“I am not my body”. A hard lesson for a bodybuilder and two-time cancer survivor.
At the age of 25, I entered the NY State Natural Bodybuilding competition. I had trained hard… No, actually I had pushed myself beyond what I thought I was able. It was grueling. I remember feeling proud as I walked onto the stage. Proud; because I had given it everything I had. Proud; because my family and friends were there to cheer for me.
That evening in October of 2002, I won the NY State Light HeavyWeight title. In that exciting moment, being in the best shape of my life, I would never have guessed that 4 months later I was going to be diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Being a competitive athlete was, quite possibly, the best and worst thing in shaping how I dealt with cancer. I treated it like a competition. I can train and WIN, was my mentality. I remember going through surgery and recovery without thinking of anything else. In fact, I tried sneaking back to the gym while I was recovering to train (sorry about that mom).
I did ‘win’ that battle against cancer. My body healed. But what hadn’t healed was my mind. I never cried. I never let the emotion of what I was competing against enter my thinking. The lessons I learned as an athlete made it impossible for me consider cancer’s effect on me emotionally.
It was a lesson I would need a second chance to learn. And, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer for the second time.
This time, the physical effects were much more significant. I underwent surgery and then radiation. It took nearly a year for my body to get used to hormone therapy. I lost the ability to have children. But again, I had ‘won’ my battle against cancer.
What nobody tells you during treatment is that once the physical treatment is over, the emotional recovery has only begun. And (as the athlete I am) I encourage you to guess what mistake I made again during my recovery… Ok, have your guess? I never allowed myself to think about cancer’s effect on me emotionally.
I would spend the next 5 years proving to the world that I was fine. I was tough and I could handle this thing called cancer. In truth, I wasn’t fine (and I’m sorry to my friends and family for how I behaved).
It’s only in the last year, that I’ve been honest with myself about cancer. It has affected me, and affected me deeply. And it has profoundly changed who I am.
What I’ve learned has amazed me and has made me feel accepted in a way I struggle to put into words. The reason I hid my cancer was that I was afraid people would judge me. “He’s had cancer”, I thought in my head. “He’s had testicular cancer. He must not the same kind of man anymore”.
It seems so absurd when I write it, but that’s how I felt. I didn’t want people to think less of me. I was wrong. SO wrong.
People have taught me during the last year the importance of being authentic, of being honest about who we are. I have found closeness and honesty in my relationships that I could have never imagined before having cancer.
I also spend my days now building CureLauncher. We match people who have cancer and other diseases to new treatment options. We empower and support them to make a life-changing decision. Our motto is Take Charge. Know Your Options. It is an incredible moment in my life.
Even now as I sit back in my chair, it seems impossible to imagine. This is my life. It is both scary and wonderful.
Ginger Johnson, a dear friend, fellow cancer survivor and President of Happy Chemo!, said to me “you are not your body”. That’s a tough lesson for a former bodybuilder to learn. But after a decade of learning and support from some amazing people, I know that I am so much more than what cancer has done to my body.
I have learned so much on my cancer journey. I would like to leave you with the most important thing I’ve learned, which is an appreciation for our humanity.
It is our humanity that cancer can never take away. We are so much more than we typically realize. We are love and hope. We are tenderness and empathy. We are our ability to support each other during the terrible moments that are cancer. And we are our ability to celebrate the humanity in each other.
Thank you for learning about my humanity.
David Fuehrer is one of the founders of CureLauncher, a service that provides personalized clinical trial matching. Please visit his website, CureLauncher.com to learn more.