In a novel that fuses the riveting action of The Boys in the Boat with the emotional heft of The Fault in Our Stars, twenty cancer patients compete in a grueling race only to discover that real victory is achieved within.

A proud man humbled by his recent diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer and his past mistakes, Tripp Avery reluctantly agrees to coach a paddling team in a bid to win the Mixed Masters Dragon Boat US national championship. In his boat: twelve men and eight women who all have cancer diagnoses as debilitating as his. Eager to defy his prognosis and prove his worth, Tripp pushes himself and his team to physical and emotional extremes.

As the races begin in the Tennessee summer heat, four teammates’ extreme physical challenges stand out:

  • Sean Riley, suffering from advanced colon cancer.
  • Pat Selensky, whose life-threatening treatments for ovarian cancer test her passion to live.
  • Thomas Huger, ex-All-American college football player, coping with jaw cancer and a humbling dependence on a feeding tube.
  • Brooke Wyche, whose chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer have weakened her body.

After losing a critical race, Tripp doubles down, but his overbearing coaching brings Brooke to the point of collapse and sends Thomas to the hospital. Facing this crisis, Tripp must confront his own demons in order to help his teammates forge a comeback. But with Thomas in critical condition and the other paddlers flagging, the team’s chances to win the national championship are slim.

A debut novel that is equal parts thrilling and inspiring, THE FINAL VICTORY is the heart-wrenching story of twenty brave men and women confronting adversity, facing death, and striving together for the ultimate triumph.

“Cancer had stolen my teammates’ mastery of their bodies. But the dragon boat had restored our hope as the rulers of our lives. We were learning that perfect harmony can be made out of broken things and broken people. It would be the lesson of our lives.” ~ THE FINAL VICTORY

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Chattanooga, Tennessee
Friday, July 23, 2010
8:30 a.m.

I was sitting in a narrow, wooden forty-eight-foot-long dragon boat surrounded by nineteen other cancer survivors, ready for the race of our lives. As the sole cancer-survivor team in our division, our challenge to win would be a steep uphill battle. And as with my brave teammates, my own body was weak from recent high-­dose radiation treatment. We were a group of normal ordinary people attempting to accomplish something extraordinary. We didn’t come to win; we came to survive.

I was a successful former high school football coach, current businessman, and the coach of this gutsy team. To my unfathomable surprise, this audacious crew of men and women had become my new family.

The heat index in the balmy city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a hundred plus. It hadn’t rained for weeks throughout the entire South. As I looked up the boat at my teammates, I witnessed sheer determination. But I was scared. Had I pushed this team too hard? Their bodies were weakened by their malignant tumors and abhorrent treatments. Three full days of racing? Would they become overtaken with extreme exhaustion or, worse, severe dehydration?

A year earlier, we’d lost a teammate to this mad disease—cancer. Our grief was still raw. Had I made a grave error to convince this group they could win the national championship? Some of us sensed the walls of death closing in, and this competition could well be our final effort for a victory among the tribulations of our lives. Our yearlong training had been intense, and we were determined to win. Like the other dragon boat teams, we were trying to find the perfect combination of timing, power, and stamina. But unlike our competition, our training was interspersed with radiation and chemotherapy, so I prayed for strength.

I was fifty-five years old, an ex-college jock with a liver full of tumors. Otherwise, I was in perfect health. I’m sure other cancer patients feel the same. But bitterness ate at my soul. I didn’t deserve to have cancer. Why me? Somehow, I’d force this ravaging disease from my body.

I was competitive by nature and training. My personally prescribed therapy was to turn to the calming waters of the Charleston rivers. I felt lucky to wake each morning to a stunning view of the Cooper River and the spectacular cable-stayed bridge with its diamond-shaped towers that, for many Charlestonians, defined our hometown. Maybe it came about with my life-threatening diagnosis, but somehow my tumors made me more aware of the intricacies of my body, and I looked at things in a new way. The river, with its mighty current and ever-changing tides, seemed to connect my teammates like arteries connecting the body’s organs and muscles; when I paddled it momentarily freed me and my teammates from our terrible illnesses. Could a river bring healing? I hoped and prayed so.

Dragon boat racing is a two-thousand-year-old sport that originated among the fishing communities in southern-central China along the Yangtze River. The sport boomed as an international sport in the 1980s, with thousands of cancer patients becoming participants during the 1990s, as the sport was recognized for improving healing from the vile cancer treatments through physical exercise and team camaraderie.

