Cancer has an incredible reach in all our lives. You can’t interact with your network of family or friends and not bump into someone that has a direct story, tragic or positive, to the wake of cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, specifically in the CrossFit community we support Barbell for Boobs to help raise funds to pay for mammograms for women that can’t afford them. Though my story of cancer is not Breast Cancer, I have been robbed by cancer nonetheless. Jamie asked me about a month ago if I would write a blog story relating to my personal experience to cancer. I said I would, I’d love to share my story but I had no idea how hard it would be to look through old photos and sit down and begin typing.
My dad has Leukemia, and has lived with this cancer since early 2003 that we know of. He’s never had a single treatment, cancer just sits in his blood in waiting. December 2009 however, was the beginning of the most painful experience I have ever endured. We had many years to prepare for my dad to get sick but that didn’t happen, instead my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know much about pancreatic cancer at the time other than it’s not good. I’d mention to friends that my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and they would look sad and ask how long did they give her? My initial reaction was wtf?! It can’t be that bad, we live in Seattle and we have good cancer treatment facilities with world renown doctors, and the advancement of cancer treatments have come a long way so surely it will just be a tough fight but we’d come out of this winning. Her first oncologist, to which I refer to as Dr. Doom and Gloom, offered no such hope and told my mom to get her affairs in order that she probably wouldn’t make it to too long after December, but she can be made comfortable. This was the moment that I first felt fear in such a deep way that it rattled my spirit to the core of my soul. For those that knew my mom, they would describe her has compassionate, caring, funny, witty, dependable, always would listen and be quick to pray for you, she was the glue of my family, I have 4, yes 4 brothers and life is CRAZY with us and our families but my mom always had a special way of connecting with each of us and getting us all together. As an adult my mom was my friend and my first go-to person in this world for any news good or bad.
This is how I remember my mom, San Juan Capistrano, CA 1983.
I remember blogging about this on the Kirkland CrossFit website that December, more of an outlet for me and to give an update to our then smaller community of maybe 100 members. We had one member who had gotten a 3 month free membership at a local charity event who was in month two of his 3 but home with a back injury. He was up late one night and went through all our previous posts and landed on the post of my mom, he sent me an email that forever changed the path my mom was given. He worked in the medical community and specialized in a specific surgical product that my mom would need if she would have any hope of extending her life. An excerpt from his email;
“Thomas and I work together and no one knows Virginia Mason and their pancreatic protocol better than Thomas – he is there on a daily basis.
I spoke with Thomas tonight and the nurse I mentioned to you recently stepped down as pancreatic patient care coordinator. We are not sure who took her place. Like I mentioned, I would recommend getting all your mom’s care at VM as they see and treat more Pancreatic CA than anywhere in the world – and have the most favorable results.
The key MDs are:
Dr. Traverso: Pancreatic Surgeon
Drs. Kozarek, Ross, Brandabur, Gluck: Gastroenterologists
Dr. Picozzi: Oncologist
Your mom will receive the best care available in the hands of these folks.”
This information literally extended my mom’s life from December 2009 to August 2010. In that time my mom experienced many “firsts” that she and our family would have otherwise missed.
The Holiday Season is very bittersweet for me, I love the interaction between family, friends, and framily. But I also find the season to be very difficult, I miss my mom especially around the holidays. For the last four years during the week of Thanksgiving Lori, Evan, Wyatt, and I go with a group to Tijuana, Mex. to build homes for those that live in tents or make shift lean-to’s. This is very rewarding in many ways. Some of the reasons we do this is to bestow a legacy to our boys that we have much to be grateful for, that in this world at odds we can do some good and change one persons world in our actions, but we also do it because the Thanksgiving season is so stressful for us. My family has not been the same since my mom died and to be honest, it’s very difficult to be here to see the hole that was left.
I loved seeing my parents as grandparents, they were good at it. Cancer took that away from us.
