Too Sick Not to Train: When Training Is a Tribute to Hope

Cj Swaby


Strength and Conditioning, Wellness

This article is a tribute to hope.


The kind of hope that eludes us when we think we need it most. The kind of hope that props us up when our foundations give way, at that moment we're ready to fall apart.



When I talk about being “too sick not to train,” I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill flu, head cold, or stomach bugs. I'm talking about the kind of earth-shattering illness that throws your whole world off-kilter.


If you are reading this and are currently facing health challenges, I want you to consider that you may be too sick not to train. In fact, your life may depend on it.


I’d like to share with you one of the most powerful case studies I’ve come across. A story of testicular cancer that will make you question why you train.


Fitness, Health, cancer, men's health, sickness, lifting, mental toughness

In 2012, Sid broke the USA national records for the squat, deadlift, and total.


Sid's Story

  • Sid, aged 22
  • Competitive Powerlifter
  • Competes in 100% Raw Powerlifting in the IPF and OPA, at the 93kg class.
  • In 2012, at age nineteen, broke the USA national records for 100% Raw Powerlifting Federation for his age group, for the squat (500lb), deadlift (565lb), and total (1340lb).


Lifts prior to diagnosis of testicular cancer:

  • Squat: 525lbs
  • Deadlift: 600lbs
  • Bench Press: 305lbs
  • Total: 1,430lbs


Personal History

Sid got into powerlifting back in high school, around sixteen or seventeen years old. Prior to that, he lifted weights (upper body exercises only), had an unhealthy relationship with food, and spent more time running than resistance training. At the time of diagnosis, Sid had a foundation of approximately five years of powerlifting.


I asked him to tell me about his experience:


I got diagnosed with testicular cancer in mid-October 2014. When I was diagnosed, I was in disbelief. Here is this guy, otherwise healthy, non-smoking, 21 years old, exercises four to five times a week, no family history of cancer, beginning his master’s degree in exercise science, and he gets this bomb dropped on him.


So I got an ultrasound done, and it turned out to be cancer. The following Tuesday, I got the testicle removed. I was warned off lifting for around six weeks, and based on my pathology report, I had a fifty-fifty chance of being cured from the surgery alone. I made my comeback to the gym on December 1st.


Shortly thereafter, one of my tumour markers began to increase, meaning these cells were beginning to spread. I had to begin three rounds of chemotherapy lasting a total of nine weeks. The chemo finished on February 17th, 2015. Fortunately, I was still in the fairly early stages of the disease and cure rates were over 95%.

Prior to chemo, I was aware that one of the top complaints of cancer patients during treatment is fatigue. Moreover, having done my undergrad in Kinesiology, and whilst pursuing my masters in Exercise Science, I was aware of the power of exercise in mitigating fatigue in cancer patients. Exercise for cancer patients has been shown to improve appetite and mitigate muscle loss, as well as improve psychosocial function and quality of life.


Exercise is medicine, even for cancer patients. That was my motivation to continue to powerlift. Surprisingly, during the first four to five weeks of my chemotherapy, I was still gaining strength that I had lost from my surgery in October. Weeks six to nine and even a couple weeks after my final chemo, my strength gradually declined. Now that I am six weeks post-chemo, my strength is around 90-95% of where it was pre-diagnosis. I imagine in two to three months I should be at my prime.


Fitness, Health, cancer, men's health, sickness, lifting, mental toughness

From Sid's Instagram: "Week 5/9 of chemo, fatigue is present, as hemoglobin levels are below normal, tough to focus at times, seeing stars, but not an excuse not to train!"


Transform Weakness Into Power

Sid already had a solid foundation in specialised training. He educated himself about his condition and questioned the medical professional. If he hadn't, who knows if he would still be alive today? When it comes to your medical condition become a subject matter expert. Be bold about asking questions.


"To put into context how much strength and/or work capacity dropped: pre diagnosis, I hit 10,000lb of deadlift volume doing 4 x 500lb x 5 with ease. During chemo, I hit 3,000lb of deadlift volume doing 3 x 500lbs x 2 and I was winded.”

Did he ignore the advice of all medical professionals? No. Indeed, he told me that his oncologist was totally supportive. Knowing that Sid had done his research, his oncologist simply stated, "Listen to your body."


Knowledge is useful. Correct knowledge applied in the right way is powerful. There is now a large body of research on different types of cancer recovery and exercise. Everyone responds differently. Do your research. However, bear in mind the research is often on general populations rather than on athletes.


I was curious to find out exactly how Sid had modified his training. He told me:


I train by tracking volume as my main modality to progress on, so I had to modify my weekly volume during chemotherapy. During chemo I did fifty percent of what I would have done pre-diagnosis. For example, let’s say pre diagnosis my goals were 10,000lb of deadlift volume, 7,000lb of squat volume, and 3,000lb of bench press volume for a given week, I would periodise my programming based on those tonnages.


During chemo I performed fifty percent of those numbers - 5,000lb, 3,500lb, 1,500lb - and gradually increase my volume weekly. To put into context how much strength and/or work capacity dropped: pre diagnosis, I hit 10,000lb of deadlift volume doing 4 x 500lb x 5 with ease. During chemo, I hit 3,000lb of deadlift volume doing 3 x 500lbs x 2 and I was winded.


Sid explained what made him so determined to exercise, despite these setbacks:


Most of the scientific, peer-reviewed research papers are on breast and prostate cancer patients. Generally speaking, the literature supports that exercise is beneficial for cancer patients pre-, during-, and post-treatment, whether it be aerobic or resistance training. Anecdotally, whenever I would exercise, it made me feel normal, gave me energy, and improved my quality of life.


I wanted to make the whole process of getting chemotherapy more manageable by continuing my workout regimen. Surprisingly, my exercise adherence was 100%. I trained four times a week. By doing so, I avoided the vicious cycle of being sedentary, then becoming tired, then becoming more sedentary, more tired, and so on. There were a handful of days where I was “out of it” going into my workout, but at the end of it, I felt better. During my treatment, nothing made me cringe more than hearing something like “I’m so tired”, or “I don’t feel like working out”. It still makes me cringe to this day.


The whole experience was humbling to say the least. You learn a lot about yourself, how strong you are not only physically, but mentally as well. You realise how important family and friends are in supporting you, and giving you an extra hand when needed. You begin to appreciate the smaller things. For example, going to a shopping centre or riding a busy subway. During treatment I was advised not to do such things in order to protect myself from getting sick as I had a weakened immune system, and such activities could have been life threatening.


Fitness, Health, cancer, men's health, sickness, lifting, mental toughness

From Instagram: "Good news, everything is normal, and I am 3 months cancer free, woot. In celebration, above is 5 x 515 x 3 (last set), 10lb post chemo PR, 30lb away from the all time PR.


Why We Train

I’m sure some of you may be thinking, "Yeah, but my condition is different," or, "But I don't have friends who are medical professionals.” And you are correct. Do what you can, with what you have, and start where you are now.


"During my treatment, nothing made me cringe more than hearing something like 'I'm so tired,' or 'I don’t feel like working out.' It still makes me cringe to this day."

I have worked with stroke patients who clearly comprehend that despite the aftermath of their condition, they must train to improve their quality of life. I have also worked with clients with cerebellar ataxia who have no hope of getting better. Yet they still train. Why is that?


It is true training can improve or alleviate certain medical conditions. But sometimes the training itself, or better health, is not the goal but the illusion. In our relentless search for meaning, it is what we learn about ourselves, a reclaiming of our power, and our ability to claw back some stability in our world that has devastated us.


We train so we can become better today than we were yesterday. To affirm that we are still here. To affirm that we chose life.


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