Our crew of twenty cancer-ridden paddlers sat knee-to-knee in ten rows in this lengthy, slender canoe, ten paddlers extending their bodies heavily over the boat’s starboard side and ten over the port. A drummer sat on a small wooden seat at the bow, banging a cadence to synchronize and motivate the paddlers. A steersperson stood at the stern, using a twenty-foot oar to guide the canoe, finding the straightest possible path along the racecourse.

The weekend’s festival was a colorful celebration of life. Thousands of spectators lined the Tennessee River to watch. The boats were made of teak, imported from the Far East, and decorated with a mythical Chinese dragon head and tail. Red-and-gold decorative scales were delicately painted along the hull. Teams who had arrived from throughout the nation huddled together in strategy. Paddlers hugged in unity. Would their grueling training pay off?

Our team, the Dragon Survivors, was competing for the over-fifty mixed men’s and women’s national championship. Eight women and twelve men would paddle as one. We’d learned to feel the surge and the glide of the boat. We’d tapped into the canoe’s innate rhythm. The winners would earn the privilege of representing the United States at the International Dragon Boat Races in Hong Kong, China.

Twenty anxious paddlers crouched over the canoe’s gunwale with the blades of our paddles buried deep in the water. Our emotions dangled in suspense as we anticipated the starter’s horn. Three additional boats, in lanes separated with buoys, also intently awaited the signal.

There’s probably nothing scarier than sitting at the starting line of a national championship race. A voice shouted, “Ready, ready. We have alignment.” The words vibrated like a tsunami across the smooth water. The muscles in my shoulders contracted with tension. The horn finally blew, and twenty paddles forced through the water in perfect unison. Our drummer pounded hard to create the rhythm for our stroke and screamed, “Up, up, up!” Each paddler’s blade entered and exited the water like the melody of a great orchestra. The water boiled all around the sides of our highly decorated red-and-gold canoe.

I saw Sean Riley, two seats ahead, a tall, slender man, uncharacteristically grimace with each stroke he made through the murky violet-colored water. The filament within the muscles of his well-developed arms constricted. His stroke was badly out of sync. Sean, one of our team’s two captains, never missed a practice, and his stroke was never out of time. Suddenly he pulled his paddle from the water.

What was wrong?

The intensity of my stroke increased as I watched his face scowl in pain. His hand reached to his side. The custom-made belt that secured the pouch containing his colostomy and ileostomy bags had become loose. He held his paddle in one hand and miraculously pushed the bags back inside the pouch with the other hand. More astonishingly, he managed to tighten the belt one-handed underneath his shirt and resumed paddling.

Cancer had stolen my teammates’ mastery of their bodies. But the dragon boat had restored our hope as the rulers of our lives. We were learning that perfect harmony can be made out of broken things and broken people. It would be the lesson of our lives.

Charleston, South Carolina
Early Spring 2008

My office, located in downtown Charleston at the corner of King and Queen Streets, was my daily refuge, beginning at 5:30 each morning. I’d flip on the lights, make a pot of coffee, and raise my office’s window shade exposing the many magnificent glimmering church spires of the Holy City. My morning coffee provided me the opportunity to each day celebrate my wonderful historic port city.

The corner of Charleston’s two most historic and romantic streets was beginning to come alive. The brakes of a white-panel truck squealed as it parked along King Street. A husky driver exited and spit brown tobacco juice on the sidewalk as he raised the truck’s rear door. The strong aroma of freshly caught fish filled the dense morning air as the burly man delivered his captives, which had been swimming in the ocean only a few hours earlier, to the city’s award-winning restaurants. The redolence of ovens were cranking up to prepare the day’s savory lunches and dinners.

Thick humidity surrounded the tall church steeples and seemed to carry with it a graceful southern charm that bound the old celebrated and enchanted buildings. The then 340-year-old city, like the grand Southern magnolias, was blossoming for another gracious day. A brave young couple snuck into the dark, shady entrance of the ghostly Unitarian Church’s graveyard to view the centuries-old tombstones. The first sliver of sunlight slipped through my office’s window causing my wife Amy’s painting of Charleston’s Battery and its nearby park to glow, signifying the promise of a new day. The morning had begun just like every other satisfying morning for the past ten years. I reviewed my to-do list, checked email, and examined my company’s daily financial reports.

I’d dreamed since a young age of owning my own business. Growing up poor in a small South Carolina town dominated with cotton textile mills could permanently brand a young person’s psyche. Having to fight for money to buy groceries, not to mention good clothes, could make a person feel small and insignificant. My family, my friends, and I were disparagingly called lintheads. The authentic low-class white people of the South. Being raised poor and angry took a profound toll on most of my friends, as either crime or abject poverty would eventually destroy their lives. But my quest was to prove my worth to the world.

