Mike Christenberry has a unique view of gratitude
Longtime local is marking 40 years as a cancer survivor
Many of us this time of year think about the things we’re thankful for. It takes Mike Christenberry a while to get through his list.
Christenberry turned 60 this year. He’s also marked 40 years as a cancer fighter and survivor.
Christenberry is a bit of a legend in oncology circles. Put simply, there are all kinds of reasons he shouldn’t be here, and it’s thanks to internal strength, a strong spirit and some remarkable, innovative medical care.
Christenberry was not yet 20 when he received his first cancer diagnosis in 1981. It was supposed to be a simple thing. Christenberry was young, strong and didn’t fit the model of a “cancer patient.”
For the next 13 years, cancer was in Christenberry’s rear view mirror. By the 1990s, Christenberry had moved to Colorado and was running triathlons, ski racing and living his life.
One day, his right leg swelled up. He had it checked, and went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a three-hour surgery to remove a tumor. During what became a 14-hour surgery, doctors “re-wired my right leg’s circulatory system,” he said.
The doctors and nurses on the surgical team worked “extra hard” to save his leg, Christenberry said.
“I keep in touch with that vascular surgeon to this day,” he added.
Keeping in touch with doctors, and maintaining a positive attitude has served Christenberry well.
“I found that the more pleasant I was, the longer (doctors) stayed in the room, and better information I’d get,” Christenberry said.
After that incident, Christenberry’s life returned to a semblance of normal, but now with a level of uncertainty and a certain feeling of indestructability. He’d beaten cancer twice by the time he was in his 30s, after all.
In 2007, Christenberry was married, with two kids, then aged 6 and 4. A routine scan found spots on his liver.
“This was a new motivation with a much deeper need to move through things.”
The report from the doctor wasn’t good. There was cancer in his liver, colon and other spots.
Doctors in Colorado were talking about two or three surgeries and perhaps two years of chemotherapy. And there were no guarantees. There never are when it comes to cancer.
A childhood friend had a connection with a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was admitted days later for a single surgery and six months of chemotherapy. There, he was implanted with a pump that can deliver chemotherapy at a rate 100 times what is possible with intravenous treatment.
Doctors here were able to monitor Christenberry’s health, making sure he was safe in Colorado.
But the cancer had taken a toll. The disease got into Christenberry’s abdominal muscles. The muscles on his right side were replaced with a sheet of GoreTex fabric.
“Now I have a three-pack,” he quipped.
Christenberry has also fought lung cancer, more than once. Rather than conventional surgery, the doctors at Sloan Kettering used a technique called ablation to remove the cancerous tissue.
“Other doctors have insisted that you don’t do ablations on lungs,” Christenberry said. “I just smile quietly.”
Smiling through life
Christenberry smiles a lot these days. But he’s always made sure to smile, even when life looked precarious, at best. He was a Buddy Werner youth skiing coach even while taking chemotherapy treatment.
The idea of gratitude and giving thanks is a constant. Beyond medical professionals, there’s also a host of family members and friends who have supported him over the years, from donations of airline miles to meals to just hugs and held hands.
“Everyone who walks into (my hospital) rooms, with good news or bad, gets greetings and salutations,” he said.
“Frustration, anger and sadness are inevitable, but you move forward,” he said.
These days, with a number of clear scans in his recent past, Christenberry is grateful, and wants to share that feeling with others. He’s taught meditation, and has counseled people about mindfulness.
Now single, and with both his kids in college, it’s now time for more forward motion.
“I’m going to redefine myself,” Christenberry said. “I’m redefining the person who spent months in a hospital bed, taking chemotherapy and radiation … that person deserved to be recreated.”
It’s working, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that left Christenberry unscathed. There are opportunities to get out socially, to take in live music.
And Christenberry has a wealth of advice for others on similar journeys.
“Remain positive, and listen to your doctors,” he said. “Do it with all sincerity, because (doctors) stand a better chance of listening to you.”
Not many people survive the way Christenberry has. That’s why he counts so many doctors as friends, especially in a field where long relationships with patients are rare.
As life in his 60s unfolds, Christenberry continues to live as he always has.
“You just keep going down the trail,” he said.