by Milan Ristic

On the door of a hospital in Belgrade, there’s a sign, one I saw every day as I went through chemotherapy.

It’s written in Serbian, but it translates to this: a healthy man wants everything, but a sick man only wants one thing.

Nowadays I know the truth in that, because for the past year I only wanted one thing: to be free of cancer.

The endless appointments with doctors and specialists, who all seemed to have a slightly different opinion.

The fear of having a testicle removed, of having to sign a form before surgery to acknowledge that, yes, if something goes wrong, I’m aware I could die.

The nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, of seeing every last strand of your hair fall out, of spending your days hooked up to IV drips, hoping the medicines will kill the cancer before they kill you.

Going from a world-class athlete, a 27-year-old in the prime of his life, to a weak, frail, exhausted person who has to wear a protective mask all day, his immune system so weak that a sneeze from a passing stranger could prove fatal.

Yes, this was my reality, an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

And guys, if you don’t read any further than this, please heed this advice: check your nuggets, your testicles, for anything unusual, and do it now. Whether it’s at home or with your doctor, as awkward as it might be, trust me: you don’t want to go through what I went through.

Milan Ristic during his cancer treatment (Milan Ristic)

It was the start of February last year when I checked mine, feeling this one little knot about the size of a pencil-tip.

It slipped through my fingers and I couldn’t find it again. It’s probably nothing, I thought, but three days later the whole testicle had swollen and half of it was as hard as a rock.

It was a couple of weeks before I properly got it checked at a cancer clinic near my home in Asheville, North Carolina. After the ultrasound scan a doctor called, saying it looks like testicular torsion. That makes sense, I thought, because months earlier I picked up an injury in that area when doing power cleans in the gym.

Weeks passed by without worry, but by April other symptoms showed up. I called my doctor, asked for another appointment, and we scheduled a CT scan. 

I soon got the call to say it looks like a mixed tumour, a blend between aggressive and benign cancer cells. I showed the results to my friend, a doctor, who told me straight out: “This is not looking good.”

Somehow, with all this going on, I was still running quite well. I won the Grenada Invitational in 13.53 and, a few days after being told I had cancer, I was back on the start line at the Drake Relays, even though I was feeling nauseous and had already puked a few times.

I googled my symptoms, which made me freak out. Of the 10 symptoms of testicular cancer, I had every last one. 

At the Drake Relays I was rooming with Mike Rodgers and I got a fax with my blood test results. I read them in my room and the levels were off the charts. My beta-hCG level, a hormone in the blood that is a marker for cancer tumours, should be 0.5. Mine was 369, about 700 times above normal.

I asked Mike what he thought, but even though he knew it wasn’t good, he tried to re-assure me. If it was that bad a doctor would have called, he told me.

I put it out of my mind, ran my last race of the season at Drake, whacking a hurdle but still running a solid 13.60 to finish fifth.

Two days later I was scheduled for surgery. The hospital called to say it would cost $20,000. That’s fine, I told them, because by then I had no choice: do the surgery or I was going to die.

But something felt wrong: I didn’t have full faith in the system because of the way I was mis-diagnosed initially.

I wanted another opinion, so I gathered my results and sent them to the national team doctor back in Serbia, who told me to get back there as soon as possible, that they had found someone who would do the surgery in Belgrade. My federation scheduled it at a private clinic that same week, promising to cover all the costs.

It’s usually a simple operation of about 30 minutes, but mine was more complicated because they were concerned about cutting muscles I use for running. As I was sitting, waiting, with so many doctors coming in and out of the room, I started to get pissed and said: “Just do the surgery, I understand I’ll die if it goes wrong – I just want this thing out of my body.”

I woke up sitting on the side of the bed, my vision blurry. I asked the doctor when we were due to start and he told me:“You’re done. Go ahead and walk to your room.”

In the days after, my beta-hCG level began to drop until, after 18 days, it was back to normal.

There was no more cancer in my body. 

Milan Ristic during his cancer treatment (Milan Ristic)

But here's the thing about this disease: you’re never done with it. You just never know. It’s like the hurdles – unpredictable. It’s Russian roulette.

After surgery, my doctor said the choice was mine about doing chemotherapy, that it wasn't essential but that it could act as an insurance policy and kill any cancer that was left over. A lot of people told me not to do it, that it will destroy my body, but I left the decision to my doctor, asking what he would do in my shoes.

Let’s do it,” he said.

Chemo takes longer for testicular cancer than most other cancers. You’re hospitalised for a week at a time, hooked up to an IV for 12 hours a day. Years before, I watched my aunt go through chemo, seeing how much it weakened her before she passed away, so I knew what to expect.

