“My Voice” by Jack Gray

Jack Gray - 'Survivor'

Jack Gray, Shelby, Ohio.  Stage IV Prostate Cancer

Cancer has been a big part of my lives. My father and father-in-law passed away from cancer. A very close friend – I’d call her my sister in everything but blood –passed away from cancer. My wife Chris has a rare pre-cancerous disease called Paget’s disease for which there is no cure. She has been under constant doctor’s care since 2000.

So, when I was diagnosed at age 56 with Stage IV prostate cancer that had spread to my bladder, I knew what I was up against. At first I was in shock.  I was a healthy, active, non-smoker who exercised on a regular basis and eat healthy.  My doctor told me I should not have been a cancer risk.  His words to us were, “You are too young to have prostate cancer. I’m not going to be happy giving you five years; I’d rather give you 30 years.”

While those words were hopeful, the road certainly was not easy. One week after surgery, I started a hormone-based chemo regimen which lasted three years. The drug, Lupron, eliminates the body’s ability to produce testosterone, which feeds the cancer. Later I started two months of daily radiation treatments.

The side effects from all three of the treatments were severe at times and included incontinence, impotence, extreme fatigue and depression. Over the years, I have had numerous surgeries to address complications associated with chemo and radiation treatments, the latest to remove 20% of my colon which was damaged by the radiation. Cancer has been the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with in my life.

My family, especially my wife, helped me through these rough times. Chris was and continues to be my rock. Even though she has her own illness to contend with, she has never given me any reason to doubt myself.

I also gained inspiration from other cancer survivors. They were my heroes. There was a young man in my community named Mason whose mother I taught with at school. He was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer at age 9 and fought it valiantly for three years before he died. He never complained and did what he could do. On days when I felt absolutely horrible, I thought, “If Mason can get through the day; I can get through the day.”

Lance Armstrong was another one of my heroes. I had been a cyclist when I was in my 20s, so his story struck a chord with me. I thought if he could get through his challenges, I could too.

After I had been in treatment for two years, the doctor said to me, “You’re well enough now; it’s time to get back into some kind of physical routine. What do you like to do?”

I told him I used to like to ride before I had kids and got busy with my career. He said, “Go get yourself a bicycle and start riding again. Just do it recreationally. Ride around the block a couple of times a day.”

Well I bought a bike, but I wasn’t satisfied with just riding around the block. Reading Lance Armstrong’s book inspired me to get back into distance cycling and support his foundation.

I participated in my first LiveStrong Challenge, the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s signature fund-raising event, while finishing my chemo treatments. It was held in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains near Philadelphia. I rode 46 miles, which to me, seemed like 146.  I had to walk many of the hills because I just didn’t have the strength to ride them.

This past August I rode my 5th LiveStrong Challenge and in three weeks will be traveling once again to Austin, Texas to participate in the Ride for the Roses and my 6th Challenge.  In the past four years I’ve raised over $45,000 for the foundation.  The foundation was a huge part of my recovery and this is my way of giving back to them for all they did for me.

I’ve become very passionate about my survivorship and what I can do with it to help others.  No pun intended, but my bicycle is the vehicle I use to get my point across to raise awareness about cancer. I have a program that I bring to schools, speaking to students of all ages. For the younger kids, I bring my bicycle. I come dressed in my riding gear because that grabs their interest immediately. I tell them, “Yes I’m a cancer survivor, but look what I’m still doing.”

Even young children know someone who has had cancer. I let them know it’s OK to talk about it and to encourage Mom and Dad to get checkups. For older students, I’ll tell girls that they are not too young to learn about self breast exams and encourage boys to check themselves for testicular cancer. Their future is quite literally, in their own hands.

I also have a presentation I give at churches that focuses on my spiritual journey. I’m a Christian; I’ve always been a believer. I share how my faith helped me gain strength, courage and a more positive attitude.

My work gives me hope. Even 10 years ago, a cancer diagnosis like mine was a death sentence. It isn’t that way anymore because there are so many people being diagnosed earlier. And treatments are so much more successful.  That’s happening because of awareness. We’re finding cancer in people a lot earlier than we used to and at an earlier stage so it’s treatable, so we have a lot more survivors.

My other passion is encouraging and helping other cancer survivors. The most satisfying thing is to know you’ve made a difference in someone’s life because of your experience. When I was ill, I really didn’t have anyone to talk to because everyone I knew who had cancer was gone. Now if I know of someone who’s ill in my little community, I make it my mission to make contact with them and do what I can to help them. I try to reassure them and provide some resources they can use.

When people say that cancer has changed them for the better, now I understand what they mean. It reprioritizes and reorganizes your life immediately and overnight. Things that in the past were the most important to you suddenly aren’t important to you at all. The things that become most important are your faith, family and friends.

My wife and I never put things off anymore. No one can guarantee when I go to the doctor next month that everything is going to be fine. There’s no reason to believe it’s not going to be, but there’s no guarantee. Every day we have together is a gift.  I have three granddaughters ages 7, 5 and 4 weeks.  I plan on dancing with each of them at their weddings.

Riding continues to be a big part of my life. I ride 10-35 miles four to five times a week, all year long. In the winter I cycle in place on a trainer indoors. It’s great for my health, and it feels wonderful.

When I’m on my bike, I don’t have to think about cancer. I don’t have to think about getting through the next day. It’s liberating. We live in a beautiful area with a lot of Amish farms. I like to ride out in the country and be in that environment. I feel free, uninhibited. I do a lot of thinking about myself and family – not my problems. It’s a release for me.

I believe that God knew that my love of cycling when I was in my 20s was what I was going to need later in my life. He gave me that love because He knew I would be able to use it to help others and make a difference.  I think there’s a plan, and eventually He lets you know what that is.  I am a blessed man and there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer and give thanks for another day to be here, with my wife and family, making a difference in the lives of others.

God Bless You and LiveStrong,  Jack

*Jack’s story has also been used in the book “From Incurable to Incredible” by Tami Boehmer