Fitness Against Cancer

photo of Jose

by Jose Baez

As I wipe the sweat off my face, I look around the gym and see the familiar faces of gym-goers and reflect how this routine part of my life played an important role in overcoming stage four colon cancer. In high school, I played soccer and wrestling. During my college years, I started running as a way to stay fit and found it to be a great stress reliever. Although I still loved running, my career and family left me very little time for running, so I started to spend more time in the gym and riding my mountain bike. Soon, I was hooked.

When I walked into my house from the hospital after nineteen days, I was scared and unsure what was next. I was sore from the surgery that removed a baseball size tumor from my colon. With chemotherapy being the next step before the follow up surgery to remove the three small tumors from my liver, I needed to feel capable of tackling my future. As soon as my wife left to go to the pharmacy and under the protest of my mother, I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned the upstairs rooms. It was a small gesture, but it reinforced an inner determination to not let cancer dictate my life.

After two months, I was given the OK to start physical activity. I had started chemo which brought so many side effects and challenges, but did not change my mind to return to the gym as soon as I could. My chemo regimen started with four hour sessions on Monday, then 47 hours with a pump. It was taken off on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday morning, I crashed all day. It was not until Friday afternoon that I started feeling better. With a week off from chemo, I headed to the gym that Saturday morning.

It became a routine to head to the gym as soon as I finished the chemo week. The Saturdays after chemo was the hardest since I was still somewhat weak and it always ended in my vomiting in the parking lot afterwards. But it got easier as the weeks passed by. At first, people at the gym were not aware of my cancer diagnosis; they just assumed I lost weight. They would praise me on how good I looked and ask what my secret was. With my mischievous side taking over, I would look at them and say with a straight face, “cancer”. They would walk away confused. But to me, it was a small victory over cancer knowing that most people could not realize that I was a cancer patient. It also reinforced my desire to stay fit through my battle, to stay stronger than cancer.

Before my cancer diagnosis, I would ride my mountain bike through local trails with friends during the weekends or through town when by myself. I remember always passing an older couple that rode a double person bike. It was cute to see a couple sharing their passion together but I found them to be slow riders. Karma paid me back the first time I took my bike out after the first surgery. I was riding through town, thinking that I was keeping up a nice pace considering chemo. Then I heard the couple behind me shouting a warning that they were passing me on the left side. They flew past me as if I was standing still. It dawned on me how slow I must be going to have them cruise by so easily. I stopped and cried on the side of the road, allowing myself to feel defeated. But I quickly cleared my mind and started pedaling again until I finished my ride.

With three reoccurrences, I have endured four operations and four chemotherapy treatments (each lasting 6 months). Each time, I started all over again the battle to stay fit and to return to the gym as quick as the surgeon would allow me. As long as I could work out, I knew cancer could not defeat me. During the last surgery post consultation, I asked my surgeon when could I go back to the gym and if I could do abdominal workouts considering he removed my spleen (had a tumor) and my gallbladder to make room for a HAIP (chemo pump) which is installed in my abdomin. He was shocked that I would even ask that question. He answered honestly that he does not know since no one has ever asked him that question. Once cleared, I was back to the gym.

This past December I celebrated my five year stage four colon cancer diagnosis. The chances of surviving past five years was less than ten percent, yet here I am. I am still alive, strong and going to the gym frequently. I have never looked like a cancer patient. There are many factors that contribute to my survivorship; the support and love of my wife, family, friends and colleagues, eating healthier and staying fit.