Cheryl Murray – “I’m not Disabled… I’m Cheryl.”

Cheryl fat face

Cheryl Murray – “I’m not disabled… I’m Cheryl.”

“I’m unwilling to be a helpless victim. Sure I’m scared sometimes, but I force myself to do what I have to do. It’s not the things I’ve done that I’m proud of, it’s the stuff in my head I’ve had to fight through to do it.”

                Those were the first words to come out of Cheryl’s mouth when I asked her what she wanted her story to say once people had the chance to catch a peek through the kaleidoscope that is her. Simple yet powerful her statement cuts like a knife through the gimmicks and trickery often sought after to “make it through” life by trimming away the bullshit and leaving you with a foundation you can either choose to accept or deny; you have the choice to be life’s victim when it attacks unexpectedly and relentlessly but rest assured that throughout that decision making process it will be terrifying beyond belief. We ALL have felt the mind and body blows of that last statement, but it’s what you do with yourself as the dust settles that defines who you are at your core… How do you respond and what actions do you take? If you’re Cheryl you respond like a cat with nine lives and the tenacity of a tornado… This is a glimpse of Cheryl’s storm.

                If you were to catch snippets of Cheryl’s life growing up you’d swear you were watching reruns of “Leave It to Beaver.” You’d see a loving family with a nice home in Northern California that recycled before it was cool. Church every Sunday with full societal calendars for the whole family in between… they were the epitome of the American dream. A dual parent household with one daughter and one son that ate healthy, exercised regularly, exceled in work and school, adorable family dog… I think you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, per all circumstances her upbringing carried with it the “usual suspects” regarding growing pains and tumultuous times but to her own admittance nothing too extraordinarily tragic beyond that.

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                It was while she was attending grad school at the San Jose campus of the University of Phoenix when Cheryl’s Americana upbringing suddenly took a turn towards “The Twilight Zone” of the television spectrum. It started with a hospital trip and the two reasons that prompted her to take it; a bruise resembling a black and purple vortex that showed up out of nowhere on her hip and the nonstop bleeding that occurred after casually scratching an itch on her head. Combined with the extreme fatigue she’d been feeling (among other symptoms) she decided it was time to promptly get checked out so she stopped her dinner preparation for that night and had a friend bring her to the ER.

She never made it back home that night.

                After having some tests run Cheryl could hear her name announced over the intercom with a tone of urgency that instantly made her anxiety swell. Her husband at the time was working night shifts which left Cheryl by her lonesome to deal with the fear bouncing around in her head like pieces of shrapnel.

“I was in the waiting room for the longest time. While I was there my greatest fear was that it could only be one of two things… cancer or AIDS.”

                A lot of us have gone the “Web MD” route in our brains of figuring out the worst case scenario and convincing ourselves that’s EXACTLY what we’ve got, but when it turns out to be true… it can be profoundly soul shattering. Unfortunately, it did end up being one of those two things… leukemia. At the very least she had an answer to the suddenly surging ailments she was experiencing; it just wasn’t the answer anybody ever hopes for. Boot straps were pulled up as treatment started immediately and aggressively. With her grit to keep moving forward and the support of her family Cheryl went about trying to beat the cancer that had suddenly found its way into her family’s home.

                Progress was swift and after only a few months of dedicated cancer management (radiation therapy included) the cancer began reverting course! They’d beat the cancer into remission! It was an optimal situation because it gave them more time to get it gone for GOOD.

That lasted 3 months.

                The beginning of 1998 did not bring good tidings as the cancer came back with a vengeance in January forcing Cheryl and her family to get right back into defense mode. It would only be fair for Cheryl to deal with one life-altering catastrophe at a time but as we all know life is FAR from fair and it was April of 1998 when life dropped another sledgehammer driving Cheryl even deeper between the rock and hard place she’d already found herself in… On the day Cheryl was scheduled to have her annual bone marrow biopsies from the diagnosis a year prior, she had a stroke.

“After the cancer came back I harbored a LOT of anger. When I had the stroke though… It was bad… I mean I’m 29 and I’ve suddenly lost the ability to walk, talk, drive, ski… I thought I’d never be able to go to work, travel, or get on a plane ever again…Things you can take for granted until all of a sudden you can’t do them anymore.”

                Awhile back Cheryl and I had a conversation about the daily planner she kept at the time of her stroke. Cheryl detailed how she kept track of everything in this agenda; work obligations, social events, and medical appointments filled the bylines within the weeks up until the day where she was set to have a bone marrow biopsy which was cause for a very powerful moment when she showed me the point of stoppage. It bore a symbolic resemblance to an author stepping away from writing a carefully crafted book mid-paragraph.

                With the leukemia coming back around a second time and in rapid fashion the bone marrow transplant was a necessity still regardless of this newfound “kitchen sink” life had just rocketed Cheryl’s way. After gaining some control on the stroke situation the transplant was pushed from April to July. It was during those months Cheryl found herself dwelling on what she’d lost in her life and reveling in the anniversaries of bad occurrences for a long time afterwards.

