David Piercy is just about the most remarkable lung cancer survivor you’re ever likely to meet. In 1977 he had one of his lungs removed but was given no hope of long term survival.
In 2004 he won the World Solo 24-hour mountain bike race, he cycles for up to eight hours a day and runs up and down five flights of stairs 40 times before starting work in the morning. David’s mission is to give hope and inspiration to anyone battling with lung cancer. This is his extraordinary story:
“Hello - my name is David Piercy. I’m a 47 year- old middle school technology teacher living with my wife and two beautiful daughters in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
When I was only nineteen years old I was diagnosed with lung cancer (no I’ve never smoked!) and underwent a left pneumonectomy (removal of the lung) operation in an attempt to extend my life. That was it – in the attempt to extend my life. Everyone was upset, including my mother and the rest of my family, my friends, and my co- workers. I wasn’t expected to live for very long.
Well, 28 years later and I’m still alive and kicking and as you’re about to read, kicking pretty hard! This piece is for all those people who are constantly struggling with the uncertainty of theirs, or their loved one future; those who have either recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, or are living with the effects of lung cancer and for all of the care givers out there. Because of the uncertainty surrounding this disease – I know of many long-term survivors who were originally given only a few months to live – there has to be hope; lots of hope. And to go with the hope – a positive attitude. And to go with the hope and a positive attitude – exercise. And guess what goes with all of that – yes, you guessed it – a good diet.
I can only tell you of my experience living with my cancer, and hopefully there may be some things you can take away that will help with your cancer experience.
For me, my retrospective look at my cancer experience began in november a couple of years ago as a result of being interviewed by my oldest daughter Karoline for a biology research paper she was working on about lung cancer. She kept quoting the grim survival statistics and mumbling: "Boy, are you ever lucky to be alive." Then she went off to write the paper and I sat there thinking. For the first time in the long time since my surgery I was thinking of myself as a survivor, who has beaten some kind of odds. Was I really that lucky -- where were these 5% statistics my daughter spoke of?
At that moment, I felt quite naive; I had never given my "survival" a second thought. Come to think of it, in all these years I had never met, or spoken with anyone with lung cancer, let alone someone with one lung. There were no support groups or computers back then (in 1977) let alone CT scanners (I had my first CT scan last January). I was too busy getting on with life I suppose - must have blocked it all out. As we had just purchased a computer about two weeks earlier, I typed in "lung cancer survivors" and found lchelp.com within minutes. I couldn't believe it, I started reading messages and it was like finding your long lost twin that you didn't know you had but always had this feeling of missing something. "HEY, THERE'S SOMEBODY WITH ONE LUNG!!" I yelled. "AND THERE'S ANOTHER!!" My girls came running. Everything I read made sense. I was brought right back to my own diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. I could relate to those having difficulty climbing stairs and thought to myself: “Don't worry buddy, you'll be running up stairs before you know it”.
My first post on the message board was generated in response to a call for survival stories. After reading messages and replies, I could see how just talking to someone who has been through what you are going through could ease one’s fears. I felt I had something to offer with 26 years of experience. One thing I had noticed in reading all the messages was that nearly all of them mentioned TIME. Survival Time was that one thing that survivors had and those newly diagnosed or in recovery wanted. Everyone seemed to wear time as a badge of honour. They wore it proudly, almost always mentioning how long they've been around for in the first line of their post. I could see how comforting it was.
So I posted my story. It went like this: Twenty seven years ago I was a 20 year old university student who was informed that the cause of his recurring pneumonia that began on a Sun Valley ski trip was a two centimetre carcinoid polyp in the upper left lobe. Surgery was scheduled two days after the pneumonia and pleurisy had cleared and after a complete left pneumonectomy, I began recovery with no chemo or radiation. I think when Dr. Hosie took out my lung he replaced it with a huge attitude - one that I can credit for getting me here today. There was lots of pain, morphine, chest tubes, cute nurses and advice that said: "Relax, you're not going anywhere for a while, it'll be too tough to breath."
The attitude kicked in when the nurse brought the first bedpan. Instead, I got a rolling I.V. pole and I shuffled off to the washroom. Two days on morphine, a couple of late night pizza deliveries through the emergency ward and three days of shuffling around the hospital in self pity with my rolling I.V. pole thinking, "why me, why me?" before I wrangled a day pass from the head nurse so I could walk home four blocks to surprise my parents. (Head nurse didn't know I was walking). Parents were surprised. I was home for good a couple of days later. I never did like sitting around, so two days after that I told my mother I was going for a bicycle ride. As opposed to the idea as she was, she couldn't stop me and my attitude.
I've been riding my bike almost every day since. It started with only a few blocks, then progressed to a few miles and over the next few years evolved into rides of up to six and eight hours. Three years after surgery and back in university, I was the oldest member of the varsity rowing squad. They all thought I always came in last in the ten-mile run because I was the old guy. (I actually came second to last once, and if I only had two lungs, boy I would have...)
My goal in training hard was to always do something to expand my lung capacity; I've forgotten what the inside of an elevator looks like. I could feel my lung getting bigger as the months passed. I even began getting breathing cramps way up in my collarbone area. I remember that when I had two lungs and I would yawn deeply, there was always a second stage to the deep yawn. The second, deeper intake of air would completely fill my lungs and I can remember how good it felt. Well, now I get that good, completely filled feeling on every breath I take. The doctor told me that a normal two-lunged person fills only 25% of each lung when breathing.
