Jiu-Jitsu Did Not Save My Life

The following is a guest post from Greg Cappello, a purple belt of Ken Brach MMA Voorhees. Greg is the father of four children. As a lifelong educator and martial artist, he merged the two when he started the National Award-winning Martial Arts Character Program at a City School. A former English teacher and school principal, Greg is currently the Superintendent of Schools at West Deptford School District. Greg is a second-degree black belt in traditional Japanese Karate under Sensei Steve Montgomery at Full Circle Martial Arts in Marlton New Jersey.

Here I am — smack dab in the middle of the Cradle of Liberty. In the very city that brought us the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, and the pinnacle of freedom: the cheesesteak.

Yeah, I’m here, nothing new. I was born here. I live in nearby South Jersey, but coming into the city, although not my favorite, is still fairly common. But this day, I’m not here for an Eagles Game, a field trip with one of my kids to Independence Hall, dinner with my wife, or to train at World Famous Team Balance Headquarters. This day, I am here to have a nine-inch needle stuck in my neck. Twice. I’m in a room at Penn Medicine with an
endocrinologist, a radiologist, and three pathologists. It’s intimidating — the only time I’d seen more than two doctors in a room was during depositions when I briefly worked as a medical malpractice lawyer. This day was shaping up to be just as painful.

The endocrinologist, the only one who I know, is a wonderfully caring woman. Middle-aged. Motherly. Super accomplished and top of the field. I’m 6’0″, 215lbs. I’m wearing jeans and a jiu-jitsu t-shirt. Probably all of my t-shirts are jiu-jitsu shirts. With my shaved head, tattoos, and current look, the doctors are probably more inclined to think I’m a member of a motorcycle club than the Chief School Administrator of a high-performing school district. And somehow, the endocrinologist knows to treat me like a six-year-old getting a shot. She explains everything. She tells me it will be uncomfortable, but it will go quick. She says the needle has to go in twice to take cell samples. Twice. Twice?! I expect that she is going to tell me if I’m good, she’ll give me a lollipop.

She obviously knows I’m downright scared. Scared of the needle. Scared of the five doctors. Scared of showing fear. I doubt there are many tough guys in that room.
She pierces me with the needle. She gets the cells. She does it again. It’s not the worst. It’s not the best.

The doc is caring and sweet. She knows how this is going to go. She explains that the pathologists are going to look at the cells. They will be back in a few minutes and we’ll talk. She says that they may have to do the tests over again if they didn’t get the right cells. So I lay on the table and wait. Well, more specifically I lay on the table and look at Instagram. Gordon Ryan and the Death Squad are getting ramped up for ADCC and it’s a
whole lot of interesting posts. Lots of entertaining fun. More than a few minutes go by. I watch a few videos on MMA Online and check out a slick Jeff Glover back take on Instagram. Still no docs.

After a long half hour, in comes the doctor. Just one. Just the endocrinologist. And I
can see it on her face. She knows. Now I know. We just have to get through the conversation.

She tells me it’s cancer which was no shock based on her demeanor. Which is exactly what someone in that situation wants. The last thing you want is the doctor bursting and saying, “You have cancer” like they don’t care at all. My doctor has a serious, concerned look, in a caring way. ‘Hopeful,’ if that is a look, is how I would describe it. “The good news,” she says, is that it is very treatable.”

“Well, that’s good,” I remember thinking. She describes the treatment process for papillary thyroid cancer. She says I have two tumors on my left thyroid, one big and one small and one on my right. She says my whole thyroid will come out in a fairly simple procedure, that I will have to take a pill for the rest of my life, and I will have yet another cool scar. “You will be fine,” she tells me, at least three or four times. I remember thinking that I don’t know much about this, but it doesn’t seem terrible. I’m a little overwhelmed, but it seems like I’ll be fine.

The doctor told me to call one of the surgeons from Penn Medicine. I called and choose a highly rated, Yale Medical School trained oncological surgeon. No question, the best doctor at the best hospital. I remember thinking about how it will not be easy to tell my wife or dad. I remember thinking that I don’t like taking medicine. And that this may not work well with my training. I was not sure who to tell. After all, my dad had a serious form of cancer for twelve years before he finally told me. Also, I had just been accepted a
new job. I was waiting on board approval which was happening within the next few days. So I decided to tell a few people who I trusted. It was somewhat disappointing. Most of the people I told said that they knew someone who had it and it was no big deal. In fact, almost every single person had a brother, cousin, ex-wife, friend, or roommate who had the same thing. And each one was alive and doing great. Probably a dozen stories of the same thing.

Good news, right? Simple operation. Take a pill. All is good. What could go
wrong? Many people thought it was just not going to be a problem. It made me pause a little bit. I thought about the possibly fictional, possibly historical decision making maxim from at least one action movie — the 10th Man Principle. It states that when nine people agree on a topic, the tenth must disagree for the sake of being thorough. It seems like a pretty logical idea. And I felt like the 10th Man.

Only two people really seemed concerned about this surgery. One was my instructor, Team Balance School Owner Ken Brach. As a Marine Special Forces sniper who saw combat, there’s no question Ken does not take life and death lightly. He was very concerned. In fact, I told him for two reasons. One, he’s a great, caring friend who puts his soul into his friendships and academy. I knew he would be a great listener. Two, because I needed to let him know that I would be out for a while, and I knew he would want to know what was up. As I thought, Ken was very upset and vowed to help me fight every way possible.