“When I was in the hospital my Dad brought in a ‘PEOPLE’ magazine for me and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t read it. I remember thinking ‘I JUST WANT TO READ THE F*&@!ING MAGAZINE!!’ but… nothing. That was hard.”

                When the time came for the transplant fingers were crossed and prayers were sent out that Cheryl’s body would accept the new bone marrow and an immediate road to recovery could begin so they could put as much of this awfulness as possible behind them. At this point in the story I’m sure you’ve picked up on the tone that things hadn’t taken a lucky break yet and I’ll tell you they weren’t about take a turn in that direction now. With her body rejecting the transplant Cheryl suddenly found herself in yet another situation where she wasn’t sure she was going to make it out alive. Things got so bad physically she nearly needed a feeding tube to combat the inability and lack of desire to eat. Luckily Cheryl found herself able to stomach grilled cheese sandwiches which is essentially what she lived off of from July of 1998 until February of 1999, the date she was released from the hospital with her body finally accepting the donor marrow.

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Christmas of ’98 was spent in the hospital. Making it to Christmas of ’99 was in genuine doubt in this picture…

                Once released from the hospital the fight was far from over, but things were at long last starting to look up. With the bone marrow transplant going from being rejected to being accepted it wasn’t longer after Cheryl was deemed cancer free. The rigorous, aggressive, and draining treatment paid off! Sure, she had to get annual marrow biopsies for 10 years (they have to drill a hole in your hip to put in perspective those unfamiliar on how “not simple” this task is) but that’s better than actually having cancer! Cheryl’s spirit, however, was far from healed… The unexpected and sudden loss of abilities coupled with the weight gained from the drugs she now had to take left her in a dark, defeated place.

                It took a fateful crossing of paths at church with a single mom who had multiple sclerosis that started the revolt against her own demons keeping her down. 

“What I really admired about her was that she never let the MS get her down. I started going with her when she ran errands and even went to the gym with her. She helped introduce me to people after I’d been in a cave for so long. She showed me that things could be different…”

Bit by bit Cheryl started to crawl out of her shell as the days went on. She even started to do some volunteer work at her Church again! Over the years Cheryl dug deep to regain her life back even though the realization that it wouldn’t be the same life she had before had a tendency to send her on a roller coaster of ups and downs. Through the rough times Cheryl retaught herself how to drive, how to walk, and how to eat healthy again. She got herself back to work, travelling with the family, and even joined several gyms with yoga becoming a new favorite therapy for not only her body but her mind, too.

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Getting back to everything she was able to do before sometimes means needing a cane or motorized transport to aid with the devitalized left side of her body, but it all goes back to the first words Cheryl said when we sat down to put the pen to paper on this;

 “I’m unwilling to be a helpless victim. Sure I’m scared sometimes, but I force myself to do what I have to do. It’s not the things I’ve done that I’m proud of, it’s the stuff in my head I’ve had to fight through to do it.”

It was 2009 when Cheryl found her way to Anytime Fitness.

Cheryl group

“I’ve belonged to a lot of gyms in my life, but none of them hit like Anytime did. It was different… I found myself actually wanting to go and really liking the people there. I also remember thinking ‘who’s the weirdo who yells a lot?’”

(Spoiler alert: I was am that weirdo who yells).

Wasting no time she joined up with a transformation challenge that just so happened to be on the verge of starting and wouldn’t you know it… she won the damn thing. She even lost 20 lbs in the process! It was soon after that when Cheryl, who was once told she wouldn’t ever regain the ability to walk all that well ever again, trekked across the Golden Gate friggin’ Bridge.

“When I walked the Golden Gate, it wasn’t exactly something I’d been fantasizing about for years and years or anything… It was that things were going really well and I wanted to make a bucket list to give myself some goals and aspirations. I needed that, or else I wasn’t going to keep pushing myself. You need to have goals to work towards or else you won’t do anything.”

To know Cheryl now means most would be surprised finding out that for as gregarious as she is, she still sticks to her reclusive tendencies  (only they are much healthier now). From that initial challenge in 2009 Cheryl has joined damn near every single Hulk/Rebel challenge since (missing one due to hip surgery in 2011), putting her up there as one of the most tenured Hulkster/Rebels there is. Her presence is coveted and her inspiration is legendary as she’s shown more people than she knows the true meaning of strength, inside and out. If you ask her about her inspiration and her take on it though, you get a much different and humbled response:

“I get it, you know… People being happy for people with disabilities being able to make it past them, but I don’t see it that way. In my head I don’t see myself as disabled… I’m Cheryl.”

Cheryl cross legged

This photo was taken once we concluded our session. What you’re seeing is the first time Cheryl crossed her legs casually in a conversation since her stroke. The best part is it was inadvertent yet instantly recognized. Thank you Cheryl for such a wonderful moment :).

AhhhOOO.

–          Rebel8

PS check Cheryl out!

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