I remember seeing the “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” phrase a few years back and scratching my head -- I didn’t get it. Cancer is just one of those horrible things that preys on us and takes our loved ones away from us, so f**k cancer, right? My family recently lost my mother-in-law after a 20-year battle with breast cancer, so yeah, it can be like that.
But cancer has other truths, and it wasn’t until my own cancer diagnosis and a 9-month emotional and physical battle that I began to understand the true meaning behind “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.”
Post Tattoo Revelation. In October 2020, I got a tattoo of the Sanskrit words for ‘Joy’ (Mudita) and ‘Suffering’ (Dhukka) inked on each leg just above the knee. Having recently lost my father a few months earlier, I’d come to learn and accept that life is a delicate dance between great joy and great pain. These tattoos were my way of honoring this truth and played a part in my healing process. When that appointment ran a bit longer than I expected, there was no way I had time to make the 2-hour drive home from Portland, Maine back to Boston in time for two important fundraising calls I had scheduled that day. So I ended up stopping at my mother’s house on my way home and stayed for dinner. Looking back, that decision may have saved my life. At the dinner table, I stretched my arms up over my head and my mom noticed a big lump on my neck. It was at the base of my neck, close to the collar bone, so it was tricky to see. She told me to have it checked out. I did.
Two ultrasounds, five biopsies, and over forty needles to the neck over a 4-month period later, it was confirmed…CANCER. That word cracked me wide open. We’ve got all kinds of stuff in our family genetics like diabetes and brain aneurysms, but at least we didn’t have to worry about getting cancer, right? Wrong. Then the ‘why me’ started to set in. Did I do this to myself somehow? Did I eat too much fruit by-the-foot as a kid? Was this caused by stress? I decided to walk home from Mass General Hospital that day, my mind racing 100 mph and my neck feeling like it was on fire from all the poking. I plopped down on a bench in Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway park. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, kids were playing, and the smell of fresh cut grass reminded me of my youngest son, who was currently at soccer practice with my wife. I lost it.
I cried hard alone on that bench, afraid of telling my wife and kids the news. Providing for and protecting my family is my greatest joy and my ultimate purpose in life. The thought of burdening them with this news crushed me in a way that I have never experienced before. When I was 11 years old, my youngest son’s age now, my father suffered a massive stroke that left him partly paralyzed and for a short time, he did not remember who I was. As you can imagine, this took its toll on me at such an impressionable age. Now, I was fearful of repeating this trauma cycle with my own two children. That’s when I started feeling a natural compass of intuition start to guide me through the negative thinking. I realized there had also been good that had come out of my dad’s stroke that had a lasting impact on me. Witnessing his battle and his transformation was something that changed me forever. My dad fought like hell to recover and be there for his family. If his physical therapist told him to practice for thirty minutes, he’d do it for three hours. He did not stop fighting until he made an almost full recovery. The local news did a story on him, calling him ‘The Miracle Man.’ My dad’s warrior spirit rubbed off on me and my family and inspired the first tattoo I ever got: the word ‘indefatigable,’ which means to persist tirelessly.
Reflecting on this punctured my catastrophic thinking. It was now my time to be the warrior for my family and for myself. I asked myself: “How do you want to be with cancer? Who did my two boys need me to be with cancer? Who did my wife need me to be with cancer?” This became my motivation, and with great discipline -- it was not easy -- I flipped my mental switch every morning, leaning in. And let me tell you, there is actually a lot of peace and calm that comes when you deepen your relationship with fear and uncertainty.
Very timely, I watched a great surfing documentary with my son called ‘The Other Side of Fear,’ featuring big wave surfer Mark Mathew’s journey through physical and emotional setbacks. In the documentary, he teaches us that whether it’s dropping in on a 50ft wave, public speaking, or facing illness, it all has a similar impact on our nervous system. I’m paraphrasing here, but he summed up 3 tips for working through fear:
- Determine your desired outcome. What does success, i.e. happiness, health, contentment, etc. look like for you?
- Mine = Beat cancer and use it as a teacher to help others
- Define your motivation. It must be a greater force than the fear itself.
- Mine = My family
- Find your tribe. Surround yourself with people you enjoy being around and who will help you achieve your goal.
- Mine = I created the ‘Thyroid Squad’ which consisted of 3 close friends with whom I could share all the details with, the hard stuff like bad test results, and the good stuff like sharing lots of laughs over the uncomfortable moments along the way. It was nice to have that outlet so I didn’t drive my wife and family crazy with my newfound obsession with all things thyroid cancer. In addition to that, I was fortunate to have family, friends, colleagues, and a great medical team.
I took my fellow surfer’s advice and designed my own playbook for the journey ahead, ready to take anything that threw itself at me head on. Thinking of my favorite mantra, ‘You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf,’ I promised myself I would not wait until some future state, like remission, to feel content. I quickly learned that there is peace, contentment, and joy to experience every day, with cancer or with whatever pain or adversity we are living with right now. Instead of avoiding it, I could embrace it, lean into it and use it to transform myself. Every time a new fear is conquered, a new neural pathway is formed in the brain, and when this compounds over time, we enter warrior status.