The second person who showed a ton of empathy was my other instructor JP Calvieri of Hassett’s Williamstown School. JP had tragically just lost his mother within the last month to cancer and I could tell it was still very much affecting him. JP was seriously concerned also. We talked about what the future looked like. Both friends were great.

And so the time came and I went for the surgery. I again crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge and fought with Schuylkill traffic, parked, and made jokes about my wife’s bad driving. She wasn’t as excited about my jokes as she usually was — I’m usually known for my hilarity. I could feel it wasn’t going to be the easy surgery that everyone told me it would be. I had a late scheduled surgery, and I didn’t get there until the afternoon. I had a heavy coffee withdrawal headache and was downright irritable. My wife and mother-in-law were with me. They were and are great. They know what was going on inside my head. Thoughts of our four kids. Thoughts of possibilities. Thoughts of things going wrong. And it probably wasn’t lost on them that my own mother had passed away from cancer almost exactly twenty years before. It was a tough day.

The routine was pretty similar to any other operation. The IV, the anesthesiologist, the walk into the operating room. I’ve had quite a few operations, going back to knee surgery at age one. Going under, I remember thinking about my mother and how much I wished she were still alive.

When I woke up in the recovery room, I knew something wasn’t right. I heard a nurse say, “We need to reinsert an IV. Greg, you ripped out your IV. We have to put a new one in.” They didn’t get it right. A half-hour later, they did a third one. Things weren’t making sense. My wife came in with her mom. I heard a lot of talking. And my shoulder ached like hell. It was like I got keylocked and didn’t tap — brutal. The rest didn’t hurt much. The doctor came in and looked concerned. She explained the cancer had spread and she did the best she could to get it all, but she didn’t think she did. She said the one and half hour surgery went six hours. They would send the removed cells out for tests to see what was going on. I was out of it, but I remember thinking, ‘Just a simple operation.’ But I knew better right from the beginning.

So why write an article to submit to a jiu-jitsu magazine about all of this? There are a lot of reasons. The first is that it’s been good to get it on paper. Writing it down has helped a lot. Second, I should have known. The signs were there, as I was once wisely told. And I don’t listen, which I was also told. Jiu-jitsu people are a rare breed. Those who make it more than six months or a year, really fall into a close-knit fraternity of crazy people. And it’s a marathon. With any marathon, however, there is pain. And a lot of ignoring the pain — pushing through in spite of the issues. That’s what I did.

Many years ago, it started with a mystery cold that came on once in a while. It got more frequent. It started coming on once a month and lasting longer. I had trouble breathing. I got tired for no reason. But I kept going. I kept training. As a school administrator and part-time attorney, the father of four kids, and up until recently, academy owner, I pushed hard. I was up at 5 am two days a week for class. I trained two to three nights a week. I worked long days and still made it to the gym to condition. It was a lot and I thought I wore myself down because of the schedule.

While the grind helped my mind, but my body was suffering and I didn’t listen. I should have gotten checked. I went to the doctor a couple of times, but I accepted the easy answer. Bronchitis or mono or whatever they told me. I even had a thorough physical by a super doctor a couple of weeks before my cancer was found. The truth was that I didn’t listen to my Instructor Ken Brach. He always says, “Listen to your body.”
Ken is very big on working within the confines of injury, sickness, and physical limitations. Plus, Ken runs a super non-judgmental academy. Ken’s students include competitors and MMA fighters, a 68-year-old blue belt who won gold at NAGA, a 13-year-old who has only one leg, and a variety of veterans who have many different physical and mental issues.

I was inspired by the people I trained with and thought that I would let everyone down if I slowed the pace. I was wrong, and I know that.

My point in all of this is that it’s great to train in jiu-jitsu. It’s great to have a jiu-jitsu family. It’s great to gain confidence, lose weight, and learn a fun self-defense method. But none of that matters if you ignore what’s most important: your health. It’s no
fun going to the doctor. It’s no fun being out. For most of us, rest is not fun. But for yourself, your family, and your future, it is imperative that you take the time to listen to your body. Listen to it when you feel good and listen to it when you aren’t feeling well.

I doubt my doctors thought that a healthy 40-year-old like me would have an advanced stage of cancer. They know my schedule and training — I seemed healthy as a horse. Take the time to discuss how you are feeling when something doesn’t seem right. And don’t always trust the opinion you are getting. Sometimes, you will get great opinions from doctors, sometimes not.

The tumor was big — my doctor was shocked that I didn’t feel a lot of pain. I don’t remember — I may have. I’ve forgotten a lot of pain. In jiu-jitsu, we do that every time we hit the mats. It’s not always a good thing. The silver lining for me is that my wonderful wife and family are super supportive. I’m also learning more and more about who my friends are. And while “jiu-jitsu did not save my life” is a pretty catchy title, it’s not like it was the fault of jiu-jitsu or anyone else for that matter. I try to take responsibility for everything in my life 100%. I believe in Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership. So I’m going to own this. And although I am feeling like there are 100 other things that are pressing, I am looking forward to my future time on the mat.

One of my favorite lines from a movie goes like this: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Jiu-jitsu helps us exceed our limitations. Let’s make sure we exceed our perceived limitations, but let’s be smart about it. Train strong,
smart, and healthy.

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