I did not expect to end up with my stomach ripped open, bald head and one testicle missing. But who expects to get hit with a brick? I came up with a premise that if I die of cancer, it will make no difference to me. But if I survive, I will not feel like I wasted time.
What do you know about cancer?
Until December 9, 2016 I knew next to nothing. I had some stupid idea that sick people were some kind of a separate social group. The only case I knew was my friend who died at the age of 19. A huge guy, great oarsman, brilliant dude. Despite his illness, he graduated from high school diploma as one of the best and he got into a law school. This situation completely contradicted my understanding of the world. How could such a strong person, full of ambition and dreams suddenly disappear? Each of us has had such a moment in our lives, telling ourselves, „this is not happening”. So I didn’t accept that this could happen to me, and I lived on, training, studying and working.
During one of the training sessions, I suddenly felt pain in the left side of my abdomen. I thought it was nothing and it would pass the next day. Unfortunately, the pain woke me up the next morning. „We found a 15 centimeter tumor in your abdomen. It is roughly the size of a man’s fist. We have reasons to believe it’s cancer.” That was what I heard in the emergency room. It was a feeling like when you meet someone, they say „hello”, you reply, but you’re sure you don’t know the guy, you just feel deep down you don’t like him.
I’d been quite a sports pro all my life. Swimming, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; I never smoked, only drank alcohol on New Year’s Eve and only in tiny amounts. I had blood tests done every year, worked with a dietitian, a physiotherapist – everything a pro would do. I did not expect to end up with my stomach ripped open, bald head and one testicle missing. But who expects to get hit with a brick?
I had never thought that the day I was about to attend an oncology committee to find out that I had malignant cancer, February 3rd 2017, I could be so happy. Cancer rarely appears on the list of things you must do before 30, so I hadn’t really imagined that I would ever have it at all. Well, although it may not be one of those dream gifts you ask Santa for, but more like a pair of bright orange socks which you have no idea what to do with, it probably made sense just to smile and say thank you, because you could use it.
That day I played Candy Crush with my mother (I hadn’t thought my mom would start playing games), I watched funny videos from my Bae, I did cool stuff for work that I really enjoyed, I talked to my friend for five and a half hours at 3 am. I had a conversation that helped me understand a perspective different than mine, and the girl from the photo gave me two really great scoops. I definitely recommend Ice Factory. They will fulfill all the fantasies about ice creams you have ever had! I’ve tested different places; they are certainly the best in Poland at what they do.
I write this so that in a year or two when Facebook reminds me of this day, I will be fine again and the thought of the disease will be a distant memory. I’ll remember that even black has many shades, and that day was a pastel one for me.
Decide or die
An ambulance took me to a surgical ward at the Arkonski hospital in Szczecin. When my pals and team members were training on a mat by the cycling track, I was at the hospital. I had more and more tests done. I tried to gather bits of information from doctors who did not want to talk about it until they knew for sure what it was.
Before you understand what is happening, you are in a situation where you have no knowledge of the subject and you have to make decisions that can have irreversible consequences, i.e. you can die. The first one was the decision to undergo a surgery 5 days after the tumor was detected. Another one was the choice of the place of treatment after the oncology committee. Many more such decisions followed.
You must gather your party before venturing forth
On February 3rd I stood before the oncology committee. Until that time Aga (my girlfriend), my mom, my grandmother and other relatives had been living under great strain. They suffered, and I could not help them.
I was expecting the oncology committee to bring a final solution to the mystery, verifying the diagnosis and presenting a clear plan what to do next. How wrong I was.
I entered the office where 4 different cancer doctors were waiting. They said: „The histopathological examination points to a seminoma. We recommend removing the testicle, doing a PET scan and choosing a treatment center.” That was it. I got a sticky note with three bullet points.
That was when I felt really down. I had no idea who to turn to, how the treatment system worked, how to choose a doctor, nothing. At that time I realized that I could not count on the help from the system. I did what I knew how to do best – I created the „Spider Cure” project (my training nickname), asked my friends for help, and assigned all the tasks to each of them. To improve the flow of information, I created a Messenger group. I added all my friends who were interested in my condition. That way instead of writing the same thing 30 times, I could write it once. I also used this channel for crowdsourcing ideas, making connections, contacting volunteers and so on.
When you think about it, it seems quite logical that 30 of your friends are more likely to know someone who knows something about cancer than you are, right?
