I have cancer, and I choose to fight

My name is Ben Fogel and I am a blood cancer survivor – and still fighting!

I don’t feel much different than many other people I’ve talked with that have survived cancer, and didn’t ever feel I had a story to share.

Then a good friend told me very recently, “You are being selfish by not sharing your story.  What if one person heard your story and it changed their life, would it be a story worth sharing?”

Now that really motivated me to write this piece, and he showed me in those two sentences how selfish I was being.  I want to show people that cancer is NOT always a death sentence, and with the right attitude and approach you can overcome anything life throws at you, including but not limited to cancer.

Now, has it been a tough road?

Yes, of course it has.

Did I want to quit on several occasions, whether it was the nasty medication or treatments I was on?

Yes, but my attitude changed drastically when I realized my “Why.”   Why was I alive and what in fact was my true purpose?

I very quickly came to understand that my “Why” for me was to fight to stay alive and strong for my wife and kids.  I realized that if I just gave up, my two sons wouldn’t have a father to throw a baseball to.  I realized that if I just gave up, they wouldn’t have their Dad watching their first baseball game.  I realized if I just gave up, they wouldn’t have me to look up to anymore, to ask questions to anymore.  I realized that if I just gave up, that would be the most selfish thing to do to my family, my wife, my kids and my parents.  This was now my “Why” in life.  To make sure I live to see all these moments.

My father was such an influential figure in my life, I looked up to him like he was indestructible.  That’s what I want my boys to see in me.  That’s why I didn’t quit, I have fought and I am still fighting.

Now, if my story can help one person turn their life around, I did a good service.  What I realized facing a pretty traumatic event in my life is that it all starts with one thing, and that is the attitude you bring to that situation.  You have the internal power to change your circumstances, wherever you may be struggling in life.  This is how I was able to overcome my struggle.

This is my story.

It was mid-summer, 2015, and everything in my life was going amazingly well.  I was in my second year of opening a new business and in the “grind” phase working pretty long hours, and my wife Amy and I were also busy raising our 2 boys – Dean at almost 3 years old, and Roman at 18 months old.   To say we were in the thick of it would have been an understatement.

The gym was growing steadily and because I had many systems in place, it allowed me a little free time away from the gym.  More time to spend with my family and do more with my own training.

I decided I wanted something to train for again, so I came up with the idea to take 8-12 weeks to train for a Bobsled combine that was coming up that July.  This test included sprinting, jumping and throwing – all things I was used to performing from previously competing in the sport about 10 years prior, from 2003-2009 on the US National and World Cup Team.

I started my first four-week training block with lots of time on the track sprinting, as well as a lot of heavy lifting to prepare myself for the Bobsled combine.  About 3-4 weeks into my training plan, I wasn’t feeling very well – always fatigued and very low energy.  I just blamed it on the new workouts along with some longer than normal hours working at the gym.

Then it got worse.

I decided to get a sports physical, since I would need one anyway to compete in the combine.  The results came back with some abnormal blood tests – extremely elevated liver enzymes and a low white blood cell count.  Now two years prior to this, I had a physical flagged for high enzymes, but never this high.  My doctor was concerned that I may have an infection of some kind, or maybe even Hepatitis.  So he tested for Hepatitis and ruled that out.  At this point, we decided that I needed to return to the care of the GI specialist from years prior to find out what was going on.

From early Fall through late October the specialist and his team saw me regularly with really no answers on what my condition may have been.  By this time, I had stopped my training and taken additional time off work since my symptoms were not getting any better.

They were actually getting worse.

Friday, November 6th 2015

After multiple visits with my GI doctor for blood samples, two ultrasounds to check the size of the liver and spleen (both enlarged) I am here.  I am getting my second liver biopsy in the past 3 years.  The one from a few years back was more precautionary since I had barely elevated liver enzymes and the doctor at the time was pretty aggressive in the tests back then.  It showed “Mild, non-specific inflammation.”

What the hell does that mean?

It may have just meant that they didn’t get a good enough core sample to test back then.   But it was clear that my liver enzymes have been running high for some time now, and nobody could figure out why.

In any case, here I am again to rule out any liver disease or issues with the liver.  The procedure of a liver biopsy takes a lot longer then you expect.  You are literally in the hospital for half the day, when the actual procedure takes 5-10 minutes to perform.  They have to ensure that there is no internal bleeding from the site post biopsy, and make sure vitals are good for up to 4 hours after the procedure.  All went well, and after we got there around 7am, we were able to leave the hospital by 1pm.

The doctors tell you not to lift anything over 20 pounds for about a week, and for me that was going to be hard.  I mean, I own a damn gym and my youngest son weighs 30 pounds.  I did my best, was pretty sore around the site for a few days, but was ok.

Friday November 13th, 2015

I was doing the wife a favor and took her car in for an oil change, waiting in the waiting room when I got “The Call.”  It was my GI specialist who performed my procedure from the week before and who has been performing every test known to man to figure out what is going on with my liver.

Now, it was rare that I ever got a call from the doctor directly – it was usually his assistant/nurse practitioner that I would hear from.  So, the conversation went something like this, “Ben, we got the liver biopsy results back.  I want to make sure you are sitting down before I tell you this…but the biopsy results came back with suspicious T-cell Large Granular Lymphocytic Leukemia (LGLL).  This is a form of cancer that affects the blood, and I can’t help you with this, but I can get you in touch with an Oncologist and someone who can hopefully give you some answers.”

My first reaction was “Wait?  LGLL?  What the hell is that?” and when I started to Google it, I learned that it is very rare (about 1 in 10,000,000 diagnosed with a blood cancer get this form of Leukemia) and it has just barely been researched since the first diagnosis in 1994.

I wasn’t sure what to do, say, or even who to call.  The first person I called was obviously my wife.  Her reaction was one of disbelief, sadness, and wanting more answers.  After the longest hug ever when I finally got home,  we looked forward to my first doctor appointment with a cancer specialist.

Look out for part 2 of this blog. We will resume with all of the fun that ensued when I started my journey with cancer and all the treatments and care and where all the fighting truly began.