You sit there and the nurse brings all these bottles. One was wrapped in aluminium, with neon green signs and caution labels all over it like a toxic substance. I smiled at her: “Really? You’re putting this inside of me?”

That first week, my only side effects were headaches, but the worst kind imaginable.

I’d go home for two weeks then back to the hospital for a day of infusing a different medicine that targets testicular cancer, then another two weeks at home and then another IV – then repeat the cycle again.

But I had to be hospitalised a couple of extra times to get a booster for white blood cells. My immune system was trash so I had to be in an isolated room, not having contact with anyone in case I got an infection, which would be deadly.

I tried to stay positive. It was three months of hell, but I told myself this was something worth fighting for: my life, my family, my wife, our future kids.

I couldn’t give up.

But chemo – it kills everything in the body that grows or multiplies. Cancer cells, hair, sperm cells.

Because of that, I had to ensure a way for my wife and I to still have kids. Before chemo I banked sperm and she harvested eggs and, while we still want to conceive the natural way, today we have 12 fertilised embryos as a backup plan if we can’t.

With chemo, you just never know what it will do to your body.

The first cycle had weakened me, so the second hit me twice as hard. I lost all my hair, lost 15kg, and anytime I tried to eat the tiniest bit of food I would vomit. Every 20 minutes I got up to puke, and my white blood cell count dropped to 0.07 – the death zone.

Milan Ristic during his cancer treatment (Milan Ristic)

In those darkest moments, you realise who cares about you.

My wife took three months out from her job in the U.S. to spend every day by my side. My parents, my sister – they visited every time they were allowed. My coach Joel Williams, my agent, my federation – they were in touch all the time, seeing how I was.

It’s times like that you understand the true value of athletics. It truly is a family.

I didn’t tell many people in the sport what I was going through – I only wanted to go public when I was fully, finally, cancer-free.

But those who knew would reach out, my former training partners and fellow hurdlers: “You’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

I really appreciate what they did for me. Although I always tried to be a warrior, a lot of times I was struggling, only able to sleep and without any energy to talk. But people are just so happy to see you doing better, especially when your life is on the line.

When you go through something like this, the easiest thing to ask is: “why me?”

I’d think back to my first appointments, how if they had diagnosed it correctly then I wouldn’t have had to do chemo.

Why me? I’m a good person, I didn't deserve this.

But that’s the wrong attitude. Cancer doesn’t choose people.

There was a line from Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden, that stuck with me. He spoke about his own cancer and said: why not me?

There’s no reason it can’t happen to any of us. I wish I didn’t have to go through it, but somebody’s got to.

For those going through it, or who know someone going through it, the key is to stay positive.

Think about the future, and don’t beat yourself up that you could have done something to change it.

You’ve got to trust the process, just like training. No matter what your treatment is, believe that it will work.

And you can’t ever give up – when you do that, everything goes downhill.

I finished my second cycle of chemo at the start of August, flying back to the U.S. when the European Championships were getting under way in Berlin. I wanted to be there so badly, but all that mattered was that I was cancer-free, able to plan for 2019.

I started training again in November, and man, it was rough. My body was so weak. I’ve never sweated so much from ordinary tasks. I’d cut the grass for 15 minutes then have to come inside and lie down, exhausted for days.

But by December my energy started to return, and we resumed training with the overall load at 80 percent of what it was.

These days, I’ve got all my muscle back, but my condition is not quite the same. I’m 87kg now, and I still have a good 5kg of fat to lose before I'll run well.

But eventually, normal life resumes. It has to.

Milan Ristic celebrates his birthday after beating cancer (Milan Ristic)

I’ve gone back to my two jobs: I coach at a local high school in Asheville and work as an events assistant at the University of North Carolina.

It’s the school where, all those years ago, I first met my wife Meredith. It’s where I first arrived as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, leaving home with barely any English to start a new life abroad.

And it’s where, all going well, I’ll launch the second phase of my career. It's a slow journey, but I'm working every day to get better, to leave this disease behind and look ahead to another Olympic Games next year.

People sometimes ask: “Did cancer change you?”

The answer is yes.

I’m a much more chilled person now. Something's broken in the house? No big deal. Stuck in traffic? So what. The little things don't annoy me the way they did before. 

And now, after 12 months out, I'm ready to get back racing. I'll run my first race at the Grenada Invitational next week and, while I want to run well, it's not the end of the world if I don't. 

After the past year, I know I'm lucky just to be here. 

 

 

Testicular cancer is the leading cancer in men aged 15 – 44. It is 95% curable when detected early. For more information and prevention visit testescancer.org