At some point, we've all had the icy grip of cancer reach down our throats and pull out everything we hold dear. Whether that's after hearing of a family member's diagnosis, your own, a close friend's, your wife, husband, son, daughter; it's tough to find someone who has escaped the horror clutches of hearing about the disease.
And for all our ocean-going brothers and sisters who are experiencing such a difficult time -- we feel you and it is never easy, but don't give up hope. Baltic lensman Krzysztof Jędrzejak may be a name you're familiar with. He's responsible for one of the greatest collections of surfing images out of Poland in decades (hell, maybe even ever) which we featured on these humble pages a few moons ago. He's also our go to when the semi-novelty Baltic flares up, capturing the best Polish session we've ever seen, here.
Forecast: Baltic Sea
A little while back, Krzysztof was diagnosed with cancer, stage 4 lymphoma – which means the cancer had spread to an organ outside of the lymphatic system. Specifically, it had spread to Krzysztof's liver, spleen and bone marrow. Needless to say, the prognosis wasn't so hot.
But the then 32-year-old is ever the optimist and opportunist. Before settling for rounds of chemo, he jetted to Lanzarote to score a few waves – much to the scorn of his loved ones. “I know it was a crazy idea and my family wasn’t happy at all,” he tells MSW. “ But this was the only way not to freak out.” He needed to “speak to the ocean”, he says.
During chemo, Krzysztof pinned images of waves to his hospital wall, ones that meant something to him, photographs he'd taken that acted as a reminder of what's outside. And when I ask him specifically about that, whether he feels surfing saved his life, he says: “Definitely! I’m always comparing my battle to wave riding. You have to be well prepared, paddle strongly, get up on your feet and ride it 'til the end.”
Here's how it all panned out (including a letter of inspiration from Mick Fanning).
MSW: First off, thank you for opening up about this. There are surfers all over the world going through something similar and I think sharing your story can help people, in some small way. So, when were you diagnosed and what were your initial thoughts?
KJ: First, thanks for inviting me to share my story here on magicseaweed. I’m sure there are many surfers all over the world going through something similar and I hope that my story will give them strength and hope for the happy ending.
I was diagnosed with lymphoma at the beginning of 2016. Lymphoma is a blood cancer developed from lymphocytes. That was a huge shocker for me and my family. First we thought that it’s sort of a mistake. Me, 32-years-old, involved in sport from the early ages...It’s impossible.
What sort of symptoms did you have?
It all started with feeling constantly tired, fever, drenching sweats and dry cough. I thought it was a strong flu but, at the same time, I felt that there was something more happening in my body.
I was weak and decided to go for a blood test. I sent it to my doctor immediately and she said that it doesn’t look good. I felt really bad and going for an emergency appointment was the only solution.
They did lots of research and tests. A Tomo Computer Scan showed a pulmonary embolism. From that moment I knew that it’s freaking serious. At the same time it was... the second chance at life, because most people with thromboembolic events such as pulmonary embolism won't live long enough to even know it. [Ed's note, approximately 1-2 per cent of cancer related deaths are caused by pulmonary embolisms, these are clots that cut off blood to the lungs]
What did the doctors say? And how did that impact you?
After a week in a hospital I felt much stronger. I was sure that it was only a short episode.
When my lymph node and bone marrow biopsy results came back, I was appointed to the hematology department. Doctors said that there is no doubt, it’a stage 4 T cell lymphoma that is already in my lymph nodes, liver, spleen and bone marrow.
At that moment I was paralysed and freaking scared
It all made for a poor prognosis and I needed to start the treatment as soon as possible. At that moment I was paralysed and freaking scared. I started to ask myself; “what if I’m not going to see my family again”, “what if I’m not going to be in the ocean again”, “what if I’m not going to be…”
The only one thing that didn’t match everything was my good condition. All the symptoms were already gone. Maybe it was a kind of a defence reflex, but I was sure that it was one big mistake and I needed to start living every day like there’s no tomorrow.
So, rather than going for treatment I decided to book a flight to Lanzarote to speak to the ocean. I know, I know, it was a crazy idea and my family wasn’t happy at all.
But this was the only way not to freak out. So, together with my wife, sister and my best mate we went for a week to the Canary Islands. We had a special time surfing, laughing, and hanging together. Just living here and now.