My parents, brother, sister, and I had lived in a five-room house hidden among several hundred identical factory-built homes. The indistinguishable houses surrounded a large three-story redbrick cotton mill, the source of employment and sustenance for our small isolated village. The only buildings that competed with the solid brick windowless and soulless cotton mill were the churches—all Protestant. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches dominated our little town. There was one small Catholic church and a tiny Jewish synagogue. Mill villagers didn’t necessarily dislike Catholics or Jews, nor did they seem welcome.

All day we kids played ball. Any kind of ball, it didn’t matter, except soccer. My dad said soccer was for sissies and Yankees. We’d play football until someone got hurt or broke a leg. We played baseball until some smart aleck hit the ball too far or into a grumpy neighbor’s yard. We’d shoot roundball until dark or when our mothers would force us to come home to eat dinner.

I wanted to learn to play the trumpet. My dad fiercely refused. He growled, “A boy who plays a musical instrument will be put into the school’s band. You’re going to play football just like me.” He preached with conviction, “The only future for a young man in this town is through football or baseball.” But football was elevated above all other sports. It was the proving ground where boys became men. Friday night high school football games attracted more worshippers than all the churches combined on Sunday morning, including the affluent First Baptist Church.

If you became a hero on the gridiron, were named All-State, or were recruited to play for a Division I university, your future in this town was forever cemented. No matter the course of the rest of your life, your pedestal would stand forever. Gods were created on Friday nights. I wanted to be a god.

Trendy clothes were scarce. A professional haircut even rarer. I wanted to fit in with the boys whose parents lived downtown on Main Street and not the rednecks and lintheads on the mill hill. I wanted to be like the rich kids, to strut and be poised like them—with confidence.

At night I’d stare out the small window of my tiny bedroom. Gazing at the twinkling lights of my mill village friends’ trivial homes, I’d wonder what we’d become as grown-ups. The rank smell of the mill’s fumes was a heavy cloud floating above our heads. A cloud that would keep us all poor and deprived—for eternity. Our destiny. My bedroom window was my portal to the world. As a young boy, I’d stand before it and dream. At times I was a rock star performing before thousands of screaming fans. Other times, a football hero who’d just returned a kickoff for a hundred yards.

As I stared toward the affluent downtown, I wished I’d been born to a rich man. To never again be laughed at because of the quality of my clothes or the size of my home, to never again be humiliated. My fear and sense of shame would vanish in the clear panes of my magic window. My hope soared. I’d enter that glorious moment when time stood still and all else disappeared. Minutes, hours would pass unnoticed. It was the moment of me and nothing else.

I never understood the magic of that enchanted window, but I felt its power—the power to be more and never again to be ridiculed. Nope, I was going to be somebody. That window gave me the hope and the strength to carry on.

My attention returned to the now-busy Charleston streets. I pivoted from my office window and slowly walked to my ornate cherry desk, sat in my large leather chair, closed my eyes, and breathed in the air of triumph. I’d founded a successful real estate development firm, which owned thousands of apartments. The company’s growth had exceeded expectations. Our developments were ahead of schedule, and funds were flowing. I employed a hardworking, committed team, and we loved our jobs. My prosperity was my validation and my passport into the country club society.

The noise in the office increased as my associates arrived to begin the work day. My development assistant, Linda, promptly delivered my firm’s monthly financial report, showing year-to-date revenue. The earnings were strong. I leaned back in my chair and placed my hands behind my head. I offered Linda a broad smile. “Not bad for a dumb-jock PE major.”

She returned the smile. “Tripp, you’ve come a long way. And to think you started with one tiny rental property you bought when you were coaching high school sports! Quite an accomplishment.”

With immense pride and elation, I said, “As they say, never despise small beginnings.”

“You should be very proud.”

“I’m proud because I refused to lose. That’s why I quit coaching. My players got soft. A bunch of mama’s boys. After ten winning seasons, I saw the writing on the wall. A losing season was on the horizon.”

Linda nodded solemnly. She knew the real reason I quit coaching, though we’d never discussed it. She’d had a son on the team, after all.

“But not this ole boy. I was in it to win it. So, I resigned, started my company, and never looked back.”

Linda started to leave.

“And speaking of satisfaction. Are the slides finalized for my Charleston Chamber of Commerce Businessperson of the Year acceptance speech?”

