I was taking a morning shower seven years ago when I noticed some swollen lymph nodes in my neck that were solid and painless. This seemingly innocuous event launched a journey with many twists, turns, potholes and speed bumps.
At age 58, I was diagnosed with Mantel Cell Lymphoma, an aggressive and fast-spreading cancer in the lymph system.
Reflecting my 35-year career as a coach, I believed my best chance for survival was to approach my disease with the attitude and competitiveness of an athlete. Each person chooses how their health challenge will be approached, and I was determined to face my cancer with a positive, athletic, mind attitude.
Whether confronting the aging process, an illness or a serious accident, how one faces the challenge is a personal choice. Others may give advice, but the decision about how to face the opponent is ultimately yours. You can choose the passive attitude of a spectator-victim with limited control over the final outcome. Or you can attack the situation as a patient-athlete with a positive outlook and pro-active game plan.
The patient-athlete approach requires preparation, discipline and tenacity. There is no bragging or false bravado. Words mean little; actions mean everything. It is an all-encompassing lifestyle with the singular goal of survival. It uses a disciplined mind-set that may include sports rituals, personal mantras and athletic visualization techniques.
Once I got beyond the shock and denial of my diagnosis, I accepted the fact that this game was for all the marbles. Then, just as I had prepared physically and mentally for athletic competition, I became a patient-athlete training for survival.
In the past seven years, I've been through radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. I was in remission for almost five years, then I experienced a recurrence, followed by a stem-cell transplant.
In June 2007, I entered the San Francisco Marathon as a 63rd birthday present to myself. Last summer, I started competing in masters track and field, throwing the javelin and doing the triple jump. I went skydiving in May for my 65th birthday.
I'm not as fast as I used to be, and I can't go as far. Maybe some of that has to do with being 65. But I believe a person with an athletic background can apply the lessons from their athletic life to healing. That's what I did, and maybe some of what I encountered can help others. Here is an outline of what I call a game plan for the patient-athlete:
There is a vast amount of information available on the Internet. This data can serve as a base for inquiry and discussion with medical professionals, but watch out for faulty information or outright quackery.
Consulting with people who have had similar ailments is invaluable. Like a game-changing pep talk, their experience can inspire courage and lessen fears.
Be prepared for surprises
No matter how much an athlete prepares for an opponent, the unexpected occurs. Competitive athletes adjust with resiliency and flexibility. For the patient, unexpected circumstances are the norm. Adopting an attitude of "rolling with the flow" allows the patient-athlete to navigate unexpected diagnostic and treatment surprises with minimal anxiety.
Training for the components of fitness (cardiovascular, joint flexibility, muscle strength and endurance) should be attempted during and after therapy. Intensity and frequency may need to be adjusted based upon changing health status. But consistency and incremental conditioning will reap benefits.
A positive mental attitude is the key that can unlock physical potential for success. Negative attitudes — excuses, blame, self-doubt, quitting — create negative consequences. A positive mind-set often begins with the use of words. Confident, upbeat words can influence actions.
Stress hampers survival chances. Stressors siphon curative forces from the healing process. Just as an athlete works to overcome stressors that hinder performance, the patient must eliminate stress hurdles.
Assemble a medical team
Select medical personnel and hospitals equipped to give the best care for a specific disease. There is no substitute for precise knowledge, experience and expertise. An athlete has a better chance for success when taught by a special-event coach (i.e., pitching, pole vault, etc.). The same principle applies when working with medical personnel.
Fostering positive relationships with family, friends and a medical team enhances healing. In both sports and healing, success depends on the performance of the whole squad, not just the star player. Team members include spouses, children, friends, nurses, social workers, technicians, dieticians, counselors, spiritual advisors and auxiliary physicians.
Be an active participant
The best caregiver is one's self, comparable to being the captain of a team.
Be aware of treatment consequences
In a sporting contest, knowledge beforehand can make a rough situation tolerable, helping an athlete prepare mentally for the rigors ahead. This also applies to the patient-athlete. Unpleasant treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, are more tolerable when one knows an encouraging outcome is possible.
Effort and patience
In athletics, effort is everything. This is true also for the patient. Athletes do not compete halfheartedly every once in awhile; they do their best every time. This "effort attitude" for some patients may be walking 10 steps farther than they did a week ago or simply turning in bed without assistance. The healing process requires dedicated work, but it also takes patience. Approach it with a tenacious, yet calm, attitude.
After an event or long sports season, an athlete will rest and recuperate before returning to competition. Doing too much too soon after treatment rarely accomplishes anything positive. "Active rest" — limited physical exertion, nutritious food, adequate hydration and sufficient sleep — can be a prescription for recovery.
Set an example
Cancer survivor and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong once said, "An athlete has to figure out how to enrich others, otherwise he is purposeless." The patient-athlete can be a role model for others on how to face adversity. Demonstrating courage and dignity sets a positive example for others as they face their struggles.
My life has changed since all this began, and lifestyle adjustments have been necessary. I have less energy and require periodic naps throughout the day. Dental problems, medication side-effects and sight deterioration are a few of the trade-offs for survival.
On a positive note, I have become more aware and appreciative of family, the environment and life in the moment. In some ways I feel like a kid again. I'm trying new things, doing track and field again. We've all had the experience of saying, "Someday I'm going to do blah, blah, blah €» "
Today is my someday.
Monty Cartwright is an emeritus professor, hall of fame track coach and former athletic director at Southern Oregon University. He and his wife, Julie, moved last month to Colorado Springs, Colo., after living in Jacksonville for 30 years. He is writing a book called, "Aging, Health and the Athletic Mind Attitude."