VEGAS' REAL IRONMAN
By Marla Santos
“You have cancer” are three words you never want to hear.
Unfortunately, every single day, over 5,000 people in North America do hear those words. Even worse, cancer kills more Americans than anything except heart disease.
Just a little over a year ago, Chris Irwin was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. This physically strong and healthy man told STRIPLV the remarkable story about his fight against cancer and why he believes he was able to beat it.
STRIPLV interviewed Chris when he was involved and teaching classes at The Gun Store here in Las Vegas. His in-depth article appeared in issue #56. Chris grew up in Las Vegas and graduated from UNLV with a degree in Kinesiology, which is a study of human movement, performance and function. He coached Southern Nevada Youth Football League for four years and then ended up joining The Gun Store that his father, Bob Irwin, had founded. While there, Chris was a firearms instructor for Clark County Category II police officers, plus he taught classes dealing with Concealed Firearms, the NRA Home Firearm Safety, and defensive tactics. He has been trained in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and the Filipino martial arts of Kali, Aikido, and Escrima. As you can see, Chris has been strong in both mind and body: well educated, plus he trained his body to be strong and become a force to be reckoned with, as well. He became excited about the UFC when he did a sponsorship for the UFC fighters for The Gun Store, and has now focused his attention and joined the team of Tuff-N-Uff Fighting Championships as chief operating officer.
When Chris was diagnosed with cancer last year, his dad stepped back in to run The Gun Store, so Chris could focus on his health. With his cancer now in remission, Chris joined me to explain his outlook on life and how he wants to help others who are facing cancer.
STRIPLV: A year ago, you were diagnosed with cancer. What were your symptoms?
IRWIN: I had none. I had started to get a painless lump on the side of my neck. Then I got a little one on the other side of my neck. It wasn’t going away, so I went to my ears, nose and throat doctor, and he didn’t think it was cancer. He said that if it was, it would be hard and it would hurt. He thought it was just some weird infection. I finally got a biopsy. I was totally numb and didn’t feel a thing. He contacted me a week later and told me it was my lymph node and it was cancer. I said: “Really? Are you sure? I have never smoked.” He said my lymph nodes did their job by trapping it and catching it. He got me over to the cancer clinic and set me up for radiation, so we could start attacking it.
STRIPLV: And you’ve always been very health conscious?
IRWIN: Yeah. I’m the exact opposite of my parents. I asked my doctor: “How do you think I got this?” He answered: “Bad luck.” He said that the way I’d lived my life, it didn’t make any sense that I’d have this type of cancer. They also found some at the base of my tongue, so they couldn’t just go in there and remove it. Every time I got another outpatient surgery, like more biopsies, I was told: “You will be sore, you might cough up blood,” but I never had any side effects. Never, ever, ever! They decided to start the chemo and radiation, because I was healthy enough to handle them both. I never felt any negative side effects from my chemo. They’d hook me up and give me some Benadryl and they’d hydrate me. I just sat there and read. I never lost any hair. The chemo actually made me feel better, because as my treatment went on, the radiation on my neck started to affect my salivary glands. I couldn’t eat and couldn’t drink. When I had the chemo once a week, they would hydrate me, and it made me feel really good. I was only supposed to have five chemo sessions, and I ended up having eight, because I asked for more.
STRIPLV: When you say you couldn’t eat or drink, was it because you had a hard time swallowing?
IRWIN: Yes. It was painful. It didn’t happen right away. I went for radiation every morning Monday through Friday. That lasted for maybe ten minutes. I didn’t feel anything at all. I went about three weeks before I felt something. Then the food started to taste a little bland, like it was losing its flavor. Then I couldn’t swallow, because my salivary glands quit working and I got burns from the radiation, because they were radiating both sides of my neck and the base of my tongue. All of a sudden, anything with any little flavor or spice burned tremendously. Ketchup... the way I described it, was that it was like battery acid. One day I tried to eat a banana, I took a bite and had to spit it out. My wife tried to find me food at the grocery store that wouldn’t burn my mouth. She found some vanilla protein shakes that I could tolerate. It was tough! I had to go to the ER a couple of times, because I was dehydrated. I had a feeding tube and I would pour water into it, but your body doesn’t absorb it the same way. They gave me all kinds of pain medications and said I’d be fine, but they’d only last for 10 minutes and then my mouth would hurt again. Nothing helped. That was very frustrating! I would take my medicine, take three or four bites, and that was all I could stand. The doctors tried to help by writing different prescriptions to see if one would work. The doctors were absolutely phenomenal!
