Having A Chronic Illness Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have An Amazing Life

Five things I learned from a remarkable athlete who also happens to have Cystic Fibrosis.

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One day, no matter how many squats you've done, no matter how many avocados you've eaten, no matter how many placards you've made with apocryphal facts about second-hand smoking, no matter how many times you made sure you didn't leave the iron on before you flew to some overwarm country as part of an optimistic Hab-For-Humanity/spiritual journey two-for-one — you are going to die.

Unfortunately (and this may affect your every-day happiness to consider), unless you're surreptitiously aced with a cattle bolt stunner while asleep, it's likely going to be unpleasant.


Life itself is a death sentence. Your problems, chronic as they may seem, probably aren't. 

Until now, I've known precious little about two things which have shared exactly zero Venn Diagrams in my mind — pole vaulting and Cystic Fibrosis (CF). The former seemed like an idea which would have been left on the cutting room floor in a Laff-A-lympics writers' session. The latter seemed menacing, but in a vague way, like red tide.

However, the very real, very terrifying, chronic disease and the Decathlon's most difficult event share a single degree of separation in the personage of Jerry Cahill, a former pole vaulter, actor, and apparel executive.


I was invited to see a sprint of a documentary about Jerry's management of CF called Up In The Air and then chat with him a few weeks ago. The doc was made possible with the Boomer Esiason Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to CF awareness and established by former football player Boomer Esiason after his son was diagnosed with the malady. 

Jerry was diagnosed with CF, a chronic, hereditary respiratory disease that also affects the digestive and reproductive systems, when he was 11 years old. And while this sounds clichéd, he was never allowed to feel sorry for himself. This man exudes optimism. During our chat — just a week before his 60th birthday — Jerry made it abundantly clear that while CF is a colossal pain, it is not a death sentence. *


Here's what I learned about CF (and living a full life) from Jerry and Up in the Air:

1. Just Unlucky, I Guess.

As mentioned, CF is inherited. In order to have the recessive disorder, both parents have to have the gene for it and even, per our contemporary understanding, there's only a 25% chance that it will express itself. While that may seem like being dealt a rotten hand of cards, let's sometimes reflect on the unlikely blessing that it is to be born at all, right? 

2. Choose How You “Fill Your Life” 

In men, CF almost always results in infertility (98% of cases). Working on the assumption that there is some biological imperative to “go forth and multiply,” not having the choice seems unfair. And, in Jerry's case, has led to the end of otherwise promising relationships. Yes, everyone knows you can adopt. Or use donor sperm. But because we're in the judgment free zone, we have to recognize someone's right for that not to be an option. Jerry has made the next generation his life's mission in a different way — he coaches high school pole-vaulters and works with kids who suffer from CF.


3. Time Is On Your Side

Jerry was forced to leave a highly successful job with clothier Joseph Aboud due to his condition. Long hours and travel were just not compatible with CF. Between the self-administered medical regimen and Jerry's secret weapon of extensive physical exercise, his specific high-powered career was not tenable. However, he instead chose to make his life about helping people with CF and helping people whose loved ones have CF. 

4. Stay Positive


Yeah, life can throw you some curveballs. Like having to wait until you have 30% lung capacity before you're eligible for a transplant. And like how most transplant recipients end up doing a few “dry runs” (i.e. rush to the hospital because they have good news only to hear there is no match) before receiving the new-to-you organs.

Or like when your life-saving organ gives you diabetes. Jerry's mantra is “Cannot Fail” and he is ruthless in this positivity. That's not to say he's pumping sunshine 24/7. I come from a long line of optimistic curmudgeons, it's possible to ooze confidence and not come off as a grinning idiot. 

5. You Only Have One Body, Take Care Of It


If you're able-bodied, you owe it to yourself and the people around you to exercise. Yeah, kids and dishes and TPS reports and IKEA furniture and appointment-viewing television programs and administering dozens of medications and car trouble and rain and drought and a billion other tiny things can prevent you from exercising. Don't let them. Life more or less ends the same way for all of us, you have the power to control only a few things, one of them is your level of physical fitness. 

Again, you only have a single try at life as far as we know. You're gonna die. But my time with Jerry has reminded me to forget the excuses and make this approach through fly-away count. 

You can check out more on Jerry at www.esiason.org and a great segment on CBS's Courage In Sports


* Note: Some cases are, of course, incredibly advanced and fast-acting.