What Surviving 3 Brain Tumors Taught Me About Health

First, they said I’d never ride again. Then they said I’d never compete again. Then they said I’d never win again. I didn’t believe them. I was right.

Let me back up. I’m a professional BMX athlete, which means I compete in freestyle BMX bike riding events where we do tricks like backflips, spins and tail whips. When I was in my 20s – not long after I had won a major professional competition and competed in the X-Games, the most elite of extreme sports competitions – I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This tumor, known as a meningioma, took up almost the entire left side of my head. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling like the world was on top of me. A team of surgeons opened my skull and cut out the tumor. The surgery was intense and the recovery was tough, but fortunately, I was back on my bike just over a month later.

[See: Exercising After You’ve Gone Under (the Knife, That Is).]

The experience changed me, but not as significantly as you might expect. I thought of my brain tumor as a short pause in an otherwise normal life; not much different than the sort of bumps I went over on the BMX course. I went back to training, traveling and competing. I was your basic 20-something kid: I rode hard during the day, and ate, drank and stayed out late with my buddies at night. Life goes on, right?

Wrong. Two years after making a full recovery from surgery, I was traveling in India when I found out I had two more brain tumors. The news hit me hard. I knew I was lucky to have come out of the first diagnosis and surgery with little more than a scar on my scalp. With this second diagnosis, I started to worry that my luck was running out.

That was when I knew it was time to make some changes. While I had probably known all along deep down that I couldn’t fuel my dreams on 42-ounce sodas and microwaved burritos, the return of my tumors made me realize how precious good health really is. It gave me the motivation to take a serious look at my life and lifestyle and to reconsider my choices.

I started with my most pressing issues, which, quite literally, were the brain tumors pressing on my skull. My intense desire to beat the tumors and get on with my life almost matched my desire not to live through another craniotomy. I believed that there had to be another way to fix the tumors, so I sat at my computer searching the web until I found something that seemed like it might be an alternative: Gamma Knife radiosurgery, a way to treat the brain tumors without having to cut the skull open. I soon found a doctor who would perform the procedure, which involves directing a high dose of irradiation through the intact skull to control the tumors. The radiation works to make the tumors disappear, shrink or stop growing.

Next, I focused on revamping my diet. Now, the sodas, beer, and fast food are out, and real, whole foods are in. I try to eat organic whenever possible. I’ve cut way back on sugar and I drink a lot of water. One of the things that surprised me when I changed my diet was that eating healthy really isn’t that complicated. Staying away from packaged and processed foods and eating organic when I can are small changes that made a big difference – at least for me. I now have more energy and fewer midday energy crashes, which means I can train harder and longer. My digestive issues have gone away. I heal faster and get sick less often. I’ve also found that my mood is more stable, which helps me focus my mind and block out anxiety and fear.

[See: 10 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]

Finally, I made important changes to how I view and use my brain. I started to use breathing and visualization techniques when I’m practicing and competing. For example, before a competition, I run through the moves I want to do in my mind, picturing what it would look like if I accomplished them perfectly. Then, I focus on my breathing, telling myself to take nice, slow, deep breaths. This routine, which I perform over and over, keeps my energy up and my heart rate down, and also lets me really be in the moment. To be honest, though, these rituals don’t always work. But even then, I just take the hit and get back up on my bike and try again. If brain tumors weren’t enough to knock me out of the race, then an occasional fall off my bike isn’t going to stop me either.

Taking better care of my body and my mind is paying off: I recently competed at the FISE World Series in Osijek, Croatia, where I had hoped to make it to the top 12. (I didn’t set my goal higher since it was my first big event since I had ACL surgery in November 2015.) At the competition, I didn’t stress about being back in the spotlight and instead visualized myself succeeding at each stage of the competition and made sure I kept breathing. I made it through qualifiers, then through semifinals and hit my goal of being in the top 12 finalists. Then, I took third place.

Since my second diagnosis, I’ve learned that fear is something that exists in our minds. If you focus on a goal rather than on the fear, you can accomplish anything. Mental focus is important for success, and how we fuel our bodies impacts how we think and feel. Since I started paying more attention to my mind and my body, I find it’s easier to deal with stress and anxiety. I can pick myself up, take a step back and then figure out the best way to keep pushing ahead.

[See: 12 Psychological Tricks to Get You Through a Workout or Race.]

Whether it’s a health scare, a relationship that has gone bad or career setback, eventually, we all get knocked down. The trick is to get back up, learn from it and keep going. You don’t need a frightening diagnosis to change your life for the better. The only second chance you need is the one you give yourself.

-Josh P.

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