No place to go but up
Seven years ago, doctors gave Greg Brown six months to live.
Greg was diagnosed with melanoma. This is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It’s curable if caught early enough, but can spread to other parts of the body if it isn’t. If tumours reach even one millimetre under the skin’s epidermal layer, you’re in trouble. Greg’s was 9.5 mm.
Today, his cancer is considered “contained,” but not in remission. It’s been a soul-draining battle that included a “brutal” surgery, a year of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation treatment.
And while he was battling cancer, Greg had other challenges to contend with – his son Jack was born with severe disabilities shortly after the cancer diagnosis – Jack has had 18 surgeries to date and requires 24-hour nursing care.
Add to that the death of a parent and a marital breakup and it’s not surprising there’s also been a toll on Greg’s mental health. Today, the 50-year-old pharmacy manager is on medical leave and battling depression.
But over the past five weeks, Greg has learned first-hand what his doctors have long told him – exercise really is the best medicine.
At the urging of his doctors and friend Lindsay Blue, Free Form Fitness’s general manager, Greg has begun training at FFF’s Kanata location.
It’s not that he didn’t believe in the mental benefits of exercise, it was just hard to find the motivation to start. Compounding the issue was chronic pain from his cancer.
“For a long time, I just had no drive, no passion,” Greg said. “I was numb to the world, I was a recluse.”
That was a big difference from his younger days, when Greg was physically active and an avid ball player.
“I had six per cent body fat, I could run like the wind, I had power, I had all the tools,” he said.
But a knee injury in 2003 sidelined him. He then started commuting every day from Brockville to Ottawa. For four years, his routine was drive, work, sleep.
By the time of Greg’s diagnosis, that fellow with six per cent body fat was already a memory. While undergoing chemo, he lost interest in food. When the chemo ended, his appetite came back with a roar and so did unwanted pounds, but still, pain dissuaded him from exercising. And his focus was on his son Jack, not on himself.
But Greg came to realize, that, if he wanted to be there for Jack, he had to take better care of himself.
“I need to be strong for my son, that’s the number one reason for me being here,” he said.
What gave him the final push to take action is a Youtube video by Dr. Mike Evans, 23 and ½ hours, which emphasizes how much difference it can make in your quality of life to exercise for just 30 minutes a day, even if that just means a brisk walk.
Greg had never worked with a personal trainer before and hadn’t committed to any routine of fitness in years. But over the past five weeks, he’s been fighting through that pain barrier and training five days a week by focusing on the end result.
“By stretching and building muscle, the pain is likely going to subside,” he said.
Trainers Mike Robichaud and Matt Uden are with him at every step, and they’ve also gotten to work on his nutrition habits.
But the biggest improvement has been in his mental health.
“It was better from week one and it’s improved with every session,” Greg said. “I didn’t expect to see results right away, but the mental results have paid for this in themselves.”
He has also experienced another unexpected benefit. When he was 18, Greg was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a painful neurological disease. Doctors told him he had the flexibility in his neck of a 65-year-old. Flare-ups of this condition would cripple him for a week at a time.
But only a few weeks of stretching and weight training at FFF have made a big difference, giving him a range of mobility he has never had.
“I have never been able to fully turn and look behind me while driving,” Greg said. “But driving to the gym last week for a workout, I found myself looking behind me as I exited the highway – with full flexibility. At the next stoplight I looked behind me a half dozen times, because I didn’t believe at first that I could do that.”
Greg will be in a standoff with his cancer for the rest of his life, and there is still a long road ahead with son Jack, but he’s at last taken a crucial step to help him take it all on with renewed strength.
“The only place to go from here is up,” he said.