Linda nervously bit her lip. “They are.”

The volume of my voice increased. “Make sure they are in perfect order. I’ll not be humiliated in front of all these successful businesspeople.”

Her eyes darted away from mine. “Of course, I’ll double-check each slide.” She looked me in the eyes. “And, oh, I was really proud of our firm’s donation to the Susan G. Komen 5K race.”

I smiled. “Just felt like something we should do. Glad you’re pleased.”

Linda grinned and left my office.

The cleaning service had cleaned the previous night so the office smelled of fresh lemons. The cool aroma of my office, the fragrance of the spring jasmines blooming outside, and the clatter of my employees caused a serene peace to arise in my soul.

I wanted it to last forever.

But it didn’t.

My phone’s intercom buzzed.


Linda’s voice quivered with concern. “Dr. Simpson is on the phone. He says it’s important.”

I picked up the receiver.

The doctor’s voice was calm like nothing was wrong. “Mr. Avery, we have the results of the biopsy from your colonoscopy. We found a rare type of cancer in your intestines that has spread to your liver.”

My mind swirled. My thoughts were in discord. And Dr. Simpson seemed so calm. He must tell people every day they’re about to die. I couldn’t have cancer. It was only a routine colonoscopy. I was an uber-successful businessman. I had mountains to conquer.

Dr. Simpson’s voice cracked. “The cancer is rare; about one person in a hundred thousand is diagnosed with this type of cancer. These specific kinds of growths are called neuroendocrine tumors, or more commonly labeled as carcinoid cancer. The good news is these tumors typically grow very slowly. We call it the good kind of cancer.”

My thoughts were in chaos. My knees weakened with fear. Spread to my liver. Would I die? Was this doctor crazy? I exercised daily! I ate healthy—vegetables, fruits. I didn’t smoke and wasn’t overweight. I’d lived right, made good decisions—how in the hell could I have cancer?


Carcinoid cancer? The good kind of cancer?

My voice rattled with anger. “I’ve never heard of a good kind of cancer. Can this good kind of cancer kill you?”

Dr. Simpson lowered his voice as if to be reassuring. “All cancer is serious. And yes, it can kill you. Have you experienced any flushing or diarrhea?”

My mind flashed to the bar about five years earlier, where, as I sat with my buddies, sipping a beer, my neck, face, and head burned hot and turned beet red. “Sure, my face gets hot and red when I sip wine or swallow some beer. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”

“These tumors secrete abnormally high levels of hormones, especially serotonin, which cause those symptoms, although your odds of survival are good if we treat you immediately. These tumors need to be removed as soon as possible. I’ve referred your case to a local surgeon, and his office will be in touch later today. I’m confident all will be fine.”

All will be fine? “Odds of survival are good?” This doctor had just told me I had cancer. All was not fine.

I had to ask the question. “What’s the survival rate?”

Dr. Simpson hesitated. “It’s hard to say but many people live a high-quality life for at least five to ten years—some more. Let’s get you scheduled for surgery. Then we’ll know more.”

I’d closed numerous multimillion-dollar deals and didn’t break a sweat. But I couldn’t stop my hand from shaking as I hung up the phone. Five to ten years. I’d just turned fifty. I’d planned to live a lot longer than five to ten years.

I didn’t remember walking past Linda or riding the elevator from my fourth-floor office. I couldn’t recall walking onto King Street. I just walked. Everything appeared to be the same as the day before. But nothing was the same.

Berlin’s clothing store on the corner of King and Broad Streets hummed with customers. I kept walking. People smiled and laughed as they browsed in the picturesque downtown Charleston stores. I stumbled on Broad Street’s ornate sidewalk where a grand oak tree’s root had forced a bluestone tile to rise several inches above the rest. I regained my balance. But my mind continued to swirl at a dizzying pace.

Traffic was congested at the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets, the section of the Holy City the locals call the “Four Corners of Law.” A massive federal building stands on one corner, the county courthouse on another, the ornate Charleston city hall on the third corner, and, representing the land’s highest order—God’s law—St. Michael’s, one of the nation’s oldest church buildings, at the fourth corner.

I stared at the sky above the white brick church. I seemed be standing on a windmill, with my body spinning, and stopping only for a second to allow me to view each of the four iconic buildings. I started walking. What law said I had to die at fifty-five? Sixty? What law had I violated? No law. I couldn’t die. I wouldn’t. Dr. Simpson must be wrong.

