Cancer, Jiu-Jitsu, and a Lesson in Persistence

Tienes que ser persistente,” my mom always said. “You have to be persistent.” She drilled this phrase into my head while I was growing up. Little Nelson having trouble tying his shoes? Keep trying. Math is hard? Keep working. Can’t beat dad in chess? Don’t give up. I heard this phrase repeated to myself and my sister millions of times over the years, and now my mom has started using it on my nephews.

As any kid would, I hated this. I assumed that none of my friends had their mother repeating the importance of persistence over and over, so why did I have to keep trying? Couldn’t I just give up and try something else?

In October 2011, I was in Atlanta at Alliance HQ for an instructors’ workshop. I was going to stay an extra week to train and then fly to California for No-Gi Worlds. I had been training hard for it, motivated by a first round lost at Gi Worlds the June before. I wanted redemption.

That Wednesday, I got a call from my mom. She hadn’t told me the doctors had found something during her last check-up. A biopsy confirmed it was breast cancer.

I had to sit down. In her usual way, she told me she didn’t want me to come home. She wanted me to go to my tournament. She didn’t want the attention or to be a burden. Despite her protests, I caught the first flight home and was sitting at the oncologist’s a few days later. I still remember the doctor telling us the diagnosis: stage 2B breast cancer. While my sister, father and I were processing this, my mom was the first to react. She said “Let me know what I need to do, because I will not die of this. This set the tone for the rest of her treatment, it was gonna be a battle and she was ready for it.

My dad owns a truck company was still on the road. My sister was on her last year of post-grad. So I became my mom’s chauffeur and went to everyone one of her chemo and radiation therapies. I would teach my morning class, take the drive to the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, bring her home, make sure she ate something, and go teach in the evening. Despite the gravity of the situation, my mom still encouraged me to compete. She insisted, so I planned to compete at Pans. I registered, booked a flight, and a few days before I left, my mom got really sick during one of her chemo treatments, she needed to be hospitalized. After some tests we got news of her white blood cell count.

It was at zero.

Tienes que ser persistente,” she said. “I’m going to beat this. You go to your tournament.”

I refused, but she made me promise to compete in the next east coast tournament.

After a few scary days of uncertainty, she pulled through. Her blood count returned to normal and was allowed to return to her normal routine.

A few weeks later, the New York Open rolled around. This my third time competing in it, and prior to my mom having cancer, the only thought I had about the tournament was that I had lost my first round by advantage my year and lost in the semis by 2 points in the following year. Close matches, for me, hurt more than having to tap out or getting dominated by points. I think it’s something about feeling so close to victory and questioning whether or not I could have given just a little bit more to turn the tide.

But not competing was never really an option. After all, “Tienes que ser persistente.”

I took gold that year (proudly holding a Tap Cancer Out t-shirt on the podium). That win still means a lot to me, but after being at mom’s side during her battle with cancer, the meaning of most of the things in my life has changed. Competition is still important to me, except now I see it more as a test, do I still have the persistence needed to get on that podium? Can I get through a grueling 6 week camp of double sessions? Can I battle through few 10 minute matches?

My mom is done with treatment and is back to her usual self. She truly is one of the toughest ladies I know, and every time I think about quitting anything, I hear her voice in my head.

Tienes que ser persistente.” Always.

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