Cancer is how I got my start in endurance sports. 

My story started in August of 2003.  I was active duty Air Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan.  I had gotten out of the shower one night and noticed a lump on the right side of my neck.  It looked like I had swallowed a golf ball.  I went to the ER on the Naval Base that night and was told it was most likely a swollen lymph node and if it didn’t get better in 10 days, to go see my primary care physician.  The clinic had same day appointments but said they couldn’t get me scheduled for at least two weeks.  I was on duty that day and when I got back to work, I told my supervisor they couldn’t see me for two weeks.  She did not like that answer so we went back to the clinic.  She told me to wait outside and 15 minutes later I had an appointment for 1300 the next day.

This is where it gets really frustrating dealing with military medicine.  My primary care, a Major who wasn’t my actual doctor, also thought it was a swollen lymph node.  I was scheduled to fly back to the states for training in San Antonio and then go on leave back home in California since I hadn’t been home in three years.  He told me if it got worse, go to the hospital in San Antonio.  If it didn’t, schedule an appointment for when I returned to Okinawa.  Mind you this was August and I wasn’t supposed to be back until October.  He wanted to refer me for tests with ENT but didn’t even try to get me an appointment.  Completely frustrated, I went back to work and called ENT myself and got an appointment that same day.

The Navy Lt Commander I saw could not have been more helpful and he saved my life.  He immediately started doing tests; blood work, CT Scans, Pet Scans, and X-rays.  After all the test results came back, he diagnosed me with Stage 2B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. What we thought was only one tumor turned out to be four.  There were two tumors stacked on top of each other in my neck which is why I saw the growth in my neck.  I also had a tumor half the size of my fist between my lungs.  He told me there were no oncologist services on Okinawa so I was going to be medevaced to another location.  I chose to go to Travis AFB, about an hour from where I grew up in Santa Rosa.  Had I listened to that other doctor and had gone to Texas and California, I would have died from respiratory failure.  This was my first successful mission of cheating death J

After six months of chemotherapy and radiation, with a few bumps in the road because of pneumonia, I was declared in remission.  I knew that the radiation to my neck and chest would possibly lead to heart problems much later in life but I did not think it would happen a month after I turned 37.

Cancer is how I got my start in endurance sports.  I joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in 2006 and signed up for my first ever triathlon, The Wildflower Triathlon, in California.  I fell in love with the sport and continued to sign up for races from sprint triathlons to marathons.  I raced Eagleman 70.3 in July 2010 but could not start the run so I earned a DNF that year.  The next year, I raced Eagleman 70.3 and finished.  On September 11th, 2011, I raced Ironman Wisconsin and finished with a time of 16:45.  On October 31st I ran the Marine Corp Marathon and despite a 33% chance I wouldn’t be able to have kids, on December 27th my beautiful wife Michelle gave birth to our daughter Olivia.

From 2004 to 2016 I was doing well and other than high cholesterol I was pretty healthy.  I was a volunteer firefighter in Maryland and on February 23rd, 2016 I was on the scene of a fire.  Sometime during the response, I felt a small pain in the center of my chest but I attributed to the adrenaline of fighting a fire.  I started getting really nauseous and was aching all over.  The most pronounced symptom was severe pain on the left side of my jaw.  I walked over and got into the back of the engine and laid down.  The only reason I didn’t die on the floor of that fire engine was because my friend Chuck climbed in to get something.  He found me lying there and I asked him to get a medic.  The paramedic took one look at me, put me into an ambulance and I was rushed to the hospital.  Numbers two and three successful missions of cheating death.  J

I was immediately brought to the Cath lab where they put a stent in for a 100% blockage of my right coronary artery.  I also had a 45% blockage in the circumflex artery but it was not serious enough to put a stent in.  Four hours later in the cardiac ICU, I started feeling the exact same jaw pain and was taken back down to the Cath lab.  I found out I was Plavix resistant and my body rejected the stent.  There was a clot which caused another 100% blockage in the RCA again.  They put a balloon into the stent and I was back in the ICU.  The cardiologist told me the blockage was caused by scar tissue from the radiation in my chest and since they could not surgically remove the scar tissue, I would have to live day to day worrying if another piece would break off and cause another blockage.

