#FighterFriday: Unlocking Survival
Frank McKenna’s stage IV lung cancer diagnosis came as a huge surprise, but he never realized the tools he needed for survival were always within reach.

I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and I never smoked and never worked in any hazardous environments. I’ve been a fitness trainer for over half my life, so when I was originally diagnosed, it was a shock to me and it was a shock to anybody who knew me.

I was diagnosed in July 2016. At the time, I was teaching. I had taught for 36 years in the public school system and I had also been a personal trainer working in gyms since 1990. That spring, I [developed] a little cough. Just like a little tickle where I’d have to clear my throat when I would cough. I thought it was allergies and I went to the doctor and they thought it was allergies, so they gave me something for the allergies and something for my nose.

But in two weeks, I still had a little cough. I didn’t have any [other] symptoms except for a little cough. So I went back, and this time, they did a sinus X-ray and a chest X-ray which showed something in my left lung. It turned out I had fluid in my left lung and they drained it. They drained two liters of fluid and when they diagnosed the fluid, it contained cancer cells. It was totally a shock to me because I’m thinking maybe I have bronchitis, maybe I just have a summer cold.

When I did a scan after I had the drainage of the lungs, it showed cancer cells in both lungs as well as in my back, my hip, my thigh, my groin and my stomach. It had spread to all of these places which automatically made it stage IV. It was a shock to me.

When they did further testing, they found out it was a genetic mutation and started me on an oral chemotherapy. After three months, it didn’t work. The cancer spread to other places and where I originally had cancer, it had [grown]. It was getting worse.

A few months earlier, an oral chemotherapy was approved as a second-line treatment. And since I had started the first-line treatment and it was unsuccessful, I began the second-line treatment in December 2016.

From the second day, I started to feel better. And ever since then, I’ve felt better. I was able to put my weight back on. I was able to get my energy back. I was able to work again and just feel like myself again. I continue to take that medicine every night. Nothing has progressed since I started the second chemo. Everything was good and nothing was worse.

As a personal trainer, I had always eaten relatively clean. I always worked out. I’ve been working in the gym since 1990. I opened my own private studio in 2003 that I still have today. But when I developed cancer, I did a lot more research. One of the first things that I kept doing was to work out and to exercise. I felt the stronger I kept my body, the better off I was.

Numerous doctors, when I would see them, they would say, “You’re in incredible shape. Keep doing what you’re doing.” And it’s like, “Yeah, but I’ve still got this cancer.”

To me, it seemed like I needed to stay as strong as I could and I could do that through exercise. I knew what to do. When I wasn’t doing that well with the first treatment, my family at Thanksgiving 2016 didn’t think I would make it to Christmas because of my downward turn. I was still training people in my gym. I was still teaching. But I was exhausted. I could barely make it through sessions with clients or make it through the whole day. So when I started feeling better, I knew I had to stay in the gym.

My wife had said, “If this is all too much for you, maybe you need to get rid of the gym.” But I knew that working out was what was going to be able to help me and keep me strong. That next year, I retired from teaching but I kept my gym because I thought that is what would keep me going.

The more research I did, the more I learned different foods that could help you. How your nutrition could play such an important role. How to keep your immune system healthy. How you need to keep gut health through the probiotics. You need to keep your body running inside as efficiently as possible as you could. In May 2018, I completely cut out all sugars, all processed foods and went completely plant-based to eat foods that would give me the best nutrients. I never called it a diet because I never restricted myself on eating. I would eat whenever and whatever I wanted, but turned it into nutrient-based eating.

August 2018 was the first time I had scans with no evidence of disease. You always hope to beat this. You always hope to keep getting better. If they don’t find a cure, then I’ll beat it by continuing to live and not let it develop, not let it increase. When I first read “no evidence of disease,” it was very moving. It meant everything you had been doing was working and things are going great. My scans every three to four months since then have come back as no evidence of disease. So I’m just maintaining everything. I’m not showing anything. I don’t really have major side effects. And I just keep going.

I think that has helped me even with everything going on now with COVID-19. I feel fine. I feel great. And I know I’m more susceptible because of my lungs, but I feel like I have my immune system as strong as I can and my gut health is as strong as it can be. I’m tuned in, and through exercise and proper nutrition, I’m feeding my body to beat cancer. That is my goal, to eat and beat cancer.

I have learned a couple of things. First of all, you need to be your own advocate. Even though you have a team of doctors and a team of people working with you, you’re the one who has to take charge of your health, of what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to do. Getting sleep, getting relaxation, getting rest. Keeping healthy, keeping busy. Getting involved in projects that make you feel better. I had a sense that I needed to give back. When I started feeling better, I thought, “I need to give back.” I need to do something to give back to other people or try and inspire other people. I’ve spoken at a number of different events.

A year and a half ago, I became certified as a cancer exercise specialist. And I’m working with our local healthcare system to begin an exercise, yoga and wellness program this fall. It made me feel fortunate. Even though I have something, I can overcome it. This is how I did it and it may or may not work for you, but this is my story.



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