I loosened my tie and unbuttoned the collar of my heavily starched white shirt. I smelled the odor of my sweat. I felt droplets of moisture drip off the leather necklace I always wore.

When I stopped walking, I found myself standing next to a thick black steel cannon at the edge of Battery Park. It faced Fort Sumter, which was strategically located in the middle of Charleston Harbor, the site of the beginning of this nation’s bloody Civil War. The incoming tide of the Cooper River pulsated toward the large solid concrete battery wall.

I’d hoped to see a colony of ibises, the beautiful white birds with long beaks that turn downward, flocking nearby. Since moving to Charleston, it seemed my sighting of these graceful birds brought good luck and hope. But I saw no birds, only the sun reflecting off the rising water.

I watched the oscillating currents gush where they desired. The river appeared to have its own mind, consuming the earth with each throbbing movement. The river gave life and took life. Like the lifegiving blood that flowed through my body. Except now that blood slowly transported deadly malignant cells. Cells that wanted to kill me. Would cancer consume my body and devour my organs? What irony awaited in the subtle depth of the river’s water—and in the flow of my blood. My fate, like the tide, was being enacted by a force beyond my control, on a seemingly unstoppable path.

I stepped onto the high battery wall. I raised my arms to the heavens. The glistening water began to quiet and stand still. It was now slack tide, the moment the tide reverses its direction. My eyes focused on the tranquil water, unable to blink. The tide was turning.

I sat on a bench and pulled my leather necklace from underneath my shirt. At the end of the necklace hung a small chunk of brick wrapped in burlap. As I closed my eyes, I saw my father, a broken man, harshly presenting me this tiny piece of insignificant masonry. I could still hear the anger and shame in his voice as he firmly placed it in my hand. “Son, never forget the anger of your humiliation. Wear your anger like this necklace around your neck. Protect your bitterness, as it will become your wall of protection against your many enemies.”

As a young boy ,I looked down and away from him, not understanding his words. He slapped me hard across my face. “Look at me, boy,” he demanded. “Do you hear me, son? Never let these bastards get to you. Never let go of your anger as it feeds you.”

I observed the river’s current beginning to flow out toward the sea. The last few minutes seemed like lifetime. A shock wave, an explosion, was building within my chest. My breathing grew shallow. It became difficult.

Was the tide in my life changing?

One week later

I had been prepped and sat almost naked in a small, cold chair, wearing only a flimsy, pre-worn but clean and backless hospital gown, in a small presurgical room surrounded with white cloth curtains displaying a pinkish floral pattern. For an instant, my brain relaxed, thinking a dire mistake had been made—a sadistic joke—that I really didn’t have cancer. But I was ready to go. Let’s get this show on the road.

My wife, Amy, sat in a similar chair next to me. She is small in frame, five feet, two inches tall, but huge in character. She’d never faltered in her strength since that dreadful “you have cancer” phone call from Dr. Simpson. When I got angry, she’d assured me all would be well. As my frustration grew, she’d encouraged me to continue searching for the right doctor for an answer. When I awoke at night sweating from a dream where I’d died, she’d hold my head close to her breast and calm my fears.

There were days I questioned the existence of God. But I did believe in miracles. Amy and I had met in college, went on one date, and were never apart again. I was confident a greater power knew the wife I needed and led her to me. So, I guessed I did believe in God.

She must have sensed my thoughts of her as she placed her hand on my leg. “You look calm.”

I was afraid but kept that fear to myself. “I’m calm when you’re with me. Thanks for being my wife.”

She smiled and kissed me.

I’d combed the internet, trying to discover every bit of available information about this “good kind of cancer”—carcinoid. I’d researched neuroendocrine tumors, or NET, as they are also called. I’d learned that folks diagnosed with this rare form of cancer were called zebras as each patient’s disease is idiosyncratic. Diagnosis with many patients was difficult, often delayed, as physicians had little experience or training with the disease in medical school. In fact, medical students are taught the expression, “When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.” NET is rare; so doctors often searched for other, more common diagnoses when presented with a patient expressing NET symptoms.

So now I’d become a damn zebra. And, just as no two zebras have identical stripes, no two NET patients have the same type or location of tumors. Many have their origin in the small intestine, as mine had, while other common areas are the lungs and the pancreas. From these seemingly simple beginnings, they could spread anywhere in the body, but most commonly they loved to make their home in the liver.

Through the opening of the curtains, I saw sick people lying on gurneys and exam tables. I heard hospital workers talking medical-speak, a language I didn’t understand. I felt like I was in a foreign country even though the hospital was only a few blocks from my home.