I had never felt more supported than I did at that time.  The entire Fire Department took shifts staying with me and ran errands for Michelle and even after I was released, they would pick things up for us on their daily runs to the grocery store.

I have become very aware of my symptoms and know if I have pain in my jaw, there could be a problem.  In July of 2018, we moved to Boston to be closer to Michelle’s family and I had a new cardiologist.  Dr. Zucker is the greatest doctor I have ever had.  The first time I met him, he reminded of some college surfer.  He is a totally chill guy and does not look like your stereotypical cardiologist.  After my first procedure with him, Michelle thought he was an orderly, not my heart doc.  In May of last year I got that familiar jaw pain while working out.  I went to see Dr. Z who is a no frills, let’s use common sense doctor.  He told me he would rather go to the Cath lab instead of a stress test to be able to confirm if there was a blockage.  He said “we’ll go in and see what’s going on.  If we find something, we’ll take care of it, if not, at least we can be confident that there is no serious blockage.”  I ended up with a second stent because the 45% blockage in the circumflex was now 90% blocked.  Dr. Z told us that while possible, it was unlikely the scar tissue caused my previous heart attack.  It was all genetics.  My dad and uncle both died from heart attacks in their early 50’s and I needed to make some changes.  Fourth successful mission.  J

In February of this year, I experienced the same jaw pain.  I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Z and, although the jaw pain was minor, he still wanted to get me into the lab.  On Friday March 6th, I was in the Cath lab and I am so fortunate I was.  After the procedure, Dr. Z told me the blockages were in a few different spots, one of them being in the LDA, aka, “The Widow Maker.”  He said stents would not fix the issue and was recommending bypass.  Saturday morning I was transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  On Tuesday the 10th, I went into surgery and ended up with a CABG x 3.  If you’re keeping track, mission five completed.  J

I am sure I experienced the same pain and struggle all of us who’ve had open heart surgery have had.  When I woke up in the ICU, I immediately started freaking out because I was still intubated and according to my wife and nurse, tried several times to take it out myself.  I vaguely remember it coming out and arguing with my nurse Gerson because he would not give me more ice chips.  I believe my exact words were “Why are you so stingy man.”  Gerson and the other nurse assigned to me, Connor, tried to get me sitting up in bed, and moved to a chair.  As soon as they sat me up, my blood pressure dropped significantly and I might have passed out but I’m not sure.  The next thing I remember was waking up and struggling very hard to breathe.  One of my lungs would brush up against the chest tube causing a lot of pain.  Shortly after, they took the tube out and I was able to breathe much better.

The most difficult part for me, besides the pain, was Michelle couldn’t be there every day.  The morning after my surgery, our daughter got sick and wanted mommy.  Michelle took her to Urgent Care and we found out Olivia had the flu and strep.  Because Michelle was exposed to that, she couldn’t come to the hospital to see me which quite frankly sucked.  Michelle has been my rock through all of this.  Over the past 15 years, she has held me up when my dad passed, my brother passed, my heart attack, and all the heart issues that have followed.  We fight like any couple but there is no way I would be where I am in this world without her.

I soon began walking around the ICU, first with a walker, then a cane, then under my own power.  I would do several laps several times a day and was looking and feeling much better.  Other than some serious water retention and a bout with AFIB, I was released seven days later.  Just in time because they were converting the cardiac ICU to a COVID floor.  My recovery has gone better than I could have imagined and at 8 weeks I have been able to start running, albeit a couple hundred feet at a time, but I’m trying.  I asked Michelle to take a picture of me after surgery so I could look at it anytime I wanted to knock off a workout or eat like crap.  I am also working on my comeback to endurance sports.  I want to race the Boston triathlon next summer and then Ironman Lake Placid 70.3 in September 2021.

I will end with my new favorite quote.  “I don’t know how my story will end, but it will never say I gave up.”