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When Fear Pushes You, Push Back

4 Tips for Gaining Perspective on Life’s Greatest Hindrance from a Cancer-Surviving Marine


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Jay is one of three people to swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco with his hands and feet tied.

What if you could overcome your fears? What would you do, and how different would your life be?

“Most people have no idea what they’re capable of; I think they’re al­most trained by fear to not attempt the amazing things they dream of. But I’m living proof – if you can overcome fear, you can overcome almost anything,” says Jay Platt, whose feats include swim­ming across the Mississippi River while handcuffed, shackled, and blindfolded. Jay was living his dream as a U.S. Marine when a cancer syndrome called von Hippel Lindau (VHL) exploded like a bomb on his life. It caused tumors in his brain and on his spine, as well as kidney cancer and the loss of his left eye. “I was mad at the world, and maybe part of me was afraid of the fact that I would be considered a handicapped person,” says Jay.

After a personal journey of accep­tance, however, Jay set out to rebuild himself physically, mentally, and spiri­tually, and to challenge himself by setting demanding physical goals. De­spite being told that his future would be considerably dimmer than his past, he went on to accomplish feats that many world-class athletes wouldn’t even consider. Along with his record-breaking Mississippi River swim, he swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, CA, with his hands and feet tied, and he hiked the 2,100-mile southbound Appalachian Trail.

When you realize it’s not all about you, the annoying voice that tells you to be afraid begins to shrivel and loses its poison.

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Jay Platt

Jay shares four strategies that have helped him overcome fear and anxiety in order to rebuild his body, mind, and spirit.

♦ Focus on the joys in life.
When you realize it’s not all about you, the annoy­ing voice that tells you to be afraid begins to shrivel and loses its poison. While still reeling from his diagnosis and its effects on his life, Jay heard the carefree laughter of a severely handicapped girl being pushed in her wheelchair by her mother. “‘Listen to the birds, Momma,’ I heard her say – she was just so happy to experience that simple pleasure,” Jay says. “That, more than anything, sent me on a posi­tive path.”

♦ Prepare spiritually.
Just as Jay trains physically for his feats, he finds it es­sential to work out spiritually in order to stand up to the fear and anxieties that life’s trials bring. To that end, he surrounds himself with positive mes­sages and positive people.

♦ Use setbacks as a motivator.
When something bad happens, one of the most common responses is fear – fear that it will happen again, fear that you’re less than you used to be, and just plain irrational fear. Jay always knew he’d be a Marine; when he was forced to retire early due to his health, he had to recalibrate his entire life. “One of my favorite quotes is ‘What are you doing now?’ It doesn’t matter what you used to be,” he says. Jay is always looking forward to achieving his next goal.

♦ Remember a greater good.
When he started experiencing complications from VHL, which first manifested in his left eye, Jay promised God that he’d devote his life to others if he got through the scare. He has kept that promise – his Appalachian Trail hike alone raised more than $100,000 for charity. “Staying true to a promise might be the most emotionally solid aid to overcoming fear,” Jay says.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Jay Platt is the subject of the documentary Living Unstoppable ( The proceeds from his adventures and sales of his documentary benefit non­profit organizations, including the VHL Alliance.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.