Don Nelson, a 68-year-old metastatic kidney cancer
patient, bicycles 200 miles a month and says life is even better now than before the disease struck.
“Even though I’m living with cancer right now,” he said, “I’m a happier person. I’m much more fit than I was and much more relaxed.”
It’s hard to imagine feeling that way when you’re undergoing your 35th cycle of immunotherapy transfusions — so how does he do it?
There’s City of Hope and Sumanta Pal, M.D.
, a urologic oncologist, whose attentive care and cutting-edge research keep the cancer at bay. There’s the support of his wife Jane and their grown children. And then there’s bicycling.
Biking, a sport he’s always loved, is a big part of his newfound sense of wellbeing, but there was never much time for it until cancer underscored the importance of a healthier lifestyle.
"Biking is good for my body and good for my mind,” he said. “It’s just really nice when you're out on a cool morning, riding with friends and you look around and think, gosh, what a beautiful day.”
But if he’s a happy man now, that’s hardly how he felt when he was first diagnosed.
When the Doctor Says ‘You’ve Got Cancer,’ Everything Goes Dark
Nelson had always been a pretty healthy guy, who’d once been something of a jock and had even competed in triathlons. So in 2010, when he was told he had stage 1 kidney cancer, it came as a total shock.
“When you’re sitting in the doctor’s office and the doctor looks at you and says, ‘You’ve got cancer,’ everything around you goes dark. It’s like, Oh my God, what did he just say?
He had his kidney and adrenal gland removed at a hospital near his home in Orange County, and his urologist told him, “We got it all. You’re cancer free.”
At home recovering, Nelson felt a little sorry for himself — for two days. Then he decided to pull it together and start building his strength up. He began walking a treadmill and around the cul-de-sac where he lives, pushing himself to do a little more each day.
Ten days later — though he’d been told recovery would take eight to ten weeks — he was back at work.
He knew he needed exercise to stay healthy and did a little biking, but his stressful job in aerospace quality control, a 140-mile round-trip commute and a 60-hour workweek didn’t leave much time for fitness.
Another Devastating Blow
Four years later, he was hit with another diagnosis. The cancer had spread to his lungs —stage 4 metastatic renal cell carcinoma. His urologist said, “I can’t do anything more for you.”
“That scared us. So we started doing some research,” Nelson said. Then he and his wife found City of Hope and the remarkable Dr. Pal.
“He’s a tremendous researcher and a tremendous doctor. Kind, compassionate and extremely smart,” he said. “He’s always willing to listen to anything I have to say and finds ways to make the side-effects of therapy less traumatic.”
Still, metastatic cancer is no cakewalk, and we asked him how he manages to bike about 2,400 miles a year.
Decisions and Determination
“When you’re first diagnosed, you go through this depression, but after that it's a fight. You have a choice,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to let cancer beat me. I wanted to do whatever I could to fight the disease and make me stronger.”
First, he cut back on his job stress and grueling commute by working from home one day a week. Then, when his company relocated to the East Coast, he decided to retire.
Now he had time to bike with friends several times a week, though in the beginning it was tough going. At first even a short ride was incredibly difficult.
“I’d be exhausted and I’d have to come home and take a nap,” he said. “But over time you build up strength and endurance”
These days a 40-mile ride — even on hills — feels great. The key, he says, is commitment.
“Don't give up, don't stop. Just keep doing it. There’ll be good days and bad days, but every day is a good day.”
Biking for City of Hope
When Nelson speaks of his experience at City of Hope, his gratitude is profound. And he’s eager to give back — especially if it involves cycling.
This fall, he delivered a motivational speech for Bike for Hope, a fundraising ride from Palo Alto to Los Angeles. And last year he was a guest speaker and cyclist for Bike to Hope in Petaluma, which raised $265,000 for City of Hope.
Nelson has found a new lease on life with cancer, and it radiates to those around him.
“It's been an inspiration to me and the children to see how he's dealt with this,” said his wife Jane. “That positive outlook really makes a difference.”
If you’d like to experience the joy of cycling — and help City of Hope at the same time — sign up for the Landmark Ride fundraiser through historic Los Angeles, which will take place this March.
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