My surgeon pulled back the cloth drape and smiled, seeming surprised to see my expression of calmness. He was a short, well-built man with a neck as thick as an ox’s. His voice was a deep bass, and for the fifth time, he explained the procedure and asked if I had any questions. I assured him I was ready.

He told me he would remove my primary tumor, affected lymph nodes, the tumors in my large intestines and additional ones in my small intestine, along with several feet of my colon. He doubted he could remove the liver tumors as they were too many and too large. I just wanted to get these wretched invaders out of my body and start living my life again.

He shared that the death rate from the surgery was extremely low but not zero. Infection and bleeding could be possibilities. I didn’t like hearing the words death rate. Amy flinched and began to cry. It was her first display of fear; she wanted to be strong. I was in the good hands of a brilliant surgeon in an excellent medical facility. But this procedure would be more dramatic than I expected.

The nurse strapped me on the gurney. I felt like the great river of my life was facing a winding bend, and my life would never be the same. I handed my necklace with the chunk of brick dangling from its end to Amy. The nurse attached an IV bag that began dripping its magic potion into my arm, and a peace transcended my thoughts as she rolled me to the operating room. I drifted into a deep sleep, hearing a male voice counting backward from ten.

My next memory was waking in a stiff bed, covered with only a white sheet and freezing. My abdominal area was pounding with pain. I excruciatingly lifted my hospital gown to inspect the damage. A red, inflamed incision that looked like the tracks of a Union Pacific railroad coursed my gut from two inches below my belly button to the lower tip of my rib cage.

Damn that’d make a great impression when I walked shirtless on the hot sands of Folly Beach. But who cared; I was alive!

During surgery a tube had been rammed through my nose and down my throat and was still there. I gagged and tried to spit it out but couldn’t. My throat throbbed with pain. That’s when I realized this plastic cylinder ran all the way into my stomach to empty its contents. I could barely breathe. This was an extreme invasion of my body, one I’d not bargained for.

My mind raced with fear. My sense of well-being was gone. I felt like I was in the middle of a nightmare, free-falling from the sky, wildly flinging my arms and legs. The worst-case scenario raced through my mind. Did the surgeon remove all my tumors? Did he cut my liver open? Would I ever breathe normally again? Would I be able to run my company or see my children become successful? Scary thoughts slung through my brain like boomerangs.

When I gathered my senses, I recognized Amy as she patted my forehead with a cool, wet washcloth. I struggled to speak, as the tube inhibited my voice. “Tell me about the liver tumors. Did the surgeon remove them?”

She smiled and continued rubbing my forehead. “They could not be removed, just too many and too large. But he’s confident you’ll be able to live a wonderful, normal life.”

For some crazy reason I didn’t believe her. I don’t know why because she never lied. But I didn’t. I turned to other family members who were there with us. I asked the same question to my oldest daughter. Same answer. I didn’t believe her either.


Maybe I was too scared to believe. I desperately wanted to live a normal life, to walk my daughters down the wedding aisle and to be my son’s best man. I wanted to grow old with Amy.

I looked at my mother-in-law. I knew without a doubt—she never lied. George Washington had nothing on this woman. She could not tell a lie. She’d taken notes of the surgeon’s comments.

“You tell me and I’ll believe it,” I said, gagging.

She slowly pulled out her notepad and read: “Successfully removed the primary tumor, all affected lymph nodes and several feet of the small and large intestine. All tumors were resected except the ones in the liver. They should grow slowly, and Mr. Avery should expect to live a long life.”

My head collapsed onto my pillow. I could hear music streaming through the hospital’s hallway. Smooth jazz saxophone, playing “You Are My Lady.” The panic rushing through my body subsided. The throbbing pain in my gut eased for a few moments. I managed another deep breath of relief past the devious tube that assaulted my throat, touched my brick necklace, which lay on the table next to my bed, and closed my eyes.

My attentive nurse periodically interrupted my sleep the rest of the day to place her ice-cold stethoscope on my stomach and listen for gas—an exciting experience.

Later that evening, I awoke as she was changing the bag on my IV drip.

“And what’s your name?” I struggled to asked.

She smiled. Her smile was bright and seemed to capture pure joy. I needed some joy. My hospital room was a better place when she smiled. “Brooke Wyche. Do you feel any pain, Mr. Avery?”

“Only when I cough, sip water, move, or basically lift my eyelids.” Yes, I felt pain.