On the same day I was recommended an oncologist. Milena, my trainee, contacted me with doctor Tomasz Sarosiek, who had 54 reviews and an average score 5.0/5.0.
Another help came from a dietitian, Łukasz Kowalski. He suggested that he would be able to help with a diet, supplementation and all the pro-health activities that could help cure the disease. They included special calming meditation (mindfulness), things that would improve the quality of my sleep, and other such similar treatments. My three top players, Zangief, Leon and Crocodile, told me they would take care of our Chaos Gold Team and trainings during my absence.
I benefited a lot from the support of my psychotherapist, Dr Maja Filipiak. It seems to me that people believe that psychotherapy means solving problems. I think it’s not about filling up pits, but building up hills. It’s about understanding our resources better so we can work more effectively. For me, this is a mental equivalent of physical training, which makes me stronger.
Finally there was my coach Piotr Molasy who took care of my physical recovery just after I ended chemotherapy. When we started training I was feeling dizzy after leaning forward. Right now I am able to do more engaging activities.
There was also a group of people who read medical articles and studies on the treatment of seminoma, and then summarized them for me. Each of them read 1 book chapter. Without them, I would have not been able to do it. The pain was so strong that I was not able to focus for more than 5 minutes. Also, for my mental health, I needed to stay busy with something else, not just thinking, analyzing, and reading about cancer. There were also those friends who were providing me with food.
I would not take it myself
Aga, my girlfriend, is a completely special one in all this. She was with me every step of the way. She was following all the recommendations of Łukasz and Tomek. I was taking up to 20 different medications, injections or supplements daily, and each had to be administered at a particular times of the day. Most of the time I was somewhere else. I was weak or sleeping. If it hadn’t been for Aga I would not have made it. I was not fit for anything, so Aga took care of everything including housework, groceries, paying bills, her job, and taking care of me.
What doesn’t kill you will at least make your life miserable
Just chemotherapy lasted from February to mid-April. The treatment is called VIP, short for the drugs used, but in fact it should stand for: „Very Intense Problems.” The scheme was as follows – 5 days at the hospital, all filled with chemo drips, 16 days at home and the hospital again.
18 days into the therapy my hair became so weak that it was falling out when I grabbed it. There was a chemical taste in my mouth that stayed with me through the next 3 months. The food turned inedible and despite the fact that I love to eat, I couldn’t even look at it. Pure water was causing severe vomiting – no medication helped.
After the 3rd and 4th cycles I was unconscious for 3 days. Aga brought me home on Friday night and I was out of touch until Tuesday. I remember some strange places I was at. Maybe that was just my imagination, or maybe my consciousness really travelled there.
The pain in my stomach was so severe that even when I had two morphine patches on I still took Poltram combo (kicks as hard as the name suggests) with Pyralgin. It only helped a little. What I additionally did to deal with pain was the mindfulness recommended by Łukasz. It calmed me enough so I was able to fall asleep.
Still, the worst thing for me was the powerlessness. Although I really tried, I was not able to comfort Aga in any way, nor help my mom. It seems to me that being a person by the side of the sick one is no easier than being sick. The helplessness was overwhelming. I could not train, I could not go out, I could not change the fact that I was sick.
It’s only a tragedy the first day after the diagnosis is made. Then there are all the emotions: compassion, despair, etc. Day after day everyone must return to their stuff: life, children, and work. Pain stays with you all the time, becomes an everyday thing and no one can help this. There are no heroic feats here, like when a woman finds a superhuman strength in herself and lifts a car that fell on her baby in an accident. There is only hopelessness, which strikes constantly; a feeling of depression; and a series of bad news that you have to take: „We found metastasis in the liver.” „We will have to remove a testicle.” „You need a blood transfusion.”
„Because you need priorities in your life!”
There was only one thing I had control of: my attitude towards the situation. I asked myself one question, “What do I want to do with the life I have left?”
The answer came quickly:
- To build a Facebook-size company
From that moment on, I decided that I was not going to focus on being sick, but on making my dreams come true. I came up with a premise that if I die, it will make no difference to me, but if I survive, I will not feel like I wasted time. It helped me to ask myself, „I understand that you’re in pain, but is this the peak of your abilities and is there absolutely nothing you can do?” The answer was always, „I can do something. I do not have to do it fast, and it doesn’t have to be much, just baby steps.”
I had Aga with me all the time and I tried to appreciate her more than ever. There are times when we take what we have for granted. We think about what else we want to have or do, and we easily overlook all those people we have, the things that we have succeeded at and which are present in our every day lives. I became more attentive and appreciative of everyday life and all our moments together.
