Gary first heard about Phil’s Friends through a workshop he attended with his sister. At the workshop he was able to meet Phil and learn more about our organization. Gary is now hoping to bring encouragement to cancer patients and is looking forward to volunteer opportunities with Phil’s Friends! Below, Gary shares his experiences with 17 years of cancer. He hopes that at the least, he is able to impact one cancer patient through his article…
“For the past 17 years my family and I have been dealing with cancer. No one has heard us complain or feel sorry for ourselves because we have no reason to. We are strong, we are together and my wife and kids are doing great. I also believe that I have a great life and am winning my battle with cancer every day.
To me, winning is getting up every morning and the first thought I have is feeling blessed for all that I have. Next I think about what I want to accomplish today. What works for me is feeling the need to accomplish something every day, whether I am in the hospital or at home, whether I feel good or not so good. I need a specific goal (or goals) to focus on every day. Some days my goal might be a challenging one, and some days it might be simply telling my wife and kids that I love them. This allows me to feel some success every day when I accomplish my goal.
In October of 1999, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and my prognosis was not very good. Life expectancy numbers are just that, numbers and I knew that I was going to fight and battle to be here longer than my numbers said I would. I knew that it was important to keep a positive attitude going forward and to make the most of the time I had left. To me that meant that I was going to do everything in my power to find different methods to help me stay positive. My wife and I made a commitment to each other to try our best to make sure that our kids did not miss out on anything in their lives because of my cancer. I pledged to find some happiness in each and every day and to “live everyday like I am on vacation.”
I know it’s possible to deal with a life threatening challenge and still find some happiness each and every day because I have been able to do it for over 17 years. I believe that my attitude is a big part of why I am still here enjoying my life. Over the years I have come across several mantras that have been helpful to me like “I know that I have the physical strength, the emotional strength and the spiritual strength to help me handle my challenge.” Repeating this helps me to keep moving forward.
Over the years I learned that there are some things in my life that mean so much to me that they override any pain that cancer has caused me. They motivate me to keep fighting, to stay positive and to never give up. The many special moments that I have been able to experience and enjoy far outweigh anything cancer can do to me. After my second stem cell transplant, January 29th 2016, I was released and re-hospitalized nine different times as my body struggled to accept a donor’s stem cells. Between graft versus host disease, pneumonia and fighting off a variety of viruses, I was challenged like I had never been challenged before. There were times when it was real struggle to stay upbeat and positive.
One of the techniques I developed on day 2 of my cancer journey was to keep a log where I recorded special moments that I was fortunate to experience and enjoy since my diagnosis. Reviewing my special moment log never fails to bring me joy and happiness and to inspire me as I relive these moments. The first entry in my log was October 21, 1999 (I was diagnosed October 20th, 1999) when my wife and I hosted 10 kids at our house for my son’s 12th birthday party which had been planned for several weeks. We were nervous because we did not know if I would be around for any other parties. My son will be turning 30 later this year and I truly consider myself the luckiest man in the world to still be here to celebrate this milestone. The party turned out great and we haven’t stopped having fun since then.
During my 17 year cancer I have dealt with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia, 2 stem cell transplants, several types of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, clinical trials and more than 10 bouts of pneumonia. Various medications have significantly damaged my right shoulder and lower spine and my kidneys are in need of dialysis. All of the above issues have given me experience and knowledge that I really want to pass on to others. I am here for a reason and helping others deal with their challenges sounds like a very good reason to me.
Being mentally and physically strong has been very important to me. Working out on some level every day gives me confidence. I want to feel like I am trying to get stronger every day. After difficult chemotherapy treatments, I remember walking up and down my driveway and feeling like a champion. When I could do more, I did more. My immediate family and my extended family have been great partners with me as we challenge ourselves physically. Together we have ran and completed a marathon in San Diego, rode 100 miles on our bikes in Wisconsin, walked 11 miles on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and in 2014 and 2015 walked a half marathon. Having my wife and kids and my sisters and nephews and nieces and friends all participate with me in these challenges has meant the world to me. These individuals have given me so much support over the years, and have motivated me to be there for others facing challenges.
Along with focusing on having a positive attitude, my special moment log and working out, meditation has also been an important tool to help me handle living with pain and uncertainty. Like the other tools I use, meditation can be done anywhere and anytime. Sometimes I meditate several times in one day if I need to. When I meditate I take very slow, deep breaths from a comfortable position and am able to reflect on any issue that I want to. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. I like to combine meditating with working out on the treadmill, exercise bike or walking. For me, meditating allows me to slow things down and make good decisions. It also allows me to overcome negative and depressed feelings.