Her cancer provided clarity to life so we could dismiss distractions and absolutely enjoy the moments we could share and enjoy. There is a scene at the end of the movie Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson’s character of Shindler painted a picture that he wishes he could have saved more Jews from the Nazi’s, he wished he could have extracted his gold teeth to help pay for more people to free. It was an action to illustrate that he felt he could have done more just to save one more person. I was reminded of that (metaphorically) when my mom was nearing the end, she would look at my family and regret not spending more time with the grandkids, she wished that she could have been a better parent, she wished she would have been more present and worked less. I can’t be more proud of the legacy that my mom left for my entire family and friends alike.
This was the very last hug Evan ever received from her (Evan 6, Wyatt 4).
My boys (along with nephews and niece) experienced death as a healthy and natural event. There is grief and sadness, but we can still find joy in the morning and reflect on the great experiences.
Grief has a way of taking you on a journey in your healing, it is a roller coaster. There was a time I wore some heavy guilt that somehow I could have provided a better opportunity for my mom, that maybe her cancer could have been avoided had I made a better effort to get her in a gym and give her nutritional advice. Pancreatic Cancer attacks the fat cells around the pancreas, three of the top Pancreatic Cancer prevention factors are: Don’t smoke, eat a diet that’s high in veggies, fruit, lean meats and elimination of all processed foods, and exercise 20-60 minutes per day 4-6 times per week. I felt terrible seeing this list, owning a CrossFit gym where I had radically transformed personally and had been part of the narrative for so many members making healthier decisions with their nutrition and their bodies physically transform from unhealthy to healthy and I didn’t even make more of an effort to loop my mom in?? In the end, when she couldn’t eat the foods she desired, the doctor said if she wanted to eat, the only food she could have would be white bread because it’s already partially digested by the time it reaches your stomach as there is no nutritional value.
This is one of my favorite pictures. Rebecca and Janette have been mentors in my life for nearly 30 years. In this pic I have the 4 most influential women in my life in one room, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all of them.
I never felt alone during this season. When my mom went into hospice my fire chief told me to go home and don’t come back until it’s time. My entire family; brothers, spouses, and kids all stayed at my parents house sleeping on chairs, couches, and the floor during her final days. She entered into hospice at home the last week of July, everyday was “gonna be the day” but she proved to be a fighter to her last breath. I am thankful for that time I had with my family, and thankful my chief let me spend the final month with my mom. The Kirkland CrossFit community was also so supportive, we went through this experience and never felt like our feet were on the ground because of so much support. With my entire circus of a family we didn’t cook a single meal for an entire month because our friends from the fire station, gym, church, or someone in one of my brothers network would bring us dinners. It is a constant reminder of the quality of people that are in our lives, again I am thankful.
In life the only guarantee we have is death. It has many faces, the ugly face is cancer and it can hurt bad. Though my experience didn’t have the outcome I would prefer, the outcome was healthy. Lori and I often prayed for a stronger marriage, nothing will test or bond your marriage like a life changing stressful event. Out of this experience our relationship advanced by years, we have truly shared life in an authentic way and I love her even more for it. I never knew how much of a mamas boy I was until my mom died. She was a safe person to be yourself without feeling judged. I consider myself blessed to have had a good relationship with her to the extent that when she died there was closure. The only thing I would have wanted to say to her one last time was how much I loved her, how thankful I was that she was always a steady rock, and thank her for always being available. My mom was 62 when she died.
Til the day I die, this will be my favorite picture. Lori would read to my mom everyday a passage from the devotional Jesus Calling. At first my mom would interact with Lori when she would do this, slowly over the days and weeks weeks it would turn to just a smile when Lori would ask if she was ready for a new page then just raising an eyebrow, and finally no response.
This was my experience with cancer, this isn’t everyone’s narrative. We’ve had dozens of members come to us after they’ve had cancer and we’ve had at least 3 members (while they were members at our gym) go through cancer treatments, fight hard, and come out on top. This is the hope we cling to for everyone’s fight. Kirkland CrossFit has always been a community that will walk alongside each other during challenging seasons. In this month, we get to pick a specific cause that we should all stand behind. I would be heartbroken to know that someone was diagnosed with breast cancer and couldn’t afford the screening needed for early detection.