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Cycle of Lives: 15 People’s Stories, 5,000 Miles, and a Journey Through the Emotional Chaos of Cancer

Whether you or someone you care about is going through cancer or some other major trauma, I hope this thought-provoking collection of astonishing stories can help you, too.

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The following is an excerpt from Cycle of Lives: 15 People’s Stories, 5,000 Miles, and a Journey Through the Emotional Chaos of Cancer published October 6, 2020 by River Grove Books and available everywhere books are sold.

Praise for Cycle of Lives

“This is a big, audacious book about a big, audacious disease. It’s as if David is shining a light into all the dark crevices and saying, ‘We see you, cancer, and you’re not going to bring us to our knees.’”
—Jennie Nash, author of The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer

“Cancer advocacy means something different to each person. David has chosen to take his ‘cancer club membership’ to paper and penned this must-read book that stands apart from the pack as one of the most authentic, compelling, inspirational, and passionate works of non-fiction around.”
—Matthew Zachary, leader; speaker; disruptor; and founder of the adolescent and young adult cancer organization, Stupid Cancer

It’s All About the Bike

A softball-sized spot deep in the middle of my lower-right back churned out a sharp, radiating pain. My upper body felt immune to any relief my awkward stretching could offer. My ass was chafed and near bleeding from saddle sores that had crept up overnight, announcing their arrival like the blaring horns of battle—only this battle was one fought while seated. I could find no comfort on any part of my top-of-the-line Brooks bicycle seat. I looked down at the nose of the seat, made by those British masters of leathercraft who’d been fitting cyclists the world over for almost 150 years, and cursed the seat and its makers for the frauds they were.

My legs were heavy and burning. My stomach had shut down, as if it were full of hardened cement. The thought of trying to down a little water to stave off dehydration made me swim with nausea. I was sunburned, and my eyelids begged for a reprieve. The outside of both my little toes were squeezed so hard against my new Shimano shoes (damn frauds too) that I entertained the idea of cutting a hole in the sides for some glorious release from the pain.

Here I was, almost six hundred miles into a five-thousand-mile cross- country bike ride, one I was doing for all kinds of good and altruistic reasons related to cancer and my sister, but I couldn’t have cared less about any of it. I found a side road adjacent to the highway and hobbled off the bike, thinking I would sleep for a few minutes. Sleep would make all those pains disappear. As the deep heat of the September Arizona asphalt sizzled the sweat off the back of my arms and legs, I asked myself, What the hell are you doing this for?

There were many answers, but truthfully, the more painful reasons wouldn’t appear until deep into my journey. Pedaling hard day after day in one-hundred-plus-degree heat along endless stretches of highway, there was nothing to do other than crank the gears: the fourteen literal ones housed inside the German-engineered Rohloff Internal Hub on my rear wheel, and the innumerable ones housed inside my Richman-engineered mind. Deep and prolonged pain has a way of clarifying the murky things we tuck away in the corners of our minds; self-inflicted pain doubly so.

Why Bike Five Thousand Miles?

Sure, I  was  a  bit  crazy, but  that  wasn’t  why  I  biked  five  thousand  miles. I wanted to do something significant to support a cause I believed in, but that wasn’t why either. A big part of my “why” was this book and the people who shared their stories with me, but there was still much more. The answer—the true, personal meaning behind this whole project—started to become clear to me on that brutal day outside of Payson, Arizona, as I lay just off the side of the road, struggling to find the will to get back up after a twenty-minute nap and climb back on my bike to begin riding again. The real answers always came back to my sister.

June died a couple of months after her forty-sixth birthday. She left behind a husband and two kids who loved her, a collection of in-laws who called her their own, friends and coworkers who admired and relied on her, and a couple lost and lonely family members—one of whom was proud to call her his sister. June had brain cancer, but the type of cancer that took her is irrelevant. She’s gone. What matters is she died too young: She didn’t live to see her dreams come true, she didn’t get to see her kids grow up, she didn’t get to grow old with her husband, and she wasn’t given the chance to feel the blessings and heartbreaks a lady who grows old earns the right to feel.

The five-thousand-mile cross-country bike ride, which I came to call Cycle of Lives, was the latest adventure I had undertaken in her honor and the deepest by far, not just because it was a long ride but because the experience brought me to a point where I could face all the questions and feel all the emotions I had about losing her. The ride brought me to that point because I had decided to ride in search of those answers, those feelings. I sought them out. I planned my route to bring me face-to-face with all these people who had been touched by cancer—doctors, mothers, patients, caregivers, survivors, sons, daughters, and brothers like me. Throughout this journey, together we’ve thought about the unthinkable, discussed the undiscussable, and discovered answers to the questions about our trauma experiences that we thought were unanswerable.

The Seeds of the Journey

The seeds for this journey were planted eight years prior, as I slowly made my way around one of the three hundred or so laps I ran at the local high school track during an American Cancer Society twenty-four-hour Relay For Life fundraising event. June had died a few days before the event, and although she couldn’t keep her promise to camp out and watch all the people that day, I wanted to keep mine and stay on the track for the whole event.