STRIPLV: Did the doctors give you instructions on how to cope with this?
IRWIN: The one thing my doctors were intrigued by, was the fact that I kept working out. People kept telling me that you have to rest, and take it easy. I remember one time specifically, my radiation doctor who was updating on the keyboard, asked how I was doing. I said: “Okay. I went to the gym yesterday.” He stopped, turned his head around and asked: “You’re still going to the gym?” This was very deep into my treatment and I said: “Yeah. Sometimes I get there and can barely do anything, but yes, I’m going, and I will ride the bike.” He looked at me and said: “Keep going! Good for you.” On a separate occasion, my chemo doctor told me that he had a patient that throughout his whole treatment would walk around the facility. He measured that it was a mile, and he would try to do 100 pushups every other day, and that patient beat his cancer. He said: “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Everyone else was saying to take it easy, except my wife, who understands the way I am. Honestly though, there were days I went to the gym, sat at an apparatus that I wanted to use, and I’d be thinking: “I should not be here.” I was so weak. But I could ride the bike and I started riding it a lot. It was something to keep my body moving. Then, I had this tremendous recovery!
STRIPLV: That’s absolutely wonderful! Now what?
IRWIN: I’ll have to keep a check on it for the rest of my life, but I absolutely feel that there’s a much stronger correlation between exercising and fighting cancer than we’re aware of. It seems that all the attention
is on medicine, which it should be, it has to be. But I think exercise needs to be brought up equally to those levels. I was looking at people getting treatment, and you get so weak. It isn’t the cancer that does it to you; it’s the treatment that breaks your body down. I’m just one guy that had one type of cancer, but there are hundreds of other stories out there.
"I think the exercise saved me!"
Our bodies aren’t meant to be sedentary, and if they were, overweight people wouldn’t have all these issues. So, if you’re getting cancer treatment, how could just sitting there, not doing anything, be beneficial? There were days, not many luckily, where I could not get off the couch. Everything I had heard was about the chemo and how bad it would be. I was told my hair would fall out, and it would just wipe me out. Nobody talked about the radiation. It was the radiation on my neck that affected everything. I couldn’t swallow and I was gagging all the time. My wife tried many things. I said to myself: “When, not if, but when I get through this, I’m going to find a way to help people.” Some of the nurses mean well, but they just don’t understand. That thing about walking in another man’s shoes is true. Boy, I understand that now! When you walk in those shoes, I think those are the best people to help other people. If you haven’t been through it, you don’t understand. It’s really tough! Really, really tough!
STRIPLV: What were you told about diet? Were there certain foods to eat and ones to avoid, like sugar?
IRWIN: A little, but it didn’t work for me. My wife was the only one that seemed to understand and was trying to make me soft food with no spices and no flavor. To this day now, I don’t care to eat bread that they serve in restaurants, because it’s too dry and my saliva glands still don’t work to full capacity. For six weeks, it was just trial and error, and nobody knew how to help me. That’s why I’d like to try to help other people who’ve gone through this.
STRIPLV: Before you got cancer, did you eat everything or were you a vegetarian or vegan?
IRWIN: I ate everything. I ate what for most people would be a healthy diet. I was never a big spice guy anyway, so that’s not too difficult for me. I can eat a steak right now, but honestly, I’d prefer to eat salmon, because I know it’s better for me. Halibut, salmon, mahi mahi, fish like that are very easy for me to eat, and it’s better for me. If I read something that shows that radishes are good for your bloodstream or something, I’ll start eating radishes. My willpower is very strong. I think raw vegetables are like wonder drugs.
STRIPLV: What exercises are you doing now?
IRWIN: Riding my bike around the neighborhood. It’s not a strenuous workout. When I’m healthy, I run sprints and I push myself hard. But when I was going through my treatment, riding my bike was the perfect workout for me. It made me move my body just enough that I could do it. I’d just meet somebody and walk around the block. A lot of people would ask: “Let me know if you need anything.” What was I going to tell them, that I couldn’t eat or drink anything? Some days I felt like I couldn’t get off the couch. What I needed was someone to come over and clean the house, so my wife didn’t have to do it. I didn’t need anything, but it would take a load off of her.
