“I’d be dead if I didn’t exercise!” John said.
“John, I wouldn’t know you ever had pancreatic cancer,” the doctor told John after his recent set of x-ray studies in June 2012. This is what John told me this morning after our spin class at the sports club near Boston. According to his doctors, John Diarbakerly shouldn’t be alive today. Not only is he alive, but this almost-60-year old defies anyone to out-spin him.
John took up the popular indoor cycling exercise after his 2002 operation, when a cancerous kidney tumor was removed. It took a full year for John to get his diagnosis. After complaining of extreme fatigue, his internist declared him healthy and suggested he take a multivitamin. “He just said take it easy and everything will be okay,” John recalls. But John persisted, making multiple phone calls and searching for an answer. A visit with another physician yielded a shocking diagnosis: John had a large tumor on his kidney. Subsequent surgery, which removed the kidney, left John feeling exhausted and weak and facing a six-month recovery.
Undeterred, when he was finally able, he heeded his doctor’s advice to get himself to a gym and exercise his way to health.
“He said if I didn’t push myself to get my heart pumping, I’d die,” John said. And exercise he did. John began with slow stair-climbing, and then worked himself up to pedaling on a stationary bicycle for a few minutes, increasing the time and intensity slowly. Each day, except for Sunday, when he attended church, John pushed himself a little harder at the gym. His healthy glow returned. His diet changed from fast food to freshly-cooked fish, poultry and vegetables. John was on the road to recovery.
But six years later, he again found himself having difficulty keeping up with his schedule. “I began to feel weak once more. I went back to my doctor and this time the tests revealed a golf ball-sized tumor in my pancreas.”
The surgery successfully excised the tumor, but one week later, a stubborn infection left John with a persistently high fever, landing him in the intensive care unit for almost 40 days.
It was a slow recovery. But John remembered his doctor’s message from years ago. “Exercise, exercise, exercise. It will save you.”
Just a week after leaving the hospital in December 2008, John walked back into the gym. He has been there ever since. He’s there when the doors open, at 5:30 a.m., attending daily challenging spin classes and pumping iron. At 9 a.m., John bounces out, ready to keep on living. “The doctors told me that three out of five either die during the operation or in six months, but here I am,” he says, his voice giddy with excitement.
When he visits his doctor every six months for follow-ups, he gets a big hug and words that warm his heart: ‘You look like a brand new person.’
“And I feel great,” John declares. “Now, I tell everybody to exercise. It saved my life.”
Editorial comment: John’s story shows how therapeutic exercise can be. He started slowly, enough to give him energy, but not too much to cause injury or discourage him, and he eventually worked his way up to a daily program that provided a high-energy level to do everything he wanted to do. In addition, John’s attitude was phenomenal. He had a positive approach to his illness, which provided additional energy to manage his disease. He used compassion for himself and others. He has a wonderful laugh and always a good word for everyone. John was relentlessly persistent. He was in charge. The cancers were banished from his mind as he exercised himself back to health.
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Gary R. Epler, M.D.