She placed her hand on my forehead. “You had quite an invasive surgery. Just press the morphine pump when your pain is unbearable.”

Her words were soft and peaceful. Small lines radiated from the corners of her eyes and edges of her lips. She carried herself with dignity and was quite fit. She must have exercised regularly. I figured she was around fifty.

“I don’t think this damn morphine pump works,” I growled. “I’ve been pressing it all afternoon.”

She managed a small laugh. “The morphine is metered so you won’t overdose. But I promise the pain will ease through the night. Just let us take care of you.”

I wanted to believe her encouraging words but wasn’t sure I could. I was in the hospital, a despised place and one I never wanted to be. And I didn’t like having to depend on anyone, much less a person I’d just met.

On the second day of my delightful hospital visit, my surgeon removed the brutal tube from my throat and showed me scans displaying where he’d removed several feet of my intestines and then reconnected the whole mess. He told me I’d be in the hospital for seven to ten days. He said it’d take that long for my intestines to regain proper function.

I committed myself to staying no more than four days. He told me walking would help my bowels start working again. So, I walked. And I walked. Around the nurses’ station every hour. At first, Amy had to assist me by holding my arm. But by the evening I walked by myself, pushing the silvery bag hanging from the IV stand. My nurse, Brooke, with whom I had begun to develop a relationship, laughed at my determination.

My room possessed a westerly view of the Ashley River. The sunset was magnificent. The evening sky was on fire, with bold purple and orange colors reflecting off the clouds. I imagined I could reach out my window and hold the golden hues in my hand. The brilliant scene soothed and relaxed me like one of Amy’s encompassing hugs.

As the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, Brooke entered my room. She sat down, which I thought was a bit odd since she’d been moving nonstop throughout her shifts. “From reading your file, I understand you’re an ex-coach.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Yeah.”

“And you look to be in good shape.”

“I work out.”

She slid to the edge of her chair. Her words were soft but direct. “I read in the paper you recently made a generous donation to the Komen run. Thank you for your support.”

“You’re welcome.”

She stared at me—quiet. Something was on her mind.

She finally spoke. “I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ll learn my course of treatment soon. You have a particularly unusual kind of cancer. If you don’t mind my saying it, I can tell how worried you are. All day, for some uncanny reason, I’ve felt compelled to tell you about a group of people who have helped me face my dark days.”

“Yeah,” I said, realizing I had raised the right side of my lip—my autonomic response when I’m not sure I want to continue a conversation.

But her face possessed a genuine glow of sincerity. “The group is called the Charleston Dragon Boat Club. Most of the paddlers are cancer survivors, just like you and me. Without them, I would have been lost.”

“What is a dragon boat?” I asked.

“It’s a forty-eight-foot narrow canoe that holds twenty paddlers. It’s rather majestic.”

“Like rowing?” I asked.

She seemed to relax and smiled. “No, each person holds a paddle, not an oar. It’s an ancient Chinese sport that dates back over two thousand years. I’ve never been athletic and was highly skeptical, but after my first practice, I was hooked. I thought that you, as an ex-coach and a cancer survivor, would relate.”

“What hooked you?” I’d always drawn upon an athlete’s motivation in my coaching.

“The fact that anyone can do it, even someone like me. All I needed was my drive and desire to be well. And it’s a sport of people working together and not one of isolation like running. I believe you’d like it.”

The buzzer in her lap vibrated.

I rested my head on my pillow and grimaced with pain as I raised my arms above my head. A signal I routinely used when I was ready to end a conversation. “Well, I need to get out of this place first. I’m just looking forward to a majestic bowel movement.”

She laughed. “It’ll happen soon enough. We paddle on Saturday mornings in the Ashley River. Think about giving it a chance. It’s changed my life. You may be surprised.” She closed the door as she left the room.

I smirked.

I had no intentions of getting into a long, narrow boat with twenty amateurish, unhealthy losers and flipping over in the rushing tide of the Ashley River.

On the third day, Brooke beamed as she firmly pressed her stethoscope against my belly. “I hear rumblings,” she said.

“Excellent, that means I can go home.”

“Not until you have a bowel movement.”

“Great, now my life now revolves around a trip to the bathroom.”

“Yes, it does,” Brooke said as she patted my arm. “I brought you a book to read about the sport of dragon boating. It was written by our coach, Jamie Barker. My email address is on the back cover. Message me when you get home. I’d love to introduce you to my wonderful teammates.”

Although we’d only known each other a few days, Brooke and I had developed a rapport. I wanted to learn more about her disease. I was reluctant to ask questions, but a small voice told me I should.

