“My Voice” by David Dorfman

David Dorfman - 'Survivor'

The Crash

Christmas chemo rescheduling put me next to Erica, a ginger-haired angelic-looking patient about my age, She was more vibrant than the other patients waiting for treatment.  When I asked about this, she revealed her secret: a triathlon team.  Soon, falling flat on my face would be the best evidence that I was surviving and thriving through cancer.  In the spring I finished radiation and I promptly crashed my bicycle.  Survivorship meant not giving up the things I loved.

I spent the winter training, tired, sore, cold, and with an afternoon bedtime.  A triathlon is a swim, bike, and run all in one race.  I’d never done anything like it before cancer.  During treatment I couldn’t stay up late enough for swim practice and on the weekend I lost swim races against my mother at the JCC.  When I first learned that I had cancer, I didn’t even have a bicycle, much less the balance, energy and technique I’d need for the hours of the grueling athletic endurance test that is triathlon race day.  Cancer doesn’t have finish lines.

I couldn’t wait to ride a bicycle again, and experience the freedom of movement that cancer so limited. My first ride should have been a lesson in humility. A bike messenger yelled at me for walking, not riding.   No sooner did I clip my feet into the pedals than I promptly fell over. Even in New York, a survivor’s spirit is no substitute for actually biking.  What I needed was more saddle time. My third time out, I was riding fast and furiously, feeling the wind on my face.  Exhilarated, enjoying the sense of freedom and accomplishment, until suddenly I saw a soccer ball.


I regained consciousness afraid and in an ambulance. My head was in a brace, strapped to a board.  I was busy self -assessing, my hands hurt, foot hurts, head hurts.  The EMT asked, “Do you have any medical conditions?”

This was a remarkable moment.  “Do you have any medical conditions?”

“Cancer,” I said, and, despite the pain, I laughed so hard I nearly choked.

There I was bloody, broken, five teeth gone, and in need of a new nose, and suddenly, cancer wasn’t the most important medical condition I had. I had survived to face other dangers and problems.  Survivorship was suffering just like other athletes.  The disaster of crashing was a chance to move on to the next of life’s problems.

“We’re going to cut your clothes off.”

“No!” I cried, “brand new race outfit!”

They cut.  I passed out again.
After midnight, on morphine following  stitches and CT scans, I wanted to go home.  I’d had enough of being a patient during cancer treatment.  At least I had gained experience with scans and painkillers and now that experience was proving useful.

“You’re not going anywhere,” the nurse said, “Do you even know where you are?”

I read the sheets, “Saint Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.”  Not my cancer hospital.

“Can you walk?”

Hoping I could, I tightened my stomach muscles, took a deep yoga breath, and slid off the bed.  I was in pain, but not cancer pain. I suffered regular, normal, crashed-my-bicycle pain. My face was sticky and hurt even through the pain killers, but not to the touch.  Then I heard, “You can’t leave.  You don’t even have any clothes.”

I wrapped myself up mummy-like, “I’m taking your sheet.” After all, at two AM on a Saturday night in New York, who’s going to notice a slightly bloody guy walking down Broadway with no teeth wearing a sheet?

The triathlon was only a week away. Three weeks after radiation.  With broken teeth, swollen lips and a mouth full of stitches, I couldn’t use the phone.  Instead, I sent a text to my brother. “Big crash!”  That wasn’t nearly as bad as the call I’d made a year earlier.  The call when I had to tell my brother that I had cancer.

He responded the same way, by getting on a plane, this time running the triathlon at my side.  My brother was worried, my coach was worried, my team was worried and I was simply foolish and refused to quit.  The only one who wasn’t worried was my radiation oncologist.  He knew I was a survivor.  I was going to run this race.  Race day arrived and we dove into the ocean.  The sting of the salt water burned every cut and scrape.  My shoulder and knee were banged up and my face was a mess but I just kept swimming, biking and finally running.

With my brother at my side and teammates all around I crossed the finish line feeling an incredible sense of accomplishment.  Feeling like a true winner with a race medal proudly around my neck I looked for Erica among the finishers.

Today I’m testing cancer free and training for the Iron Man triathlon.  I am thriving in survivorship and realistic about the next potential crash, life’s just like that.