Stories of Hope
How Martial Arts Helped a Testicular Cancer Survivor
Article date: January 13, 2009
"Attitude is so, so important, There were some very dark days going through chemotherapy. Everything is failing. You can't eat. You feel miserable. You have no energy. And you've got to be able mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to get through that. "
Michael Veltri has been teaching aikido in Washington, DC for 8 years, as the Chief instructor of Okinawa Aikikai, U.S. Dojos. He first began studying this Japanese martial art while stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps in southern California. Fluent in Japanese, he then trained in Japan for 10 years.
The physical and mental conditioning he developed during the course of all that training served him well when he faced his greatest challenge, cancer.
Says Veltri, "Marine Corps boot camp was physically tough, but where most people would crack would be mentally. It's the same thing in the martial arts. You have to have that mental discipline. And that's what helped me during all aspects of my recovery, my treatment, and even now."
'I'd Never Been Sick'
It was April 2003 when Veltri noticed a lump on his right testicle. "It wasn't large. It wasn't painful. It just wasn't right. It felt hard and I waited about a week to see if I pulled something in training."
When the lump didn't disappear, Veltri made an appointment to see a urologist, who ordered a blood test and CAT scan. The blood test confirmed a testicular tumor. Fortunately the CAT scan showed no spread of the cancer to the rest of his body.
The diagnosis came as a surprise. "I'm very attuned to my body," Veltri says. "I have a very healthy lifestyle. I'd never been sick a day in my life before I got cancer."
Surgery was immediately scheduled for the next day to remove the testicle. Then he had monthly CAT scans as part of the follow-up. In July, the scan revealed that the testicular cancer had spread to his left lung.
A Difficult Course of Treatment
Radiation was not a good option for Veltri's type of tumor, so from July through October, he underwent intense chemotherapy treatments.
Since his doctors couldn't be completely sure whether the shrunken tumors contained any live cancer cells, they recommended surgery to remove them. At the beginning of November 2003, Veltri had half of his left lung removed and spent the next 2 months recovering from the invasive and debilitating procedure.
"You're talking to a guy who's a professional athlete, and then I was stuck in wheelchair," he says. "You had to learn to reuse your entire body all over again. You had to learn how to use your lungs again. It was a very painful procedure."
By the end of December, Veltri was able to take his first jog and was busy getting his body back on track. He was checked every 3 months for the first 2 years. Now he has CAT scans once a year, sees his oncologist every 6 months for blood tests. He just passed his 5th anniversary of completing treatment in November.
His Road to Recovery
Since 2004, Veltri has volunteered with ACS's Road to Recovery, driving cancer patients to and from chemotherapy and radiation appointments. Most of the patients had never had a cancer survivor drive them, he says, so that was a positive bonding experience.
Each spring he also volunteers for Daffodil Days, one of the American Cancer Society's oldest programs to raise funds and awareness to help beat the disease.
"I wanted to give back," he says. "I've always been a service-oriented person – whether that was serving my country in the Marine Corps or serving the community by teaching martial arts."
Veltri enjoys connecting with other cancer survivors through his volunteer work and teaching aikido. "If people have never gone through it, it's hard to relate," he says. "Talking to other cancer patients was very therapeutic for me."
He credits a strong network with helping him through the recovery process. "I couldn't do it by myself," he says. "I relied heavily on family and friends."
Attitude Is the Key
He also relied on his martial arts training. Dealing with the uncertainty of waiting for test results can be debilitating – if you let it be, says Veltri.
"Aikido teaches us to blend with your situation," he says. "You're not going to beat it up. You're not going to try to be stronger than it or faster than it. Instead of worrying, you just try to find a way of living in harmony with it, instead of trying to fight it."
Knowledge is power, says Veltri. He read Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, and did other research on his disease.
For Veltri, the key to survival is your mindset. "Attitude is so, so important," he says. "There were some very dark days going through chemotherapy. Everything is failing. You can't eat. You feel miserable. You have no energy. And you've got to be able mentally, emotionally and spiritually to get through that."