I know that was the best decision I could have made. That was also the moment when I started to listen to my body very carefully. After I came back from Lanzarote, I went to see the doctor.
I couldn’t tell that three days earlier I had been having a great time getting punched by the Canarian reefbreak. At the meeting, the doctor said that they weren’t sure about the diagnosis and the results were sent to US and double checked. They changed the diagnosis from T cell to B cell transformed Lymphoma which turned the prognosis to... much better. It’s hard to say that I was happy, but it all made me ready to face what life was bringing to me.
Cancer terrifies people, what advice would you give for people who have just been diagnosed?
That's really hard. We’re all so different and react to these kind of problems in our own way. The only decision I made instinctively was to make it 'public', I mean, to share it with people from the beginning.
I know that there are many people who hide it even from their families. It’s so personal, I don’t judge. What I know is If I hadn't shared my problem with the world, I couldn’t ever know how many great people I have in my life. There’s also one more important thing about sharing my story - that it may give hope to the people who are still battling. I know how important it is to hear that someone has made it through.
As surfers, we want to be in the water all the time. How did you get through the chemo process?
Well, the plan was simple. Six trials of chemo with the monoclonal antibodies to kick this ugly fucker’s ass. The most important thing was that I could spend most of that time at home living almost a normal life.
For these six months I was working, surfing, taking photos, hiking the mountains and giving surf lessons. The only thing that reminded me of disease was my bald head and another chemo trial.
For all that time, my immune system didn’t exist at all – and there was one moment where it almost killed me
I was sure that all would be good. At the beginning of 2017, after the whole treatment, bad news came. Control PET scan showed that the chemo didn’t work and the cancer was still in my body. I was devastated.
It wasn’t meant to be like this but I had to hold on to that strength, to keep fighting. “There is only one way to make it”, the doctor told me. “Three trials of high dose chemo finished with an auto stem cell transplantation.” Sounded serious... and it was serious.
Those were the hardest moments of my life. I spent a few months in hospital. I felt the chemo destroy my body. I lost more than 20 kilos. For all that time, my immune system didn’t exist at all – and there was one moment when it almost killed me.
How did surfing help your mental state?
It helped me a lot. Imagine the moment when you’re leaving the hospital, and for the birthday gift, you get a printed email form Mick Fanning himself sending you the best wishes and words of encouragement!
I’ve always admired Mick, not only as a surfer and three-time World Champion, but mostly as a great human being.
I was crying like a baby when I saw it and I still have no idea how my friends and family got this email. So sick! I received so much support from people. All I can say from here is thank you to my wife, my family, friends and the whole Polish surf community. It means a lot to me.
Cancer fucking sucks. We all know someone who has been impacted, who is going through something similar. What kept you fighting?
I’ve made a lot of friends in the hospital, I’ve seen a lot of stories and not all of these stories had a happy ending.
Staying positive sounds trivial in this case but we have to try to mobilise our physiques, and body, with positive thoughts.
Kind of a mantra. Mine was to see my family and friends, to come back pursuing my passion for surfing and photography. Looking at surf photos I'd stuck on the wall near to my hospital bed, that also gave me a lot of positive energy.
Everyday I was visualising my dream of myself standing on the snow covered beach in the Arctic and watching the northern lights. Six months after I left the hospital, this dream came true.
Surfing means so much to so many different people. I guess for you, it was literally something that helped save your life...
Definitely! I’m always comparing my battle to wave riding. You have to be well prepared, paddle strongly, get up on your feet and ride it 'til the end.
It would be much harder to go through it if I hadn't had surfing in my life. On October 5, 2017, I was transplanted with the new stem cells. Now, I've celebrated two-years cancer free. I keep my fingers crossed for the surfers all over the world who are battling cancer. Waves are the best medicine... so keep paddling warriors!
I have one more important thing to say to all healthy ones... I was lucky I could have auto stem cell transplantation, but there are plenty of people who are waiting for their genetic twin.
It means that they need to be transplanted with stem cells from others. It’s so easy to register at your local bone marrow transplant centre via a foundation called DKMS which can be found all over the world. It costs nothing, doesn’t hurt at all and you can be chosen as one who may give others a chance for a new life.