STRIPLV: When did this tendency toward eating healthy start?
IRWIN: This started in high school, because I had started to put on weight the same time in life that my father did. One day, a girl I knew, wrote a note to another girl, saying: “Have you seen Chris? I can’t believe how fat he’s getting.” That note changed my life. I started running and doing whatever I could to lose weight. I started drinking diet coke and it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted, and then before I knew it, I couldn’t drink regular soda anymore. It felt like a glass of sugar. When I got this cancer, the acidity in soda was like poison to me. I couldn’t handle any carbonation at all. I asked my doctor if I could have gotten this from the diet soda and before I could finish my sentence he said: “There are no conclusive studies that show that diet soda causes cancer.” I have learned that cancer can be brought on by stress, according to the readings on the Internet and also my cancer guru said: “Absolutely! Stress breaks you down.”
STRIPLV: So this “healthy lifestyle” came from the girl that wrote the note saying that you were getting fat?
IRWIN: I’m exactly like my grandparents. My grandmother was in the movies in the chorus line as an extra. My grandfather was a stunt man for Errol Flynn. When you watch those old swashbuckling movies and Flynn draws his sword out and then they film him from the back—that’s my grandfather. They were a tough generation! The physical fitness gene skipped over my parents and went right to me. Somehow my parents are totally opposite: not active, overweight, every health problem you can get, self-induced from lack of activity. I have pictures of my grandfather doing handstands on the beach.
STRIPLV: You mentioned that you want to help people that were going through this.
IRWIN: I’m hoping to help people. I was asked to speak at one cancer therapy group, and it was highly rewarding for me. It was interesting because they had a nutritionist there to speak, as well. The nutritionist was talking about fruits and vegetables and antioxidants and everyone listened. When I got up and started to speak, you saw a dramatic change in the room. Suddenly here was someone who had cancer and beat it. I could look at these people and say: “I understand how you feel right now.” I captured the room’s attention in a way she wasn’t capable of. I was asked all kinds of questions and then people came up to me after. I hope that I gave some people their hope back; that they could get through it and maybe beat it. People want to know how I did it, and they could relate to what I had been through, because they were going through it, too. If you know someone who’s going through even remotely similar to what I went through…give them my phone number.
You can contact Chris at:
CancerCoachChris.com and CancerCoachChris.blogspot.com
RECENT ADVICE FROM THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY
In the past, people with cancer were told by their doctor to rest and reduce their physical activity, writes The American Cancer Society. This is good advice if movement causes pain, rapid heart rate, or shortness of breath. But newer research has shown that exercise is not only safe and possible during cancer treatment, but will improve muscle strength, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, happiness, and several quality of life factors.
In the fall of 2012, Mayo Clinic released a study that concluded that exercise is very important for the physical and mental well being of cancer patients. The report continues: “New research suggests oncologists are failing to properly advise their patients on the need for exercise, which some cancer organizations now believe should be part of standard cancer care. Exercising during and after cancer treatment can reduce the risk of dying from cancer, reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, boost energy and minimize the side effects of conventional cancer treatment.” Conventional doctors are trained to prescribe drugs, not exercise. “The fact that most oncologists overlook this vital aspect of their patients’ care is highly unfortunate, especially considering how most patients defer to their recommendations. Oncologists would be wise to develop relationships with personal trainers, and prescribe training sessions for their patients,” claims Dr. Mercola.
It can be difficult to be enthusiastic about exercise if you struggle with nausea, fatigue, and other detrimental side effects from the treatment. Sometimes fatigue can be so severe that it is good to rest temporarily, but rest for a while, and then try to do 10 minutes of light exercise every day. Moderate exertion is about as much effort as a brisk walk. Always check with your doctor and keep your cancer team informed on how you are doing with your exercise throughout your treatment. If you have a suppressed immune system, it is wise to stay away from public gyms and other public places.
According to Ciaran Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support: “Cancer patients would be shocked if they knew just how much of a benefit physical activity could have on their recovery and long term health, in some cases, reducing their chances of having to go through the grueling ordeal of treatment all over again...”