By Alex Niles
**NOTE: Alex passed away on April 8. 2015, and will be forever missed.
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew…when I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt…I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way. — “My Way” by Frank Sinatra
The day I found out what fear feels like came on September 11th, 2013, at age 30. It didn't come in the form of a movie, or a job, or a girl. It came in the form of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer. It rushed into my life like a tsunami, wreaking havoc and filling my mind and body with doubt and anxiety, my intellect with worry and unknown.
My first reaction was utter shock. I didn't know what was to come, but hearing the word “cancer” took the air out of me, as if I were punched in the gut by one of the studs who reads The Sweat Life. I went through all the negative connotations associated with such an illness, and such a severe stage, as well. I was scared, and it felt natural. It felt real. Ironically, it made me feel alive.
Clearly fear has a place in our lives, but I wasn't about to let it control me. No way would I allow it to dictate how I chose to live. Not a chance. It's easy to ignore our fears, but courage won't make it to the playing field unless you have a fear to face down. By owning my feelings, I took the first step toward gaining control over the situation as best as I could.
I’ve been blogging and telling my story, but more importantly, I’ve designed a clothing company, CureWear, that allows chronic illness patients to receive treatment without having to take off their shirts. There is nothing comfortable about cancer, chronic illness, or the patient experience I have been exposed to. I found that out early on, and wanted to make a change.
As a part of my treatment, I had to remove my shirt to provide nurses and doctors access to my medical port, which is where blood is drawn and medicine administered. I was sick of seeing children do this. I was sick of seeing women of all ages expose themselves, and I was sick of seeing men of all ages do this, as well. That part of the experience was belittling and demeaning, and I knew I could help make it more bearable for those going through a similarly tough time. CureWear shirts have a small flap that opens to allows access to the medical port. For such a simple concept, it makes a huge difference — and not only for the patients. CureWear has been extremely well received by nurses, doctors, and of course, the family and friends who are supporting someone.
Designed to bring comfort to patients living with medical ports and PICC lines, CureWear provides you with an opportunity to wear clothing that stands for a cause. There is a patient line — but also a line of top-notch athletic apparel that stands for something. Not only is there a functional aspect, but there is something much bigger.
My best friend recently ran in the NYC marathon wearing CureWear, and it filled me with extra strength to fight on. Partial proceeds from every purchase go to the funding of clothes for patients, much in the way Toms Shoes has built their business model by delivering a pair of free, new shoes to a child in need for every sale it makes. After months of finding the right fabric, I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that ensured a solid foundation to grow the business and make the most impact. I can’t wait to see where this goes, and how many we help along the way!
All of this happened because I decided to address my fear head on. As the days and weeks passed after that dreadful diagnosis, I let the fear keep simmering. I acknowledged it, and began to keep a journal. At first my diary served as a concession to panic, and slowly it evolved into a way I would conquer it. I often look back on my journal during those early days, and it now serves me to give me strength and encouragement, and also to see the big picture. It enabled me to track my progress as I worked towards conquering my fear.
After accepting and admitting my fear, I tried to chase negative thoughts from my mind to picture what it would be like to win this battle, with a big, wide smile on my face. I set that as my big goal, but also focused on smaller concrete goals to help me get there. I made it a point to meditate every day when I woke up, thinking about peaceful settings such as the wind blowing through a forest, of healthy, green leaves on sturdy, deep rooted trees. I imagined that I was laying on the forest floor, watching the limbs sway back and forth as I breathed in healing air, and breathed out unneeded thoughts or feelings.
I have also made exercise a part of my daily routine. At times, combating the side effects of treatment made this chore extremely difficult, but I have always believed that a body in motion tends to stay in motion — apparently I paid attention in physics class. It would be so easy to just take a seat, to lay down in bed all day. But I willed myself to keep moving every day, no matter the challenge. Whether it was a quick walk outside with some fresh air, or an intense full-body workout, I was determined to squeeze that sweat out.
Exercising also helped me feel normal again. I had exercised my whole life, I was a Division 1 scholarship athlete, and I was resolved to feel as much like “the old me” as I could, even through this testing time. Regular exercise also made me feel like I was taking control of the situation, as I watched my frail body fill out again. I noticed myself feeling satisfied, even proud, of what I achieved each day, sometimes even feeling as if I weren't being pumped with poison every few weeks when I went for my chemo treatments. I felt confidence cascade through my veins, not the voracious venom that was eating away at healthy cells. As the sweat poured out of me, my mood improved. The roller coaster of emotions I had found myself living through became a little more balanced too as I watched my appetite and energy increase. I had repossessed many important things I had been stripped of — all due to exercise.
Sometimes through the darkest skies the brightest stars reveal themselves and shine. Although I never asked to be in this situation, being confronted by the darkest of fears and accepting, confronting, and overcoming that fear enabled me to learn, grow, and be even more mortal. Feeling fear is human, but I assure you conquering it will make you feel empowered, courageous, and proud.
Alex Niles was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer in the fall of 2013, at age 30. He is the founder of CureWear, a lifestyle apparel line designed to provide comfort for cancer patients during treatment, while inspiring their friends and family. He is also writing a book geared towards younger cancer battlers, that sets forth his positive, activist approach to fighting the illness. Alex holds an undergraduate degree from Drexel University, where he was a Division 1 scholarship athlete, and a graduate degree from Fordham University. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today.