How to Advocate for Yourself as You Battle Cancer from a Five-Time Survivor
by Bill C. Potts
In 2011, three years after being diagnosed with my first lymphoma, I raced and completed the IRONMAN Texas triathlon. I wanted to prove to my kids that anything is possible. There were a lot of reasons for me not to race. I was not the same person physically as I had been before the cancers. I had torn a ligament in my foot while training, and had not had sufficient time to train on running. Believe it or not, I removed a boot cast when training for the swim and trained on the bike throughout my recuperation. There were days I would ride 100 miles on the bike just to train. Then, I would put my cast back on.
The 2.4-mile swim at IRONMAN Texas started as the sun came up. I finished the 112-mile bike ride after three in the afternoon. As I changed into my running shoes after the bike ride, it was really, really hot. Like 100 degrees plus heat index hot. As I was about to start the marathon part of the race, my friend David B. asked me, “Bill, are you going to finish the race?”
Yes, I said, I had a plan––and would finish. All I had to do was run 26.2 miles––one mile at a time. And I did. I ran one mile to each aid station, drank, put ice in my shirt and shorts and then ran another mile to the next aid station. I ran one mile, twenty-six times.
At 8:41 pm that night––or thirteen hours and forty-one minutes after I started––I crossed the IRONMAN finish line, and as my family hugged me, I knew they had learned that anything is possible. My son has followed in my footsteps and completed two IRONMAN 70.3 events.
I learned so much from this event that applies to the cancer journey, such as:
- Set smaller short-term goals while working toward a bigger one.
- Tune out pain to help achieve your goals. The pain will likely diminish.
- Anything is possible through hard work and focus.
- Be patient as you pursue your goal.
- The unexpected happens, so be ready for it, plan for it, and adapt.
Your big goal is to beat cancer. Break this down into a lot of small goals. Then, celebrate those small goals. Getting the port installed. Completing the first treatment. Getting to the halfway point of treatment. These are all milestones that will get you to the finish line. Achieve them, let out a booyah, and savor it.
Count the treatments. Count up until you get to the halfway point––and then count down until you finish. For example, for my fourteen days of chemotherapy and immunotherapy infusions with my most recent lymphoma treatment, I counted up to seven. One infusion complete. Two infusions complete. When I got to number seven, I celebrated that I was halfway finished. Too early to ring the bell––but I was so happy! Then, I started counting down. Six infusions to go. Five infusions to go and so on until I completed my treatments. This counting process helped me stay positive. I was tracking my progress and making progress!
Recognize and appreciate other victories along the way. For me, the first night I was able to sleep through the night after a treatment was a cause for joy. I would wake up and tell my wife, “I slept!” Walking around the block without needing to rest was another victory!
Accept there are going to be times when you are not feeling well. Physically, emotionally, mentally. This is a part of the journey. Let those around you know your mood––and they can support you through it.
Don’t look back at your journey; always look forward. I could easily be consumed by my early mistake in not getting a second opinion for my thyroid cancer treatment. That mistake has created challenges beyond belief. But resist this urge. Look forward. You can’t change the past, so focus on what is in front of you.
Joining support groups will help you not feel alone. You can get some good tips from them, too, on how to handle many cancer issues.
Be a patient patient. This not only helps your care team but will help you maintain a positive attitude.
Eating well makes you feel better, which will help your attitude.
Staying away from depressants like alcohol will also help.
Practice smiling. It works to make your attitude better and the attitude of those around you better!
Helping others will help you stay positive. These can be cancer patients you mentor, or just volunteering your time to help others.
Don’t let cancer prevent you from living. Do whatever you feel you can do during your journey. If you can carve out time before treatment to visit a park near the treatment center––do it. If you can stay at a hotel on the beach during treatment. Do it. Do those things that make you happy. With cancer, those things may change, but be deliberate in trying to experience life.
Be grateful for those who are helping you. Your family, friends, your care team, and all the others who support you.
Never stop managing your battle
My dad’s brother and my namesake, Bill Potts, a US Army soldier, was killed in action just before the end of World War II. While I knew a lot about Bill from a book his dad had written about him, it was rare that my dad spoke about him. One day, I was curious and asked my dad, “Dad, how often do you think about your brother Bil?” His answer surprised me. “Oh, I think about him every day.”
It is this way with cancer, too. You may have finished your journey, but you will not forget it. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about cancer. For me, that starts every morning when I take the pill that tries to substitute for the hormones I don’t get from my missing thyroid.
Each day, while I am grateful for all my blessings, including beating cancer, I am troubled by what may come. We still must handle my prostate cancer and I know my lymphoma will be back. The prospect of the recurrence of my lymphoma, frankly, scares me, as I know that beating cancer number seven will be more challenging and difficult.
Even if your cancer is cured, you, too, will think about it potentially coming back. If you don’t think about it every day like me, you will think of it often. Every ache and pain, sickness, lump, or any other changes to your body will put you on high alert. Before cancer, a cold was a cold. A lump in your neck was a swollen lymph node, due to the body working its magic to heal you. Now, though, you wonder if your cancer is coming back. You may wonder too, in the case of a second or third cancer, whether a newly diagnosed cancer may have been caused by your previous cancer or previous cancer treatments.
Once in the Cancer Club, you need to be vigilant about your body.
If you have ANY concerns, confer with your medical care team. Let them know. Determine the cause. Get ahead of it, just in case. You will likely be able to cut the line to quickly get any of these issues reviewed by your care team.
Continue to advocate for yourself. Continue to be focused on your body. Don’t let your guard down.
Never stop managing your battle.
Your life depends on it.
Bill Potts is a motivational speaker, creative business leader, energetic community builder, and dedicated father and husband. A five-time cancer survivor, he pursues life and all that accompanies it with the utmost passion and drive. While his kids call him “sometimes slightly embarrassing,” they also admit he’s the “toughest man we have ever met.” He loves his job and wakes up each morning expecting an A+ day—because every day is an A+ day, no matter the circumstances. He has held executive positions at the IRONMAN Group and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and lectured on marketing at Tulane University, where he earned his MBA. He is the co-founder and a managing director of marketing agency Remedy 365 and an IRONMAN triathlete. He is a proud Advisory Board Member of the Halo House Foundation, which provides affordable housing for cancer patients, and a long-time volunteer at his local homeless shelter. Bill and his wife Kim, who are the parents of three adult children and a sweet dog (Pippa), live in St. Petersburg, FL.
Adapted from Up For The Fight: How to Advocate for Yourself as You Battle Cancer from a Five-Time Survivor, by Bill C. Potts.