Many years ago I started putting up a few pictures in my garage of lakes that we had stayed at in northern Wisconsin. The first few pictures were of John and Laura fishing at a very early age. Looking at the northern Wisconsin pictures always put me in a good place as I dreamt about next summer’s vacation. I referred to this area as my hall of fame. My hall of fame has evolved into my go-to space as I have included photos of the important people and of many special moments that make up my life. It is kind of the “best of” collection of all our photo albums. The Cubs are also well represented on my wall of fame representing the 50 plus years I have been a fan. When I am in a comfortable position taking slow, deep breaths reviewing my hall of fame, I am at peace.
Writing or journaling is the final technique that I want to bring up in this article. Not only is it enjoyable for me, but putting my thoughts on paper allows me to feel good about some things that I have accomplished and motivated me to get involved with some programs that have always interested me.
It was right after college when I started journaling and I believe that is one reason that I have been able to focus on and achieve most of my long-term goals. It seems that I used to be more confident with my writing ability because I would send my articles to cancer organizations and several were published. My hope was that my articles would help at least one person stay strong in their cancer battle. In the last several years, I have continued to write but shared my writings with very few people. I am not sure why, but maybe I feel like I have shared all the important things that I have to say about cancer. The last two years I have written several baseball articles and shared with friends. That was fun and I talked with my friend, Andy, about doing some more. Hopefully when I complete this article I will want to share it with others.
Another possible reason for not sharing my articles is a condition that I deal with on a regular basis called survivor’s guilt. To me, survivor’s guilt is wondering why I am still here enjoying life when so many cancer friends have lost their battle. It’s true that I have been through a lot but I am still here. For almost 18 years I have been filling up my special moment log and watching my kids grow into the impressive adults that they are today. I have enjoyed many great vacations with my wife and witnessed the Cubs win the World Series.
It has been very important to me to try to help other survivors enjoy their life as much as possible. I have tried to be a positive role model and show other survivors that it’s possible to deal with life threatening cancer issues and still have a great life. Sometimes however, no matter what I am doing it doesn’t feel like I am doing enough. I know that there are people I could be calling more or visiting. Most survivors don’t have the support system that I have. Most survivors haven’t survived the issues that I have been able to. Every time a cancer buddy loses their battle it takes away a part of me. I have the time to do more so why aren’t I doing more? That pretty much sums up my ongoing battle with survivor’s guilt.
During my 17 year cancer journey there has been one ongoing constant. This is an organization that provides so much for so many and never charges anyone a nickel. This organization is made up of the most caring people I have ever met, and is called the Wellness House. Located in Hinsdale, the Wellness House provides a wide variety of programs for anyone whose life has been affected by cancer. As soon as I was diagnosed, my wife contacted our children’s counselors at school and one of them told us about the Wellness House. We immediately checked it out and registered our kid’s for the pre-teenagers support group. The Wellness House has groups for all ages and we felt good knowing that our children were being counseled by professionals with other kids in their same age group. While it’s never easy to deal with a loved one facing cancer, the instructors were great and we feel our kids benefitted greatly from this program. What I didn’t know at the time was that the parents of the youngsters in the pre-teenager group would be participating in their own group at the same time.
I had never been in a support group before and wasn’t sure what to expect. As I reflect back, I can honestly say that the Wellness House changed my life. Even though I have been attending programs at the Wellness House for 17 years, I still learn something every time I go there. Over the years I have attended journaling classes and nutrition groups. I have participated in exercise groups and meditation classes. I have listened to doctors, nurses and authors talk about their specialty and learned how to take better pictures. The weekly support groups have allowed me to get very close to an incredible group of people. After a good week I look forward to sharing it with my Wellness House friends, and after a tough week I know my Wellness House friends will help me deal with it. I have met with staff members on a 1-1 basis and learned that my attitude for the day is up to me.
“Having a positive attitude might not add years to your life, but it will surely add LIFE to your years.”
“Live every day like you are on vacation.” “It is what it is.” “If my wife and kids are doing great, then I am doing great.” I hope everyone who reads this article keeps battling and is able to find what works best for them when they are facing a challenge.”
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