Wrestling with Cancer

Wrestling with Cancer David Gillaspie

by David Gillaspie

Cancer survivorship and the sport of wrestling have at least one thing in common – there are some things you get into that you don’t know how to get out of. At least wrestling has a final whistle to signal the end of the match. Cancer doesn’t come with a whistle. You have to get your own.

My diagnosis of neck cancer in late 2016 was as shocking as any cancer diagnosis, I suppose. But, once the shock began to settle, I attempted to steel myself for the promised ordeal of chemo and radiation. 

“You’ll have a sore throat,” said my ENT. 

“Food might taste funny,” my chemo doctor warned.

“You may have more saliva than you’re used to,” my radiation doctor told me.

And they were all correct, just severely understated. Even so, I felt like I’d be able to stand up to the treatment. I was a wrestler in high school, college, and the Army; I could handle the ordeal. Some sports make you feel invulnerable. Wrestling is one of them.

However, facing off against cancer isn’t the same as staring an opponent down on the mat. Cancer is a much more intimidating foe. But, in the spirit of “fake it until you make it,” I assured myself I’d take cancer down. The only problem was I didn’t anticipate the field of competition. Instead of on a shock-absorbing mat in a well-regulated gym, cancer invites you to spar in an abandoned parking lot full of sharp gravel. 

Instead of on a shock-absorbing mat in a well-regulated gym, cancer invites you to spar in an abandoned parking lot full of sharp gravel.

Once the match began, cancer crossfaced me until my head spun. I say cancer, but it was probably the chemo. I was bent into contortions I’d never experienced before, and I’ve been put in a few. 

From my all-American high school days as a Greco-Roman state champion (third in the nation to boot) to my freshman year of college and my Army team tryout, I had endured all the usual bumps and bruises. But my match against cancer – more accurately my overmatch since cancer knew every trick in the book and I was the rookie – didn’t go according to the rules. I’m sure it almost never does. 

Nevertheless, I came out on top. Chemo, followed up with radiation, was my finishing move. One final attack to cure the cancer in my neck and save my life. There’s no better feeling than that when wrestling cancer for survival. And there’s no better sound than blowing the whistle yourself to signal the end of the match.

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David Gillaspie is a writer living in Portland, OR, who blogs at boomerpdx.com. His wife, Dr. Elaine Gillaspie, and their two adult sons all chipped in to keep him in fighting shape even when his cancer-fighting spirit waned. A former wrestler from a wrestling family, David saw comparing cancer survival to sports as a natural fit. David is writing a memoir of his cancer experience to help restore hope in others, especially friends and family, of those facing cancer treatment.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.

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