Zero Cancer Swimming: The Physical Becomes Metaphysical

Friends

I would love to take credit for the title of today’s blog. However, my devoted student and friend, Jeanne Safer, said it as we talked about how what had once been purely physical/fitness activities had become transformed as I discovered that they created a Zero-Cancer Zone in which real healing occurred.

This is my first Zero Cancer blog since March. For several months, my condition seemed to change almost weekly, and I wanted to wait until it stabilized, and I could make some sense of it, to share it with you.  That time has come.

Here is a brief summary of news I’ve received in the last eight months:

  • Nov 20: “You have prostate cancer.”
  • Jan 23: “Your cancer has metastasized to your pelvis and seminal vesicles.”
  • Apr 21: “Your cancer has become hormone-resistant after two months.” (The norm is two years.)
  • Apr 27: “It looks as if you had a small stroke earlier this month.”

Following my initial diagnosis, I experienced a funk. Surprisingly, it lasted only 15 minutes. Partly because the urologist had soft-pedaled it, saying: “Prostate cancer is slow-moving and very treatable.” (I now wish he hadn’t.) I had recently set ambitious goals for my first season as a Masters swimmer in the 65-69 age group in Masters swimming and I was nearly as concerned about how treatment might affect my training plans as about having cancer.

But updates which followed were considerably more sobering. After each I experienced emotions ranging from “Why me?” to terror. At the same time, I was keenly conscious that my prospects for remission would depend heavily on my ability to maintain a strong spirit and a belief in my ability to prevail.

But I found I had the resilience to work my way back to a sense of optimism after each. I took a Deliberate Practice approach to facing challenges for which nothing else prepares you. Each challenge taught me something about regaining calm, and prepared me for the next.

I was also uplifted repeatedly by the love, care, and prayers of countless people whose own lives had been touched by TI. And, through them, I’ve also been introduced to some of the world’s top prostate cancer specialists.

My evolving prognosis has been accompanied by a parade of symptoms, one following another. I felt great—and had just finished a fantastic Corsica-Sardinia swim—when I received my initial diagnosis. I still felt great the first week of January as I coached at our open water camp at St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, within weeks I began to feel ill, and by mid-February, I felt sick every day.

After my first testosterone-suppressing hormone injection Feb 11, I improved dramatically, to the point where I was able to coach at our Tri-Swim camp in Clermont the last week of Feb. Being there was itself strong medicine. The first two weeks of March I felt truly vibrant health—to the point where I could almost forget about cancer. During this period I trained exceptionally well and swam the thrilling 1650 race recounted in 1390 Seconds of Unwavering Focus.

A Downward Turn

By the time I had my second injection Mar 16, my sense of health had begun to decline. When I received my third injection in mid-April I was again feeling quite sick. I had an inkling the hormones had lost their effectiveness, even before the oncologist confirmed a day later that my PSA, which had dropped from 29 to 5 after the first injection, had risen to 21 by the time of the third.

That month, I was thrown another wild card  after suffering a 26-hour spell of acute dizziness, which started while giving a lesson in our Swim Studio. After being examined by my doctor, I had a brain scan a week later. On April 27 a neuro-oncologist at Mt. Sinai, after reviewing test results, told me I’d had a small stroke, most likely related to the cancer.

I’d recovered from the dizzy spell with no apparent ill effects. But, soon after, I began to experience unsteadiness on my feet and blurring vision. Every few days, each of those conditions—particularly the deterioration in my vision–seemed slightly more advanced than before. It was becoming harder to read my computer monitor as I worked, and I was limited to driving short distances.

This momentarily sidelined my concerns about cancer. I discovered I was less worried about dying than by the prospect of being robbed of function and the ability to move around freely and do my work. In the weeks that followed, the advance of these symptoms caused the highest level of anxiety I’d yet faced.

I’d planned to drive to Greensboro NC and swim in Masters Nationals the last week of April. But vision problems made a long drive out of the question and I’d begun to feel far too ill—along with constant pain in my hips–to withstand the rigors of the trip or racing. Instead I began chemotherapy that week.

While you seldom hear of people speaking positively about their chemotherapy experience, I welcomed it. On the day of my first infusion, my daughter Betsy and I left New Paltz to drive to Manhattan at 5:30 am. During the 2-hour drive, I maintained a positive and expectant attitude about the healing potential of the medication I was about to receive. The initial infusion took 3 hours, during which I relaxed in a comfortable recliner and engaged in self-hypnosis and meditation, telling my body “This medicine is a life-saving partner. We will work together.”

