Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew…when I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt…I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way.
The day I found out what fear feels like came on September 11th, 2013, at age thirty. It didn’t come in the form of a movie, or a job, or a girl. It came in the form of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. It rushed into my life like a tsunami, reaping havoc and filling my mind and body with doubt and anxiety, my intellect with worry and unknown.
My first reaction was utter shock. I didn’t know what was to come, but hearing words like cancer took the air out of me, as if I were punched in the gut by a stud who reads Positively Positive. All the negative connotations with such an illness, and such a severe stage as well. I was scared, and it felt natural. It felt real. Ironically, it made me feel alive.
Clearly fear has a place in our lives, but I wasn’t about to let it control me. No way would I allow it to dictate how I chose to live. Not a chance.
It’s easy to ignore our fears, but courage won’t make it to the playing field unless you have a fear to face down. By owning my feelings I took the first step toward gaining control over the situation as best as I could.
Instead of ignoring the situation I found myself in, or denying its seriousness, I decided to address it head on. As the days and weeks passed after hearing that dreadful diagnosis, I let that fear keep simmering. I acknowledged it, and began to keep a journal. At first my diary served as a concession to panic, and slowly evolved into a way I would conquer it. I often look back on my journal during those early days, and it now serves me to give me strength and encouragement, and also to see the big picture. It enabled me to track my progress as I worked towards conquering my fear.
After accepting and admitting my fear, I tried to chase negative thoughts from my mind to picture what it would be like to win this battle, with a big wide smile on my face. I set that as my big goal, but also focused on smaller concrete goals to help me get there. I made it a point to meditate every day when I woke up, thinking about peaceful settings such as the wind blowing through a forest, of healthy, green leaves on sturdy, deep rooted trees. I imagined that I was laying on the forest floor, watching the limbs sway back and forth as I breathed in healing air, and breathed out unneeded thoughts or feelings.
I have made exercise a part of my daily routine. At times, combating the side effects of treatment made this chore extremely difficult, but I have always believed that a body in motion tends to stay in motion — apparently I paid attention in physics class. It would be too easy to just take a seat, to lay down in bed all day. ‘No!’ I told myself. I willed myself to keep moving every day, no matter the challenge. Whether it was a quick walk outside with some fresh air, or an intense full-body workout, I was determined to squeeze that sweat out.
Exercising also helped me feel normal again. I had exercised my whole life, I was a Division 1 scholarship athlete, and I was resolved to feel as much as the old me as I could, even through this testing time. Regular exercise also made me feel like I was taking control of the situation, as I watched my frail body fill out again. I noticed myself feeling satisfied, even proud, of what I achieved every day, and even feeling as if I weren’t being pumped with poison every few weeks. I felt confidence cascaded through my veins, not the voracious venom that was eating away at healthy cells. As the sweat poured out of me, my mood improved. The roller coaster of emotions I had found myself living through became a little more balanced too as I watched my appetite and energy increase.
I had repossessed many important things I had been stripped of — all due to exercise.
I’ve been blogging and telling my story, but more important, I’ve designed a clothing company, CureWear, that allows chronic illness patients to receive treatment without having to take off their shirts. Designed to bring comfort to patients living with medical ports and PICC lines while inspiring public support, CureWear provides you with an opportunity to wear clothing that stands for a cause. There is a patient line, but also a line of top notch athletic apparel that stands for something. Not only is there a functional aspect, but there is something much bigger. My best friend recently ran in the NYC marathon, and it filled me with extra strength to fight on. Partial proceeds for every purchase go to the funding of clothes for patients, much in the way Tom’s has built their business model by delivering a pair of free, new shoes to a child in need for every sale it makes.
Sometimes through the darkest skies the brightest stars reveal themselves and shine.
@alxniles (Click to Tweet!)
Although I never asked to be in this situation, being confronted by the darkest of fears, and accepting, confronting, and overcoming that fear enabled me to learn, grow, and be even more mortal.
Feeling fear is human, but I assure you conquering it will make you feel empowered, courageous, and proud.
Alex Niles was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer in the fall of 2013, at age 30. He is the founder of CureWear, a lifestyle apparel line designed to provide comfort for cancer patients during treatment, while inspiring their friends and family. He is also writing a book geared towards younger cancer battlers, that sets forth his positive, activist approach to fighting the illness. Alex holds an undergraduate degree from Drexel University, where he was a Division 1 scholarship athlete, and a graduate degree from Fordham University. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today.
Image courtesy of Alberto Restifo.