Stage Four Lung Cancer Led Chad Vanags to CrossFit, Fulfilling Big Life Goals

May 11, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Sean McFatridge
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Chad Vanags got a knock on his door at completely the wrong time. Only a week after learning he had stage four lung cancer, a representative for a CrossFit gym named Persistence Culture came to his door in the hopes of gaining a new member. Instead they found Vanags—angry, upset, and depressed. 

Persistence Culture, which has three CrossFit affiliates, came knocking on Vanags door in August 2022. When Sean McFatridge, the chief revenue officer, happened upon Vanags’ door he begrudgingly told him of his illness and shut the door. 45 minutes later and McFatridge came back. 

  • “I open it and he goes, ‘Man, I can’t stop thinking about what you said and honestly, we just want to help there’s no expectations here. Do you need meals, do you need childcare? Do you need anything?’ And I just looked and I get emotional just thinking about it,” said Vanags. 
  • “Because it was a pretty amazing thing to do to be declined something and then not know a person from Adam and just walk back to my house and be like, ‘Look, man, I don’t know you but I’m here to help you’.” 
  • Vanags told McFatridge he didn’t need anything, but told him how important fitness was to him and asked “can we do personal training just so I have something to look forward to and feeling and getting stronger.”
  • “And so we set it up from there and did 10 sessions together and then I started joining the class and it honestly helped me mentally quite a bit because now I had something to look forward to. I felt like I was getting stronger.” 
  • “The actual gym itself is incredibly supportive. And I don’t think without Sean and without the gym, the rest of the members of the gym I’d be in a place where I have a little bit of hope.”

A stage four lung cancer diagnosis means the cancer has spread from the lungs to other parts of the body. “The most common areas are the other lung, bones, brain, and the adrenal gland (a gland on top of the kidneys),” according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Treatment options can include chemotherapy, immune therapies, or a combination.

In Vanags’ case he was told the tumor in his lung was five times the average that the doctors had ever seen. He also had 30 lesions on his brain and the cancer had metastasized to his bones, lymph nodes, and vertebrae. 

“The situation was looking pretty bleak,” he added. “The doctor who did the bronchoscopy basically told my wife just to go home with me and make me comfortable, alluding to the idea that I was likely going to die soon. And so that’s kind of how everything started off and was not great.” 

Vanags cancer is what the doctors call an EGFR mutation, or a specific type of lung cancer that qualifies for a drug called Tagrisso. Doctors told him the extent to which the drug would work for him is completely different from one individual to the next. Luckily, for Vanags, it’s working thus far. 

  • “So the good news is that within nine months the tumor in my lung has decreased from five times the average to only two and a half times bigger than the average tumor size,” said Vanags.
  • “There are only two tumors left in my brain at this stage. So 28 other lesions have gone away. The lesions were always small, but there were always two main tumors.”
  • “And then the lymph nodes are clear, but there are still signs of cancer in my vertebrae and they’re not certain if that is still growing or not growing and we find out in June where it’s at.” 

Vanags found out a friend was planning to do an Olympic distance triathlon in his honor and he wanted in. (A half Ironman consists of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run.) Vanags enlisted the help of Dr. Dominic “Dom” D’Agostino, an educator in the keto diet space to help him with his diet, along with McFatridge to help him train. While this is a ‘yolo’ [you only live once] goal for Vanags it’s more of a mental test than it is a fitness test.

“Cancer often is the shitty thing that can kill you. But it’s also the thing that can bring you life,” said Vanags. “And when I’m in the moment of saying cancer could be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. That’s when I’m living my fullest. But it has to be with the pillars of metabolic health, both working out exercise, the nutritional component, but also the mental and the emotional optimization component.” 

When asked if he can imagine his life if McFatridge hadn’t knocked on his door, Vanags replied, “Even the thought of him not coming to the door. The thought of not having Persistence Culture, the thought of where I’d be without it is so unknown and so unappealing to me, I don’t even want to imagine what it’d be like without it.” 

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