A Lesson About Surfing With Cancer

photo credit: Huffington Post

photo credit: Huffington Post

This morning I finally sat down to read an article in the Huffington Post: “What Surfing Can Teach You About Overcoming Adversity.” I earmarked the story because the title reminded me of surfer I visited last year in the Infusion Center. His names isn’t Dean, but I’ll call him that to protect his privacy, but  I bet if he knew I was writing about him, he’d probably be OK with me using his real name. He was never shy about telling people he was being treated for cancer.

I met Dean on his first chemotherapy treatment. He had lots of questions. Part of his wellness plan was to include 20 rounds of radiation, something I knew quite a bit about. I went through 30. As a volunteer I don’t want to scare patients, so I don’t go into any of the possible gory details. I believe we all respond differently to medical treatments and my experience will probably be different from someone else’s. My purpose is to help the patient get through the experience the best he or she can.

As his treatment progressed, he had some ups and downs but the one thing that remained consistent was his love of surfing. Halfway through radiation, he lost a great deal of weight. He had throat cancer and one of the side effects of radiation is the muscles hardening. I experienced the same thing with my lower back. I had trouble bending over. Dean had problems swallowing. Like a lot of throat cancer patients, Dean didn’t eat much. He was afraid of choking. His doctors told him he needed a feeding tube and that he couldn’t surf until he was well again. I remember that day clearly when he told me the news.

Every other word coming out of his mouth was the F-word. Needless to say he was quite upset. I just sat and listened. That’s pretty much all one can do when a patient is upset. He or she needs to vent and part of my job is to provide a safe place for them to do that without judgment. One of the things visiting with cancer patients taught me is that we are all on our on life journeys. The patient is in the driver’s seat and for the short time we are together, I am only along for the ride.

A few weeks went by until I saw Dean again. He showed me his feeding tube and told me about his “plan.” Sitting in the hospital after his surgery gave him time to think. He decided he would continue to surf because floating in the water, waiting for the perfect wave was something he needed. He didn’t know if he would recover from cancer but he wasn’t about to let that stop him from his love of surfing.

“How do you plan to keep the area around your tube free from infections?” I asked.
“I got that all figured out. I wrap my waste with plastic wrap and secure it with duct tape. Then I put on my wetsuit.” He said.

Dean went on his three-week chemo break after that but when I saw him again, he was excited to talk with me. He had just come back from the beach. He had been going daily for the past two weeks.

“I am so happy to be out on the water again! You have to PROMISE me that you won’t tell anyone around here what I’m doing. My docs will flip out if they know I’m back to surfing. I plan to tell them when I’m cancer free.”

One of my agreements to living my life is to honor someone’s request to keep a secret. I never told anyone until now. Eventually Dean’s wellness team did find out. What could they do? It’s his life. It’s his body. I enjoyed sitting with him and listening to stories about his day at the beach and the look on some of the surfer’s faces when he took his wetsuit off. He was a fifty-something surfer (with a feeding tube) that could “hang-ten” with the best of them! I’m willing to bet he became somewhat of a legend in the surfing community.

You might think he was crazy for taking a chance on getting an infection, but his need to live life on his terms outweighed any fears of “playing it safe.” I think it was his surfer lifestyle that helped him continue with his cancer treatments. He pushed himself to keep showing up to Infusion no matter how sick he felt and his reward was the ocean.

By the way… his feeding tube is long gone and he is cancer free!

Be Well!


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