I have cancer. But cancer does not have me.
One year ago, a doctor told me that I have cancer.
Four months ago, I finished my radio-chemo therapy.
And two weeks ago, I finished my second triathlon in less than three hours!
My name is Martin Inderbitzin, and today I decided to go public with my story.
I believe that it’s very important not to be afraid to talk about cancer. Not to be ashamed to have cancer or to be scared of people’s emotional reactions if you tell them that you have cancer. On the contrary. I think it’s necessary to talk about it so we can overcome our anxiety, our prejudices, and fears. It took me one year to come to this point and I am very grateful for that. This coming-out is personally motivated, but it is also an act of solidarity with all patients out there that have to go through the same shit.
In August 2012, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was the biggest shock of my life. I was thirty-two years old and had just finished my PhD. I was planning my bright future when these shocking news disrupted my normality. I went through an emotional roller coaster experiencing a lot of very intense emotions. Sometimes in life you cannot choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to relate to it. Always. Recently, somebody told me that the Greek word ‘crisis’ also means ‘decision.’ Every crisis is also a moment of decision. Because you have to decide what to do. If you want to or not, you have to. You have to decide if you want to sit down and cry or if you want to stand up and try to move on. I chose the second option.
Cancer is a very mean disease and I don’t believe that positive thinking is a guarantee that you are going to survive. No, not at all! There are a lot of amazing people out there trying their best to stay positive, and still the illness is too strong. That’s not fair because life is not fair. The concept of fairness is a social construct and not a biological one. Nature does not know what fairness is. It is also not fair that I was born in one of the richest countries on this planet receiving one of the best possible medical treatments.
The main challenge that you face as a cancer patient is to stay mentally strong while you face a medical ‘treatment’ that really crushes your body! Both radiation and chemotherapy are so aggressive that you really get hurt. So while you probably think about life and death, because you are diagnosed with a life- threatening disease, the ‘medication’ intoxicates you slowly and starts reducing the fitness of your body. Not to lose your mental strength in this whole turbulence is the biggest challenge in my opinion. As I said, I don’t believe that positive thinking alone is going to save you. But I strongly believe that negative thinking does not help you at all. This thought was always helping me to not lose my motivation.
In December 2012, I was in the middle of my treatment. They connected me 24/7 to the toxic chemicals and daily applied a 15-second radiation that was a thousand times stronger than a normal x-ray. Back then, my body was a wreck, marred by the surgery, the radiation, and the chemo. But my mind was not. My mind was dreaming of running and swimming and riding my bike. My mind was wandering outside of this grey hospital imagining a healthy life. My mind was free, and so was I. I picked up my smart phone and signed up for the triathlon in Zürich. I remember this moment as if it was yesterday. It was such a symbolic act. To say ‘yes,’ while everything around me said ‘no.’ It would have been easier to wait until spring and see how my health develops. But the fact that I committed myself in the worst moment was probably also the source of greatest strength. I had never done a triathlon or something similar before, but from this day on, I knew that I was going to make it. Not because I am a great athlete, no. Because I believed in myself!
This belief made me pick up my old running shoes when I finished the whole treatment in April of this year. Not to go running yet, no! I was happy back then when I was able to walk for half an hour. This belief made me go to the pool, swimming for weeks at the same speed as the old ladies next to me. This belief made me pick up the bike so my mum could give me a car ride up the hill and I could enjoy riding my bike back down again.
At first, my joints hurt after a short run of 2–3 km. So I stopped and walked home, happy that I was able to make 2–3 km. The next time, I made four, and then five. And after three weeks out of the hospital, I finished my first 10 km run. When I looked at my GPS watch seeing the ‘10’ blinking and realized what I had just achieved, I experienced one of the greatest pleasures in my whole life!
It’s not possible for me to describe in words how it made me feel! It’s like you are reborn but fully conscious. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful and intense emotions I have ever experienced!
On my three months long rehab trip, I started to train more and more. Everywhere. I went swimming in Sicily, biking in Barcelona, hiking in the Pyrenees, running in the Sierra Nevada or in Paris. Wherever I went I had to move my body. So the weeks passed and the big day came closer and closer.
For this race my brother and Giorgio, one of my best friends, joined me. A very symbolic act for me, I have to say! For Giorgio and me it was the first triathlon so we shared the suffering. The race day was extremely hot with 36°C degrees in the shade. Because our race was also the official European Championship there were a lot of people cheering. The atmosphere was just amazing!
The swimming went very smoothly and the bicycle rolled well. But when I had to start running, it was getting hard. My legs were hurting and my heart was pumping. Triathlon is a sport where you have a lot of ‘time.’ Time to think about stuff. About yourself, about life. So in this moment of suffering, I had to think about my story. And I had a flashback of everything I had gone through in just one year: the surgery, the diagnosis, the shock, the rehabilitation in the Swiss mountains, the radiation, the long month lying around, the weekly visits and daily pills. The first runs and rides. The recovery of my body. The journey through Italy, Spain, and France. All the friends and beloved people I was able to see again after Hades had invited me for a ride. No, thanks, Hades. See you later, alligator! While I was running in the heat, my whole story last year passed before my eyes like a high-speed cinema trailer.
And I had to think of other patients that I met during my treatment in the hospital. Young ones and old ones. I had to think of the patients that are still in treatment suffering much more than I was while running in the heat. All the people who still have a big junk of their ‘race’ ahead of them while I was finishing mine. And I decided to run for them as a symbolic act of solidarity. And suddenly my ‘suffering’ did not hurt so much anymore.
When I was in treatment, I was obsessed with ‘survivor’ stories. It gave me so much hope to see that others were able to go through this tunnel! It gave me strength. So I hope that my story can serve as a positive example too. And I hope that it reaches the people who need such positive stories right now!