November 28, 2016 | by Jay A. Fernandez
“If I couldn’t ride, I’d go insane,” said 37-year-old Nate Deibler. “It’s just who I am, it’s what I do. It’s how I manage life.”
Since childhood, biking has been like breathing to Deibler, and daily 20-mile rides are a standard part of his life. But in his early thirties, he started to notice some irritating physical symptoms.
“I’m a pretty healthy guy, obviously, but I had this tiny wheezing if I rode really hard, and I started to get colds more frequently,” he said. “Then it ramped up, until in April 2015 I got bronchitis and coughed up blood.”
This was enough to get him to an urgent care center, where he was prescribed antibiotics and some cough medicine. Those seemed to knock out everything but the wheezing. By August, however, Deibler was experiencing night sweats, sleeping poorly, getting sick and, once again, coughing up blood. Frustratingly, a visit to the emergency room led to nothing more than another dose of cough medicine.
Since he suspected his ailments were a result of his frequent travel for work — he’s a sales manager for a vibration isolation company — Deibler and his wife Lindsay decided he’d stay home for a few weeks to mend and spend more time with their three young kids. But by the beginning of October, it was clear nothing had changed, so he went to see his family doctor for the first time.
“Thankfully, he was like, ‘Something just is not connecting right here. Something is wrong,’” said Deibler. “That’s when we did the X-ray and they saw that dark spot in the upper lobe of my right lung.”
More testing and a bronchoscopy done by a specialist at St. Jude Medical Center determined that a cancerous tumor was blocking the airway to the upper lobe of Deibler’s right lung, causing it to deflate and leaving it open to repeated infection. Deibler took the bad news in stride and dove into researching his treatment options.
“I tried to be very practical about it: well, it’s like a mole, and you just get a mole removed,” he said. “As soon as I heard ‘cancer,’ I did really take it seriously. I made sure I got the right doctor and the best possible scenario for treatment.”
That led Deibler to City of Hope and to Jae Y. Kim, M.D., chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery and an expert in operating using robotics. “After my first meeting with Dr. Kim, I was convinced this guy knew what he was doing,” said Deibler.
A sudden cancellation meant that Deibler could get in for surgery even quicker than expected, and on Nov. 3, 2015, Kim performed a complicated but successful robotic lung resection.
“After the surgery was when it really hit me, the gravity of having cancer,” said Deibler, who had ready support from wife, friends and family during his recovery. “It really shook me. Up until that point it was just kind of all a rhythm: ‘This is what happens, and this is what you do.’ You just go through it. And then you have the breakdown: ‘What just happened to me?’”
Unsurprisingly, Deibler dealt with the emotional fallout and post-op pain the best way he knew how. Sent home from the hospital three days after surgery, the first thing he did was hop on his bike for a “short” 10-mile ride.
“It was tough not to be able to breathe fully and to be way more winded,” he said. “I didn’t ride hard. I was like, ‘No, it’s not gonna keep me down. I gotta fight it, and I’m just gonna keep going.’ Ever since I was a little kid, riding has meant freedom, my own space. I just feel a lot more clear-headed. I do a lot of good thinking when I’m on my bike.”
Deibler even surprised Dr. Kim when he showed up for his three-week follow-up visit by biking 27 miles from his home in Brea, California.
Now, a year on from his surgery, and in the midst of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Deibler has a new perspective and some simple advice for those fated to face a similar diagnosis.
“Don’t wait,” he said. “Don’t just blow it off and say, ‘Oh, it’ll get better,’ if you have this nagging thing. Go get it checked out. I should have gotten my wheezing checked out a year before. Don’t put it off.”
As with many survivors, the challenging experience has had additional unexpected benefits for Deibler, who in the months following his surgery began re-evaluating his priorities.
“I had put stuff on the back burner in my life,” he said. “I just put my head down to all this personal stuff. I had eaten a lot of my feelings. You just get in that rut. After the surgery, everything got turned on its head. I had what I call a ‘cancer of my soul’ that had eaten away at my happiness.”
Deibler, who now presents as cancer free, still rides the 27 miles in to City of Hope for follow-up visits every three months to keep tabs on his lung health. But otherwise, he’s been thriving, physically and emotionally.
“I’m riding really well. I’m feeling really good,” he said. “Life’s a lot better now.”
Learn more about our lung cancer treatment and research and our unique patient experience. If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer or are looking for a second opinion consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.