I’ve now had five chemo treatments, at 3-week intervals, during which the pain in my hips has declined to being quite tolerable, though still an occasional distraction. My sense of overall health has mostly been quite good. People who learn I have stage IV cancer nearly always tell me it’s hard to square with my healthy appearance.

The 5-year survival rate for metastatic prostate cancer is 28%. However between 5% and 10% stretch that to 10 or even 15 years. The strongest predictor for being in that group is one’s state of health at the time of diagnosis. Mine had been great as I was just coming off a very strong 10-mile Corsica-Sardinia swim.

The key to resisting the advance of cancer is the strength of one’s immune system. The greatest threat to that is the anxiety I spoke of earlier. My anxiety began to increase as my vision deteriorated,. This accelerated when I learned my cancer had become hormone-resistant, which my oncologist described as “the far side of bad news.”

Something else that spiked was my blood pressure—to a scary 190/101 during an oncologist appointment on April 21. Hypertension caused my vision to deteriorate further, and raised my fears of another stroke.  Following that appointment I determined to use mind-over-body measures to bring my BP down to the 120/70 range.

Over the next three weeks, using daily qigong, meditation, and visualization; healthy eating; and up to five yoga classes per week (because of vertigo I wasn’t swimming at the time) my BP dropped steadily to a level lower than it had been in over 30 years. As it did my vision and steadiness on my feet improved. This felt like the most important accomplishment of my life. It also increased my confidence that I could use the same strengths to slow cancer growth.

For a few weeks I felt upbeat and healthy. But then, between June 10 and 12, I had daily anxiety attacks, and blood pressure levels so high that each of those days I considered going to the ER to have my BP medically reduced. This also caused my vision to deteriorate again. On June 14, my doctor changed my anti-anxiety meds, transitioning me from Xanax to Lexapro, which has more permanent effects.

I Regain my Sense of Self

On June 18, Lake Minnewaska reopened for swimming. As the date approached, I was excited about swimming where I’ve experienced so much joy, but also nervous: Would vertigo return? Could I tolerate the 68F water? (I’d been prone to both overheating and chilling since starting hormone treatment.)

My first 400m loop dispelled all my fears. It felt like absolute bliss and brought a flood of pleasant memories. By the start of my second loop I was swimming with an ear-splitting grin. Though I hadn’t swum in six weeks, I continued for 2000m, coming out pleasantly fatigued.

That day marked the beginning of the most pronounced upswing in my state of physical and mental health. Since then I’ve swum regularly, at Minnewaska and the outdoor 50m pool in New Paltz, complementing three to five weekly yoga classes.

In early July I saw a program on Australian TV which reported on a rigorous study in which cancer patients who undertook a targeted exercise program–including a weight workout on the day of treatment–doubled survival time compared to those who did not exercise.

This resonated because because I’ve always enjoyed using my body in a physical way and I’d felt vibrant health during and immediately after every yoga class or swim practice. While looking in the yoga studio mirror while doing, say, Warrior 1 pose, I could see a smiling and healthy individual looking back at me.

I’d stopped lifting weights in late April when I felt poorly. Since then, because my hormone treatments suppress testosterone, I’d lost a shocking amount of muscle mass and strength. This treatment greatly increases risk of osteopenia/osteoporosis. And because chemotherapy leaves dead bone cells in place of tumor cells, men with my cancer often suffer fractures.

Thus, I resumed strength training two weeks ago. In just four training sessions, I’ve already seen a return of tone to muscles that had shrunk and grown flaccid. I’ve also enjoyed the feeling of mindfully overcoming resistance. The physical has become metaphysical–activity that impacts the very core and nature of my being. I’ll write more in the very near future how that came about, but it started in earnest when I began practicing qigong in April.

The most exciting development of all came in the past few weeks. From the time of diagnosis, awareness of cancer had become a full-time preoccupation that weighed down my spirit every day. However, from mid-July on, my spirit has become light and I’ve experienced periods of profound joy nearly every day. In part I attribute this to new medication finally taking effect. But also it is due to the Kaizen habits I’ve learned from TI practice. Both are allowing me to regain my sense of self.

I strive to live each day as fully as possible, and to use each moment and action to strengthen my spirit, mind, and body. How much life extension I can achieve is in my hands, more than in my doctors’. Each year I can add will bring advances in treatment options. This week, I read about promising immunotherapy discoveries that will come to market in the coming year.

In addition to what I’ve described here, the two factors that will make the biggest difference are that I have a lust for life, and feeling that I have much important unfinished work. In my next post, I’ll write more about the latter.

May your laps, and life, be as happy as mine.

Terry