“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” I heard those words often during my years as a soccer player at Drexel University. The mantra reminded me of my goals, and helped me endure the pain of practice and the mental stress of competition.
Now at the age of 30, I find myself relying on that mantra again — not as an athlete, but as a patient.
Last September, doctors told me that I had Stage IV gastric cancer. With my sports background, I have come to view treatment as a competition. “Remembering that “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” now helps me endure the pain of treatment and the mental strain of the unknown. Just as I did in soccer, I have set my mind on victory.
My youth was all sports – years of waking early and piling into a crammed minivan to get to this or that game. Whether running point guard on a hard basketball court, stealing bases or playing the world’s most beautiful game on fresh green grass, I never knew that one day I would rely on my training to face my fiercest opponent ever.
Now, my “game day” is treatment day. As in soccer, I spend the weeks before treatment drawing up a game plan. I’ve learned that by following a pretreatment training regimen, I can recover much more quickly. Of course, I can train only on “good days” – the days when I’m not clutching the toilet or shivering even while wrapped in thick clothing. But the reality that not every day is a good day just steels my resolve to make the most of those times.
On good days, I push myself to get to 25 push-ups, followed by squats and as many squat thrusts as my quivering legs can handle. I often end up gasping for air. I also run steps when I can, breathing deeply and feeling the cold air burning through my lungs.
After these sessions, I rest, hydrate and mentally prepare for the looming treatment. I can still vividly see my old self in the locker room with my teammates, my soccer uniform drenched in sweat. Nowadays, of course, I am without my teammates. I am wearing tights to keep my legs warm and sitting in my room wrapped in blankets. To psych myself for treatment, I speak to a thinner, bald person in the mirror I often don’t recognize. But as I do I can see my former self surrounded by my teammates as we get ready for battle. Both then and now, I remind myself that no matter the pain, the victory will be worth it.
As game day inches nearer, I focus on yoga and meditation. Deep breathing calms my mind, as does envisioning waves crashing as I lie on a warm, sunny beach. I also imagine a finish line, as if I am running the 100-meter dash. I picture myself crossing that line, snapping the ribbon of victory, and celebrating with exuberance. I pictured these scenes in my mind as a young athlete; I do it now for a very different kind of race.
In sports, a “three a day” means three practice sessions in one day – an extreme effort. During the hardest days of post-treatment, I reflect on how grueling those sessions were, how much I demanded of myself. Sometimes I would fall exhausted to the ground after wind sprints, but I would always pick myself back up. Merely remembering this, remembering that I had tested my body and mind before, and prevailed, gives me strength to endure. I can pick myself up again.
I also think about my knee surgery in my junior year. Chemotherapy is torturous, but it fortifies me to recall how much pain I was in after tearing the meniscus and medial collateral ligament in my knee, and how hard I worked to recuperate. I have done it before, I tell myself.
When I enter the confines of the treatment room – my field of competition — I sit in the recliner with the toxic chemicals running into the port in my chest. I recall a soccer tournament I was in as a teenager. We were playing in Sweden against the top seed, Brazil, and we were losing. I assembled my teammates at halftime, urged them to reach deep down, to go the distance, to finish strong and to show what we were made of. “We’ve had uphill battles before and won,” I remember telling them. “We got this!”
We faced long odds in that match, but my team fought hard. In the last minute, I scored the winning goal. It’s a happy memory for me; one of my best. I try to summon the courage I felt back then.
“I’ve had uphill battles before and won,” I whisper to myself. “We got this!”
By ALEX NILES APRIL 17, 2014
Alex Niles is a 30-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter (@AlxNiles) and Facebook, or on his blog www.SmilesForNiles.com.
NY Times, April 17, 2014