That first relay was a gut-wrenching early summer’s day. I spent hours watching many loved ones show their support for friends and family in the midst of fighting all types and stages of cancer. I witnessed the brave, the frightened, and the stunned-into-numbness. I watched young and old alike walking for their cause if they had the strength or, if not, sitting quietly along the trackside camping areas, trying to lend the support of their presence. I saw wide-ranging interactions between people dealing with genuine trauma—all the silence, hugs, tears, and whispers.

I’d like to say that I talked to more than a few people that day, but I can’t. I was preoccupied with my own inner workings. Even if I hadn’t been, I wit- nessed things I couldn’t process or understand, let alone explore by talking to others. I was there on the track and also not there, at times aware of myself and other people and at times distracted. I was either stuck in my own head or hypnotized by the other people, all of whom appeared to be deep within their own internal sanctums. I could sense that everyone there was, at times, stuck in the same fog as me. We were all present together, but we were navigating so much more than laps around a track.

Every year for the next ten years, I would either participate in a Relay For Life event or organize another epic physical challenge to raise funds for cancer research in my sister’s memory. I was on a quest, but physical accomplishments were never going to get me where I needed to go. I began to realize that I needed to face the very emotions everyone on that Relay For Life track was working so hard to avoid.

The Queen of Emotional Chaos

What makes cancer such a maddening disease is its complexity. Scientific advancement has given many people an opportunity to live longer with cancer, and often be cured of it, but cancer is still shrouded in a blanket of mystery. Doctors still work in a world made up of odds—the same treatment applied to the same kind of cancer under similar conditions can have vastly different out- comes. Many people fight off the disease and go on to live healthy, cancer-free lives for many decades, but we still don’t always know why.

There are many definitive truths involved in cancer research, care, and treatment. After  testing, we  might  know  that  specific  drugs  work  or  don’t work in certain instances. We may even know what the predicted outcome might be when comparing one surgical approach to another, but doctors do not have the luxury of working in absolutes. Absolutes may offer more peace than unknowns, but there are not many absolutes in cancer. Instead, there is a stream of endless unknowns, creating a chaotic and unpredictable environ- ment for the feelings of anyone faced with a challenge like cancer.

In his marvelous manuscript on the history of cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee called cancer the “emperor of all maladies,” but cancer is also the queen of emotional chaos. Zooming out enough to contemplate that chaos in its many different forms is a necessary step in understanding the emotional and psychological aspects of an experience with cancer.

Cancer hits most people like a shovel right in the face. It’s hard, swift, disorienting, and instantly debilitating. Cancer is an ominous, otherworldly thing—part disease, part curse. Cancer is as scary as it is overbearing. Once hit in the face with cancer, most people can do little more than triage—iden- tify the immediate needs and administer whatever care is available. If the cancer diagnosis is yours, then this often means choosing a caregiver, iden- tifying treatment protocols, making serious lifestyle changes, inquiring about employment continuation, finding a way to meet your family’s needs, address- ing any financial concerns about your treatment or ability to work, and dealing with the many other tasks that demand consideration in the instantaneous, cancer-centered reality that sets in immediately after diagnosis. If you’re not the patient but instead a caregiver, researcher, or loved one, the list of items to tackle might look different, but it is often no shorter or less intense.

Most people, whether they are a caregiver or the receiver, don’t have the time or resources to take a deep breath and calm down for long enough to address the deeper emotional side effects and psychological repercussions of their new reality. They endure major surgery, debilitating treatment protocols, overwhelming exhaustion, physical weakness, severe pain, financial stress, loss of control, fear of mortality, abandonment, death, grief, guilt, and more.

My experience has shown that cancer usually crashes into one’s life with a sort of primitive, metal-to-flesh force, and people don’t often jump right into unpacking the vast array of emotion the experience evokes for them— sometimes they never do. Since I first recognized the common thread binding people touched by cancer—the tendency not to examine, discuss, or even  acknowledge the emotional side of their experience—my goal has been to shine a light on the things we’ve all kept buried, in the hopes that people might better understand what they and their loved ones went through.

I’m not a researcher or psychologist. I’m not a therapist or counselor. I am, in fact, a professional in the financial services business, an amateur endurance athlete, and an author. But I was called to do this work, and I’ve spent more than four years finding people who would share their stories with me and planning a bike ride to go and meet as many of them as I possibly could.

I believe that if we can enhance our understanding of the full spectrum of emotions and feelings associated with cancer, then we can better process what we and the people we love may be going through. If we understand these feelings, we can better relate to ourselves and each other as we navigate the harsh, overwhelming realities wrought by this horrible disease.

