just what I wanted, to make me feel normal again. After much pleading and negotiating with Ashley, which included getting permission from my neurosurgeon and neuro-oncologist (and roping in two of my friends, Michael Whitehurst and Eugene Oddone, to sign up and do it with me), Ashley agreed to let me register and train for the race. Once I paid the $180 registration fee, it was game on!
I knew I had a little over a year to train for this thing, and that in order for me to finish 100 consecutive miles on April 1st, 2017 I was going to have to create a solid training plan and schedule together with my training partners, and I was going to have to put in the work and really stick to the plan or else it wasn’t going to happen. We organized and completed long training runs together on the weekends, and during the work week we individually completed strength training workouts in the gym, shorter maintenance runs on the treadmill or on the road, and speed workouts on the Duke University track. In the meantime I continued my daily oral chemotherapy regimen, monthly check-ups at the Brain Tumor Center, and bi-monthly monitoring MRIs. Having completed over a year of training with chemo drugs (or what I affectionately referred to as “my poison”) in my body, I felt confident that I would be prepared for however I would feel in attempting to move my body relentlessly forward over the course of one hundred miles on race day.
Fast forward to race day… I could write an entire book on that experience alone, but this blog is about continuing to create and experience the life you envision, despite whatever crazy and unforeseen circumstances may arise. I did all of the training and preparation that I (un)reasonably could for an entire year, I showed up at the starting line on race day with the most amazing crew of family and friends in attendance to support me, and about thirty minutes shy of the thirty-hour cut-off time I crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with my crew chief, final lap pacer, and extraordinary love of my life, my wife Ashley. Check that box!
My next goal was to hike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and take an African Safari with Ashley, which we successfully completed in July of 2017. In order to conquer “Kili,” Ashley and I would have to seriously train for this monumental physical challenge as well, which today I rank as the SECOND hardest physical challenge I have ever completed in my life (the first being the hundred-miler just three months earlier). Fortunately for me, having just trained for and completed the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, my cardiovascular system and leg muscles were already in tip-top shape. I would argue that, even though I was taking daily chemotherapy, I was at an even higher level of overall physical fitness than when I ran my first two ultra-marathons before my brain surgery!
To round out our training plan and make it as functional as possible, Ashley and I added in twice-weekly stair climbing workouts for thirty-to-sixty minutes each while wearing twenty-pound weighted vests. While on the mountain, we both took the recommended daily dose of Diamox medication to help curb any ill effects of the extreme altitude (the summit is a cool 19,341 feet above sea level), and I must say that some combination of our physical training and the medication definitely worked – neither of us experienced any symptoms of altitude sickness, which was a huge win!
I guess you could say that life is finally starting to look a little more normal again, a little more like what I had envisioned before I was diagnosed with brain cancer. I am not finished yet, however. Ashley and I are now working on our next big life goal: starting a family and filling this new house of ours. It is with a very full and excited heart that I can report that today Ashley is twenty-eight weeks pregnant with our son, who we hope to welcome into the world sometime on or about January 6th, 2019. Stay tuned!