I went to trainings for almost the entire duration of the chemo. The first 5 days after the cycle were impossible, but then another 11 somehow I was able to go to the gym or meet my players on the mat. I was so out of shape that taking stairs to the second floor made me feel sure that I was having a heart attack. But just the fact that I was there and training was giving me more energy.
I was really lucky that two months before my illness I started working at PHD Media Direction. When at the end of December my employment contract (trial period) expired, they called me and told me not to worry, just to focus on my treatment, because since January they were giving me a permanent contract. I like my job, I was learning a lot, and when I think about managing a huge organization someday, taking half a year or maybe even a year off didn’t feel like an option. I told Szymon, my boss, that I would not be able to come to the office. He let me work remotely, so all this time when I was able to, I was working. There were times when I couldn’t, but then either I would make up for this or my colleagues helped me out.
What did I learn from cancer?
The lesson that I learned from this period is no matter how unreal, childish or inappropriate your dreams may seem to others, the moment you will be dying, only you will be there to judge that. Everybody dies alone, so it does not matter what hardships you faced in life or what were the opinions of others. It only matters if you are happy with how you’ve lived life.
Nobody ever said, „I’m glad I lived in a cautious way.” So I want to encourage you, if ever a thought of „I might try” crosses your mind, and you want to give up because you are afraid, just do it anyway. What is the worst that can happen, even if you fail? After all, we will all die anyway, and at least you will know that you’ve taken all your opportunities.
This is the time when you learn who you can really really count on, who will visit you in the hospital, or even call from time to time, just to support you with a good word or ask if you need anything. It is very moving for me to think about how many people helped me during this illness. There were dozens of people who made their little contributions and there were many such moments.
My 92 year old grandmother, who could hardly walk, came to visit me in the hospital. There was a surprise gift from my friends who all came to me on Saturday and brought me a PlayStation 4 because they knew I loved playing the Witcher. There was also my club colleague Roman Szymański, a future master of MMA (I really believe this), who gave me the most media-wide support.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or actually my coaches Mariusz and Maciej Linke prepared me for every possible situation. There was no mercy on the mat, lean or fat, young or old – we always fought for real, and there was one rule only: „if you can still move, move.” No matter how hopeless the situation is, go ahead. Standing in one place will just make things worse.
Life goes on
Cancer is not a chapter I can close forever and it will probably remain part of my life. I get some tests done very regularly. Blood, hormones, MRI and tomography are being done because my results are still not as good as they should be. Regular tests and the stress accompanying them will remain present. Only their frequency will decrease over time, and only if everything goes according to the recommendations.
I came back to training full-time, but as Mariusz, my coach, noticed, I never really gave up. I kept training between my chemo sessions, now I can just do it more often.
I was asked what I would recommend to someone who was not sick? My answer is to pay attention to your body and health. This changes the quality of your life a lot. We spend money on cars, houses, clothes, but we cut corners when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. A dietician, supplements, good food and working out, even just 2 times a week can make a world of difference.
For me, the body is not just a vehicle that hosts your consciousness; it is an integral part of one as a person, and we are tightly connected with it for our whole lives. My cancer was most likely genetic, but most common diseases can be mitigated, if not avoided entirely, by a healthier lifestyle. Even cancer and heart diseases, the two most common causes of death. Diet and lifestyle have a great impact especially on the lungs, stomach, or a large number of cardiovascular diseases. I have a saying: „No one has ever regretted having a workout and going to bed early.”
If you do not want to take care of your health for yourself, do it for your loved ones. My illness reminded me to look at my life from a perspective broader than just the next week ahead. It compelled me to ask, what do I live for and what do I really want to do in this life? I noticed that I used to spend a lot of time on things I really did not want like browsing Facebook, playing stupid games on the phone or procrastinating on things I had to do.
Although the illness and the treatment were not pleasant experiences and I would definitely not recommend them to anyone, it was not the worst thing that I went through. I think everybody has such a test in life that they must face, and if you succeed it will make you a stronger person. It can be a job loss, debts, relationship problems, or something that can seem trivial to someone on the outside, but for you it can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. It is worth trying. Nobody has ever claimed at the end of their life, „I’m happy I’ve been so extremely cautious.”
Below is my whole story in form of Facebook posts. They’re in Polish, but Facebook provides auto-translate option. Just click „Leczę Nowotwór” at the top.