“Are you doing okay with your recent diagnosis?” I asked.

She gave a long, slow sigh and stood still. Her eyes, crystal blue like the Caribbean Sea, penetrated mine. “I’m scared to death. Of dying, having radical surgery, losing my hair, and especially of being demeaned by looking like a freak. You’ve probably never experienced those kinds of insecure feelings.”

Little did she know that even before my diagnosis, I avoided, like the plague, every situation that could have the smallest potential to place me in a humiliating position.

I felt awkward. But I understood how she felt. I rarely opened my thoughts to anyone but Amy. But for some reason I felt comfortable talking with Brooke. “Could I share my experience?” I asked.

Brooke sat down. “Sure.”

“When I was first diagnosed, I constantly worried about dying. I’ve never been particularly religious, but I began praying. Just give me time, Lord. Please allow me to see my daughters married, play with my grandchildren, that sort of thing. And I thought having cancer was damned unfair. I had friends who’d had affairs, ate like hogs, never exercised . . . and I’d lived right. I mean, come on! Why didn’t they get cancer?”

Brooke laughed.

“I immediately went through the stages of grief that Kübler-Ross describes, starting with denial and anger. Recognizing these emotions was key, as I can bite off the heads of a lot of innocents in a heartbeat. I tried to channel my anger, although I wasn’t always successful. I began driving aggressively to my office while listening to extremely loud music. Stupid? Yeah. But I had to deal with my aggression and anger before I arrived at my office and eviscerated all my employees.”

Brooke shook her head as if she could relate to every word.

“And then I started bargaining. Okay, God, I’ll go to church if you cure me. I’ll stop swearing and do good-Karma things. Anything. Just cure me. It didn’t work, so for a brief period I went back to stage two—anger. It felt good, and I’m pretty good at it. But after a few days, I finally gained some insight: all I could do was the best I could do. Denial be damned. So, I let the anger go.”

Brooke stood and gave me a hug. “Thanks.”

Little did she know I’d never opened up like that before to anyone other than Amy and would probably never do so again. And I’d never totally let go.

She firmly instructed me, as she left my room, to immediately inform her if I passed gas or had a bowel movement. I determinedly assured her she’d be the first to know when this great miracle happened.

While dwelling on having a bowel movement and getting the hell out of this hospital, I forced myself to do a little reading. This sport, dragon boating, did look interesting. I read of a legend about an old Chinese patriot and poet who was banished by the Chinese king for having too much power with the people. The poet drowned himself as hundreds of local fishermen raced in their boats in an attempt to save him, to no avail. They beat their drums and splashed their paddles in the water to prevent the fish and water dragons from eating his body.

And this woman wants me to do this sport? But I kept reading and found inspiring comments from seemingly normal people who had participated.

“We all work together as one.”

“The perfect race is rewarding.”

“It lets you escape.”

“Each individual athlete and the team, as a unit, must fuse their physical, mental, and spiritual parts.”

And another woman’s comment was consistent with Brooke’s: “Dragon boating has totally changed my life.”

Several people called the experience “a celebration of life.”

Unusual comments from participants of any sport. Maybe when I’m well, I’ll check it out, I thought. It might be fun watching these bunches of amateurs splash around in the river.

The morning of day four arrived, and I felt an urge. My stomach growled. I slowly stepped with trepidation into the bathroom. Eureka! A bowel movement. And—it was exciting. In fact, I was so excited, I immediately pulled up my pajama pants and ran out of my room, down the hallway, and to the nurses’ station. As I made my grand appearance, I yelled, “I had a bowel movement!”

Three of the four nurses on duty began laughing, but Brooke looked alarmed. In my excitement rushing to their station, I’d ripped out my IV; all she could see was the blood spurting from my arm and onto the hospital’s floor. Brooke hurriedly reinserted the damaged IV, cleaned the blood from the floor, and informed the doctor of my moment of triumph.

That day I went home.

Stories of people in extraordinary situations

“If you say, “Okay, this isn’t so bad,’ or even better, “hey, this is pretty cool,” and live in the moment, you can do anything. Getting cancer is better than winning the lottery. If you get cancer, you know who your friends are. If you win the lottery, you are never sure. If you get cancer, you appreciate every day as a gift. If you win the lottery, you blow your time and money. If you get cancer, you take the time to really focus on your life and what it means. If you win the lottery, you can lose yourself. So, if you look at it that way, I’m a very lucky man.” ~ THE FINAL VICTORY