Daily 'Beat Cancer' Routine. It did come down to a choice and a mindset, but only with discipline to invest in my resilience and strength did I start to feel the positive momentum build. I created a ‘beat cancer’ daily routine that I continue to this day:
- Daily Mental Training
- Mindfulness Meditation - 15 minutes, first thing in the morning
- Reading - 20 minutes, soaking in the spiritual wisdom of Thich Naht Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and others
- Daily Physical Training
- Running - 6 miles
- Strength Conditioning - 30 minutes
Since my diagnosis, I’ve logged over 1,200 miles (my runner of choice: the Henry Hi-Vis in true red) and 67 hours of meditation, which is not some grand claim, more of a testament to how practice can became a daily habit. I felt my anxiety diffuse as the resilience bank grew. This abundance of positive energy, strength, new neural pathways or whatever the hell it was gave me the juice I needed to face the curveballs ahead, like the one on the day of my surgery to remove my thyroid.
Operation Day -- February 2021. It felt good getting wheeled into the operating room. I was over the waiting period and have always been a man of action and was relieved, and scared, to now empower my surgeon and his team to get in there and cut out the cancer and remove my thyroid in the process. When I woke up, I felt great with a new badass scar on my neck. I was blabbing away about something with the nurse as the anesthesia wore off, then realized something was off: my voice. My cognitive speech was there, but the words didn’t sound right. One of the risks of thyroid surgery is the loss of your voice. It was a low risk so it wasn’t something that I was too worried about. While recovering at home, the days turned to weeks turned to months and my voice had not returned to normal. I could talk, just very softly, and decided to accept this as my new normal. Outdoor or crowded situations were challenging as my whisper was quickly drowned out. Thankfully I was able to get back to work by jacking up my mic on Zoom calls and was grateful for my team's love, support and patience with me during this time. After two months of sounding like a whispering, chain smoking batman, I reached out to my doctor to ask if there was anything else I could be doing, like voice exercises, or additional surgeries that could fix my voice. He explained that voice exercises wouldn’t help, but there were some invasive procedures we could consider in a few months. My wife encouraged me to reach out to our good friend Gina who used to be an opera singer and was now a vocal coach. We scheduled a Zoom call and she patiently and carefully listened to my voice with her special audio headphones. “Your vocal cord is paralyzed,” she explained, “we have to wake it up.” Gina taught me a few vocal exercises to practice. Over the next five days, I added these exercises into my ‘beat cancer’ routine, trying to jump start my vocal chords. I would walk around Castle Island in South Boston, repeating this Thich Naht Hanh mantra over and over again like a crazy person talking to himself:
Directed towards myself:
May I be peaceful
May I live with ease
May I be free from pain and suffering
May I recognize joy and happiness
Directed towards all the cancer patients and their families around the world:
May you be peaceful
May you live with ease
May you be free from pain and suffering
May you recognize joy and happiness
On day five, just like that, my voice came back. I sent Gina some flowers to thank her for sharing her craft with me. Her info is included below. If you or someone you know is experiencing voice loss, she’s your gal.
Did a positive attitude cure my cancer? No. Did it help – I think it did. Did I beat cancer? For now, yes, but who knows what’s in store for me in the future. F*** cancer? Nah, that’s not me. I know how bizarre this may sound, but I am grateful for my cancer diagnosis. It helped me wake up to what is most important in my life and I live every day with a new sense of awareness and peace. It’s helped me transform not only my life, but it has also served as a guide to improve the lives of those around me. My hope in sharing my story will help inspire others to fill in the blank for themselves:
‘Don’t waste <fill in the blank for yourself >' (mine was cancer, what’s yours?)
We all have experienced some form of pain or suffering, but instead of having an aversion to it, we can lean into it --- surf it --- and use it to transform ourselves. I believe that our ability to do this is our ability to grow and evolve and find true inner peace and happiness, deepening our connection to the present, which is truly a gift. And as a disclaimer, out of respect to all the cancer patients and their families out there, I recognize that my cancer diagnosis was considered a ‘good one,’ so I understand that everyone’s experience is unique and we all process differently. This is just my story.
And I almost forgot -- mom, thank you again for still looking after me after all these years.
Resources & recommendations:
How to Fight by Thich Naht Hanh
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
My friend Gina Razon’s voice coaching business Grow Voice LLC:
The Other Side of Fear by Mark Mathews
Follow me on the gram: Learn to Surf
Mark’s writing explores mental & physical conditioning and mindfulness meditation. He is the CEO and Co-founder of YORK Athletics Mfg., a training footwear brand that outfits & inspires Everyday Fighters on their personal growth journey. His work can be found on their on-line journal, Everyday Fighters, where you’ll discover healthy living tips and inspiring stories from their circle of athletes, professional fighters, meditation teachers and entrepreneurs. Mark is married, a father of two boys, a surfer and co-owner of YORK Athletics MFG and MCGARRY&sons. He trains with the Rajasi Muay Thai MMA team and is a student of mindfulness meditation at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital. He lives in South Boston, MA.