How Did Arnold Approach Prostate Cancer? Like a Champion
For Arnold Chassen, the battle against prostate cancer began in his mind — by channeling the inner reservoir of strength and determination that helped him achieve a near-impossible goal in 1997.
It was the year Arnold transformed himself from a dragon boat "know nothing," to become part of the USA Dragon Boat Team that won Gold in the 1997 World Championships in Sha Tin, China. All within a few months.
Arnold's championship performance was a resource on which he would draw years later when faced with another monumental challenge — prostate cancer.
1997 Was a Very Bad Year
"My father had recently died. My best friend was killed. My dog had died. I was overweight and feeling lost," says Arnold. "One night in January, I stopped in for my canoe club's potluck dinner and a member asked, 'Hey, Arny, do you think you could steer the Dragon Boat?'"
He explained that a 'bunch of guys' needed a steersman so they could do their daily early morning practice.
"I knew I was depressed and that I needed a change."
Arnold had no idea how hard it was to steer a Dragon Boat, and it took him about a month before he could reliably keep the boat on course.
A 2200-Year-Old History
The origin of dragon boat racing starts with Qu Yuan, a revered Chinese statesman and poet, who tied himself to a boulder, and threw himself into the river Mi Lo as a political protest.
To honor his memory, citizens paddled long boats on the Mi Lo each anniversary of his death. The boats became highly decorated in bright colors and designs, each bow with the head of a glorious carved dragon.
Dragon boats have now been raced for over 2,000 years, and it is today an organized sport in more than 60 countries. In Chinese culture, the dragon is a symbol of "power, strength, and of good luck for people who are worthy of it."
Hooked From Day One
Arnold truly enjoyed those daily winter 6:15 am practices.
"It was beautiful to be on the snow-banked Schuylkill as Philadelphia was waking up every morning."
He discovered just how hard it was to steer a fast dragon boat. It took about 30 days to reliably keep the boat on course.
In March, Arnold learned that this crew was not a "bunch of guys" but rather, the core of the USA National Team trying for the World Championships. The team appreciated his help — but he was not on the team. The coach told him what he had to do to make the team. It was improbable he could achieve the required physical conditioning and steering accuracy in the remaining 11 weeks before the final team roster was decided.
Could he do it? The challenge reinvigorated Arnold after a prolonged period of sorrow, loss and disruption. He trained as though his life depended on it. He created a daily training regimen to strengthen his body and mind, even radically changing his work schedule to accommodate it.
All his hard work paid off — and in June 1997 — Arnold flew to Hong Kong with the Team to compete against the best teams on earth. And yes, he was on the World Championship Gold medal platform with his teammates. This was the first Dragon Boat World Championship Gold ever won by a western nation!
Although later he was on additional USA Dragon Boat medal winning teams, it was this challenge, this team and this medal that changed him.
It was the thrill of a lifetime, leaving Arnold with a renewed sense of self and achievement. One that would serve him well many years later.
A Different Kind of Dragon: Prostate Cancer
"Late in 2015, I learned I had prostate cancer. At first, I was terrified but quickly got a grip and researched treatment options," says Arnold.
Arnold decided that the best treatment option for his prostate cancer was proton therapy. Arnold and his wife, Lynne, met with John P. Christodouleas, MD, a Penn radiation oncologist, who specializes in treating prostate cancer at Penn's Roberts Proton Therapy Center.
"Not only was Dr. Christodouleas a super qualified specialist, but my wife and I felt totally comfortable with him. He was warm, and he patiently answered all our questions — John seemed to really care," explains Arnold.
Proton therapy is the most advanced external beam radiotherapy available, delivering a higher treatment dose while significantly sparing healthy tissue, especially important in treating delicate areas of the anatomy.
Channeling His "Inner Champion" for 28 Days
"During treatment, I continually reminded myself that I am a world champion — that I had the guts to keep going and the strength to maximize the treatment and heal. I reminded myself of this during every treatment by wearing a jersey from my Team USA uniform — for all 28 days of proton therapy and every doctor's appointment. It was a great conversation starter in the waiting rooms, hopefully a symbol to inspire other patients that they too could overcome the odds and win," says Arnold.
We're All Champions at Something
"One day, I spoke with a woman in the waiting area who was distraught and unsure how to get through her treatments. I told her my story. She said 'I'm not a champion at anything.'"
"I said: 'Sure you are. Everyone is. Think about something you do really well — maybe not a sport, perhaps a job, a class or a relationship.' She then described how her nieces and nephews think she is the most loving aunt in the world. I said, there it is, you are a Champion Aunt!" said Arnold.
Arnold invited her to get on the treatment platform like a champion — the Champion Aunt she is — and visualize those great relationships during each treatment session.
He is now a cancer survivor and free to live life to the fullest.
"I am so grateful to Dr. Christodouleas and all the professionals, staff and facilities at Penn Roberts Proton Therapy Center, and the experience of making the 1997 USA Dragon Boat Team and being on that World Championship Gold Medal boat," Arnold says quietly.