Choosing My Participants

The most important aspect of the Cycle of Lives project was not the bike ride itself—that part was an epic logistical undertaking, a formidable physical test of endurance, and a way to raise some money for charity. The most important aspect for me was the stories. I wanted to bring a diverse collection of personal accounts together in one place to give the reader a chance to “meet” diverse and interesting people, to capture the broadest range of emotions and experi- ences about cancer possible, and to tell the story of the cancer experience from

multiple angles. Most books about cancer are told from one person’s perspec- tive. For mine, I felt that to get the best mix of personal stories, I would need to take into account the following four principles:

  1. AGE

I felt it was necessary to share stories from people whose cancer experience came both early and late in life, and at other points in between. I wanted sto- ries from people who’d encountered cancer as children, people whose fertility concerns were at the forefront of their minds while undergoing treatment, and people who were entering their golden years when their diagnosis came.

Additionally, I wanted to explore people’s feelings both while they were battling cancer and as they reflected back on their experience years later. I wanted to talk to people whose encounters with cancer were brief and those whose entire lives were affected.

2. TYPES OF CANCER

I think a book examining fifteen different people’s experiences with one par- ticular type of cancer would be interesting, but for my own book, I wanted the depth of experience represented to be spread out among different cancers. Even though the word cancer elicits some common feelings regardless of type or treatment, the fact remains that people dealing with brain cancer have a different experience from those dealing with breast cancer, lymphoma, pros- tate cancer, or any other type.

3. SEVERITY OF CANCER

I also thought it was vital to seek out stories from people whose experience spanned various stages of cancer. Being given a diagnosis of cancer of any stage almost always evokes a host of existential questions that people have no choice but to grapple with—the questions becoming deeper and more exis- tential the higher the number of the stage diagnosed. Facing these questions is a painful, beautiful, and unavoidable consequence of being alive.

4. RANGE OF EMOTION

The most essential part of the Cycle of Lives project is my effort to under- stand the full spectrum of emotions invoked by cancer. To this end, I used Dr. Robert Plutchik’s widely accepted model of The Wheel of Emotion as a framework. The short version of Dr. Plutchik’s theory is that we all have the same basic emotions and thus the same subconscious emotional responses to the traumas we experience. Dr. Plutchik poses that there are only eight basic emotions, and they exist as opposites. For example, sadness is the opposite of joy, and fear is the opposite of anger.

But it’s necessary to understand the difference between what we call “emo- tions” and the similar but distinct concepts of feelings, moods, and passions. If you accept the premise that we all have the same basic emotions, you can then explore the reactions, feelings, moods, and sentiments that result from those basic, fundamental emotions we all share. We can’t change the emotions we experience, but we can change the way we deal with our emotions, the way we view the world and the people around us.

To capture the widest range of emotions possible, I sought out interesting, communicative, emotionally intelligent, inspiring, and relatable people who experienced feelings along such a broad spectrum that they often even encompassed opposing viewpoints.

Convincing People to Talk

Since this book is about the emotions related to cancer, it was vital that the participants allowed me a special pass into their thoughts and feelings. I knew I’d be asking a lot of them, so I needed people who would let me explore   the hidden truth of their experiences. How were they made up inside? What made them make one choice over another? How were they equipped to deal with the traumas they encountered—or not? How did they come to terms with the difficulties they didn’t dare talk about with anyone? Those types of questions could only be answered if the participants were willing to share the most private and intimate details of their experiences with me.

Our ability to form relationships is often limited by our preconceived notions about others. But people are like icebergs—most of them is hidden away beneath the surface. If we don’t try to understand what’s down there, if we squeeze our eyes shut and plug our ears, if we close our minds and hearts to the things we can’t see, then we will never be able to make sense of it all. I think that deep down inside we are all trying to uncover the meaning of life, evaluate our experiences, and see the human condition for what it is so we can gain perspective on ourselves.

One of the reasons that makes every story in this book unique is that each one proves that we are not always the people others think we are. We may not even be the people we think we are. In truth, we are, each of us, much more than the people we appear to be. Some of the book participants were quick to open up and some were not. Some ended up not being able to talk at all. They wanted to but found that they simply couldn’t.

On long training rides, I spent hours thinking about my talks with the different book participants. I contemplated the more layered thoughts and tried to understand what made these remarkable people think the way they did about things. With my mind largely uncluttered during a multi-hour bike ride each day, I found that I could often solve little problems or develop strat- egies for future discussions with my book participants. Pedaling for hours and hours also helped me work through the confusion that came hand in hand with some of the heavier issues my book participants shared with me.

If we’re being honest, what’s really exceptional about anyone? It’s an intriguing question to contemplate when evaluating the impact one person might have on others. After all, don’t we all yearn to discover the rarity in others? To be moved by the extraordinary in a largely mundane world? Almost every one of my book participants considers themselves unexceptional. Sure, they might have to admit that some facets of their story, once properly examined, might seem breathtaking for a minute, but it’s fascinating how unmoved they are by their own unimaginably profound journeys. What has come to seem normal to them is anything but, and that’s where the magic of the Cycle of Lives stories lies—in the beautiful and haunting truths revealed to us by otherwise ordinary people.

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