I Am a Cancer Survivor

Although I feel I have mentioned it a number of times, both here and on the podcast, I am finding that there are many people that do not know this fact about me; that I am a cancer survivor.

I have always felt odd making that statement. Even though I have done a number of events (12+) with Team in Training, raising money for cancer research, I never felt that I was “one of the survivors” we saw so many times at the kick off meetings. Because of the type of cancer I had, thyroid, it felt like I was falsely placing myself in the ranks of people that fought through this awful disease much harder than I had to. I liken it to how I felt when I first started doing triathlons. Even though I have finished many of them, from Sprints to 70.3’s, because I was still a solid back of the pack participant it never felt right to call myself a triathlete.

But I am one.

And in that same vein, I am also a cancer survivor.

Thyroid cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in your thyroid gland (a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck). Its job is to make hormones that regulate the way your body uses energy and that help your body work normally. Thyroid cancer is also a rare and uncommon type of cancer, so it makes perfect sense that I would get it, but most people do very well because it is usually found early and responds well to treatment. After it is treated, thyroid cancer may come back, sometimes many years after treatment. Unless, like me, you have the entire gland removed.

But what causes thyroid cancer in the first place, since it is so rare?

Most experts cannot agree on what causes thyroid cancer. Changes in DNA, like most cancers, probably plays a role. People who have been exposed to a lot of radiation have a greater chance of getting thyroid cancer. I, for example, served aboard numerous Navy warships during my ten years serving, which also had radioactive items onboard. Since I had no family history of this cancer, it seems to reason that this may have been the catalyst, just don’t try to tell the military that. Past radiation treatment of your head, neck, or chest can put you at risk of getting thyroid cancer.

Thyroid cancer can cause several symptoms:

You may get a lump or swelling in your neck. This is the most common symptom. This showed up the first time on my medical discharge paperwork in 1991. Right there in black & white. “Small Goiter in the neck”. Nothing was done.

You may have pain in your neck and sometimes in your ears. Not really for me. Though I have been known to BE a pain in the neck, that’s different.

You may have trouble swallowing. I did then and I still do now. Feels numb.

You may have trouble breathing or have constant wheezing. Absolutely. I always feel like I am gasping and forcing air into me. Try racing a triathlon, especially a swim, with THAT issue.

Your voice may be hoarse. I lost a vocal nerve when they removed the gland. There went my angelic singing voice.

You may have a frequent cough that is not related to a cold. I always have a slight cough.

Thyroid cancer is treated with surgery and often with radioactive iodine, which was true in my case. What treatment you need depends on your age, the type of thyroid cancer you have, and the stage of your disease. I had to go back from scans every few months to see if there were floating pieces in my body, which was then blasted. After five years I was declared cancer-free, and after 2007 I was no longer required to be checked again.

But the damage has been done.

Thyroid cancer can create havoc in your system. Once the gland is gone you are permanently hypothyroid. You get tired, have little energy, your muscles, especially the large ones like legs, always feel fatigued. You have trouble sleeping. You put on weight. It can affect your testosterone level (which it did), and result in other autoimmune diseases taking up residence (hello psoriatic arthritis).

So, the bottom line is this – I am alive. Yes, I have issues I have to deal with and will continue to deal with the rest of my life, but they are manageable. There are treatments, if not cures, and it can be handled when you set your mind to handle it.

You Are What You Eat

As I have progressed through the last 7+ years from a 300 pounds couch potato (mmm potato) to a more active athlete the biggest change I have made has not been in the amount of activity I have on a weekly and daily basis (though that has been significant), but more about the way and what I put into my mouth every day.

It has not been easy.

There are days that a pizza calls to me like a siren calling a sailor to his death. When I walked out of the gym where I used to swim, directly across the parking lot is a 5 Guys Burger.

Damn, I really wanted that burger.

But, for the most part, I have been able to push these cravings aside and eat sensibly. I have made some missteps here and there. I am only human. But the trick I have found is not to fall off the wagon and stay off. You need to get right back on that wagon, not the next day, but immediately after you do it.

As most know my weight issues started with my cancer diagnosis in 1994. I went from 180 pounds and peaked at 313. At 313 pounds I decided that enough was enough. I could blame it on cancer, and continue to not try to stop the progress, totally give in and stay on the couch, eating my potato chips that were balanced on my ample gut, and watch The Biggest Loser. I actively sought out a doctor that specialized in weight management. I was tired of hearing the same old story about how my body would never be what it was and that I needed to take the Synthroid and learn to cope with what I was dealt.

No. Not any more.

I was given a full panel of blood work and they found that not only were my TSH levels all out of whack, but my Testosterone levels were at 165 (they are currently at 212). I addition, what little T I had was being overly converted to estrogen, which basically put me in starvation mode and made me hoard fat.

Not good at all.

So I was switched to natural thyroid, put on a weekly regimen of T injections, and given medication to block the estrogen production. Immediately I dropped 25 pounds, and I mean within two weeks. I felt better even at a heavyweight of 270. I completed my first triathlon at that weight, but all it really did was give me the boost I needed to not only maintain my new activities but to strive for that goal weight of 200 pounds I thought was out of reach.

The weight continued to drop until I reached a low point of 236 in the Winter of 2011. By January 2012 I was again 255 pounds, and I am currently at 275. The frustrating thing is that I am doing nothing different than I was initially; I am actually eating even better than I was, I work out 4-5 days a week, and have completed a marathon, a number of half marathons, and 5 half Ironman and 70.3’s. My calorie deficit each day averages 750, which means I should be losing 2 pounds a week. But I am not. I am gaining weight.

I think my body is just very temperamental. I tried juicing and was told by some that juicing is not as good as I thought. I tried Fitlife Foods, which are actually very good meals but can’t afford to keep doing that. Am I doomed to just battle this every day until I can no longer compete, then just gain all the weight back and end up at the end no better off than I was when I started?

It is very discouraging, to say the least, more so because I feel I am doing everything right at least 90% of the time but not getting the results. I have still yet to find someone who can explain to me how a small slice of cake weighing less than 3 ounces turns into 1.5-pound weight gain the next morning.

I mean, how is that even mathematically possible??

Another issue with nutrition is finding what works for you. Those of you currently competing in triathlons, or other endurance races, know that the supplements are not cheap, and if you dole out $50 for a vat of protein powder that you don’t like, or worse that doesn’t like you, well … that’s a lot of money to just throw down the toilet (pun intended).

So, as far as nutrition goes, I keep trying to learn as much as possible. Reading books. Watching documentaries. Talking to fellow athletes. Anything I can to pick up on a tip or two. Everyone has an opinion, and so many contradict each other (Carbs bad! No! Carbs GOOD!) but what it comes down to is eating well and finding out what works for YOU.

  • Eat natural foods that are full of color.
  • If Man had a hand in it, leave it alone.
  • No fast food.

Pretty simple rules …

Now if only the weight would follow …