I no longer go for cancer checkups, just regular doctor visits but I did go for a pulmonary capacity test last year and the astounded technician said my one lung capacity is 64% that of a normal, two lunged man of my size and that I fill all of my lung every breath. All of you wondering if you can function normally on one lung, I say: "YOU BET YOU CAN!!" - and then some.
Not many people know that I only have one lung. It isn't that I'm embarrassed or ashamed. It's because I'm usually competing against two lunged people and I need to know that I am doing well (or not) because of my capabilities and not because the guys see me as the poor one lunged guy.
My increased lung capacity has no doubt come about through hard work and exercise. These days I go to work early two or three times a week and run up and down five flights of stairs 40 times before going twice around the universal weights gym and finishing off with a couple of miles running on the treadmill. I ride my bike to and from work each day and ride off road trails on the weekends.
Six years ago my riding buddy and I decided we would try cross country mountain bike racing. I got my race licence and the first race I entered was a 24-hour relay with five person teams, with each rider riding the ten-mile lap before passing the baton to the next rider... and so on for 24 hour. Of course, I had the slowest times on the team but I was also the oldest and was only six minutes slower than my buddy who is six years younger than me (and has two lungs). All the guys on the team say how much of an inspiration I am to them. I don't know if it's inspiration as much as a greater desire not to be beaten around the course by the one lunged guy. My racing goal has been not to crash too bad and not to come last in my age category. I have only been placed last once. (Yes, I crashed).
This last season, I was faster than my buddy in two races and I even won a race! For the past three years we have ridden up the 17 miles to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains in Washington State and I have beaten them to the top three years in a row. Last year my time was two hours 22 minutes and this year I did it twice in one day. This was a good year for me. I also entered my first adventure race - nine miles kayaking, seven miles running UP a 4000ft mountain, orienteering, bushwhacking, and 18 miles of mountain biking. The team of four could never be out of sight of each other or we would be disqualified. I was hoping I wouldn't slow my teammates too much. I didn't, and we finished 34th out of 80 teams. I have raced three 24 hour mountain bike relays so far on a team and last September I raced in the “World Solo 24 hours of Adrenaline” mountain bike race – 24 hours on the bike by myself riding around a ten-mile course. The year before, the guys in the 45 to 49 year old category only rode ten laps of the ten-mile course in the 24 hours. I knew I could do at least 12 laps!! (There’s that attitude again, but I only completed 11 laps.)
My philosophy in all this is you must insist on enjoying life. To do that you can't worry about things you have no control over. You have to get out there and be active - there’s a lot to choose from. You must, must, must, have a positive attitude in everything you do. You must eat healthy. You must breath healthy. And one more thing, I have figured out two answers to that "why me" question that has bugged me ever since my surgery. The first one is all of you - for me to be able to ease some anxious moments or give someone a little hope is the best thing I could ever thing of to do with all of my experiences and I've found it has been a sort of retroactive healing for me too.
The second answer to the "why me" question has come from my bike racing. I have found that thousands of people attend bike races every year. If I am going to be there, I might as well do some fundraising for cancer research. I am teaming up with the Cancer Society and will set up a donation for prize booth at each race. This will mean I will have to come out of the “one lung” closet; all the racers will know the One Lung Guy will be a threat on the course and try not to have me beat them. I was one of the featured riders on the World Solo DVD from the race last year. (I'm working on setting up my own website so I can post some of my riding videos). I've designed a cycling jersey that has one big right lung on it, front and back. And my truck licence plate will read IRNLUNG (I'm still looking for a sponsor to donate a truck and utility trailer).
Time and hope. I've got lots of time, and I'd like to be able to give lots of hope.
Diary Entry June 6th, 2004
I'm leaving tomorrow for a seven day hike on the rugged West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. I race in a 12 hour mountain bike race on June 20th - from 8:00am until 8:00pm. Should be fun. I have some smaller races in July and early August, before a 40-mile race at the end of August. And that's just the warm up to this year's 24 hour solo race on Sept. 4th and 5th, then one last 40 mile race at the end of September. I'll keep you posted. Stay active.
Diary Entry September 12 th, 2004
One week after the World Solo 24 hour race and the white jersey I'm wearing in my photo is a coveted winner's jersey I received when I placed first in my age category, completing ten laps of the 11 mile course in 24 hours - three more than my closest competitor. This year's race was dedicated to all those with lung cancer who have recently passed away and to those still struggling with LC. For that reason, I trained extra hard preparing for the race. The day I got my white jersey I said to myself: "Self, now that you have a winner's jersey, you never have to do this again." (Because it's far too difficult). And the next day I said: "Forget about that, I'll be back next year."
As long as I have it in my power to do something that provides any level of inspiration to anyone looking for some, I will continue to do so -- because I can. What I go through in my 24 hour race is nothing compared to what many people are experiencing with lung cancer.
This year, I am registering to race in the World Master’s Mountain Bike Competition in Edmonton, Alberta in July and have already registered to defend my 24 hour World Solo title in September. Hope there’s something I have said here that can help.
Don’t give up!”
David Piercy, March 2005
If you’d like to discuss any of these issues with David, you can contact him via:email@example.com