To Hell and Back (Vol. 2) LONG LIVE #ROZELLESTRONG: HOW ONE MAN BEAT CANCER THROUGH SELFIES AND HAPPYNESS
Written By: Saul Juan Antonio Cuautle www.bringbackfit.com
You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. - Stuart Scott
On April 6, 2015, my friend Brian Rozelle passed away. He lost his fight to bile duct cancer.
I’ve been divided since hearing the news of his passing. A part of me is a bit numb in various places. I’m detached and distracted from the demands of work and everyday life. I’ve been going through my days this past week with watery eyes just ready to stream down my face. I still can’t believe he’s gone. I mean, I just saw a video of him scootering down a hospital hallway on an IV pole. And another video clip of him doing an epic lip sync to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” during his recent Cycle for Survival trip in LA.
Another part of me can’t help but smile and chuckle when thinking about him. That sonuva bitch – he never complained. Not once. He never felt sorry for himself. And he didn’t even lose any hair despite undergoing 21+ rounds of chemotherapy! How the hell did he do that?
I still remember when he first told me about his cancer diagnosis. It was a typical Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto and I was helping him move back from LA. What’s bringing you back up north? I asked.
“Oh, I gotta go to Stanford for some cancer treatment” he said.
I had a mini-freak out moment where his words slapped my brain to a screeching halt. “What did he just say?” He was so nonchalant about his rare cancer diagnosis while I was experiencing paralysis by analysis. My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t think clearly. “Cancer? He’s 27 years-old!?”
It seemed to me that his cancer diagnosis was simply an annoyance. No different than falling off a skateboard in a middle of sweet ride. It was a setback, but it wouldn’t be enough to stop him. It might slow him down, maybe make him more tired or not let him do another Tough Mudder, but it wasn’t going to define his life. He defined his life. His calm and carefree demeanor that day made a lasting impression on me. I didn’t quite understand it, but I admired and respected it. With his passing, I think I finally understand where he was coming from.
Looking back at the first time I met him, I’m reminded of his rockstar hair. It wasn’t Axl Rose long or Kurt Cobain wild – nah, Brian had too much style for that. He had more of a Bono-esque kind of length, with just the right amount of shagginess that only he could pull off.
I always loved walking into his office because Brian would either have something clever, funny or ridiculous to say. He had this superpower for connecting. You know how JFK or Bill Clinton have serious charisma? Well Brian’s charisma could hang with those guys. He was the type of guy that could live in any era or anywhere in the world and make friends instantly. He wasn’t the tall, dark and handsome type; he was more than that. When you talked to him, he had a way of making you feel special, like you’d been friends all your life. I loved that about him.
I’m listening to Brian’s self-assigned “fight song” – “Sail” by Awolnation – as I write this. I never asked him why he chose that song. I wonder if it’s because of the sick beats, the amazing Nine Inch Nails-like production or because of the introspective and juxtaposing lyrics? What no one can deny is how cool the song is.
Likewise, if you asked a room full of Brian’s friends to describe him in one word, I’m certain “cool” would be a top contender. You want to know something super cool I just discovered about his fight song? I can feel him in the song. He lives, breathes and screams there. How fitting that someone had the foresight to create a 60 minute long version on Youtube for me. I wonder if the endless looping would make him happy or drive him mad?
As I scroll through all my text messages with him over the last couple of years or think about our last dozen conversations, you know what blows my mind? Cancer can get pretty ugly – downright, nasty. Yet, Brian and I rarely talked about any of that stuff. It wasn’t the focus of our conversations.
What I love about Brian is how he chose to fight his cancer. He didn’t start a cancer blog. He didn’t share his suffering or even tell us of the endless chemo treatments. Instead, he lived his life like a rockstar. He made his family, friends and having fun the focus of his life.
One of his mantra’s during his three year fight with cancer was, “Smile, life is just awesome!” Isn’t that something a rockstar would say? I tell you what, a rockstar would definitely throw a 30th birthday party like this.
From day one, Brian definitely had the rebellious rockstar attitude: “I dare you to give me your best shot because it won’t be enough to keep me down. I’m going to take everything you have and still keep going.” It takes a special person to think like that.
He was a different breed. Where most of us would be drowning in fear, anger, resentment and a sea of other ugly emotions, Brian fully embraced his cancer and found joy in it. How crazy is that? That’s about as beautiful as it gets. Pa Rozelle said, “He knew how to live with it.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant then, but I see it now.
Brian wasn’t defined by cancer. Or even by his fight with cancer. He was defined by love and happyness. Yes, I mean happiness with a Y as in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith and based on the life of Chris Gardner.
Brian probably packed more love, fun and happyness into his last three years of life than most of us ever will in our lifetimes. He certainly packed more selfies than anyone I know. If there’s ever an award for the most selfies/most badass selfies, it’ll be a tossup between Brian and Katy Perry. Looking at his social media accounts, he’s at least the hashtag king.
Is it possible to beat cancer through selfies and happyness? Brian surely made you think so.
I know orange is suppose to be for Halloween and/or the SF Giants, but all I can see is Brian in this bright ass orange compression shirt I have on. I’ve always found orange to be too loud for me, but it’s been three days since his memorial service at AT&T Park and I still don’t want to take off the shirt. I’m proudly wearing it as though he’d somehow approve of it. I’m craving that connection with him right now. Of course, I can hear him asking me, “Bro. You couldn’t find a tighter shirt?” Try wearing orange and tell me you don’t hear Brian’s voice or his cackle laugh.
You know what my problem is? In my own naivete about his cancer, all I could see was Brian’s quiet strength and boisterous voice. I just assumed his fight with cancer would go on and on…and on. That’s why I’m so mad – how could I be so stupid to think that? Of course his fight would come to an end.
I keep thinking about the climactic fight scene in Man of Steel where General Zod tells Superman, “There’s only two ways this ends Kal, either you die, or I do.” Just like I knew Superman was going to defeat Zod, I knew Brian was going to beat his cancer. It wouldn’t be his kryptonite. In this David vs Goliath fight, with Brian yelling “F cancer!” and charging forward with his selfie stick in hand, you just knew cancer had no chance. I felt bad for the cancer more than I did for Brian.
But cancer actually won. Cancer took his life. I’m still in shock. I mean, I know Brian was fighting life-threatening cancer, but was it just me, or did he pull some ninja mind trick on you too, where he made you forget about his cancer?
His bullet proof optimism and ever-present smile made his cancer seem like an afterthought. Trust me, I know how silly that sounds, but his spirit was a such a giant that it masked his cancer. He hid it from us so well without trying to hide it. Whether he did it intentionally or not, he protected us from the ugliness of cancer.
Brian’s fight with cancer was never about him. He made it about other people. In a time where I would of been reclusive, he became inclusive. I love how he did that.
He was magical like that.
When we training together once, Brian was doing some box jumps on a 32” box and he said, “Dude. I could totally knock people out. I’m short, but I got power in these hands and legs. I could be a fighter.”
Touche, but being a fighter doesn’t do him justice. He was more than a fighter.
During his three year fight, he showed everyone how to reach inward to the light that’s inside all of us. He harnessed that light and shined it as bright as he could for everyone to see. That takes serious skill and fortitude. He didn’t even need a red cape or mask, just his SF Giants hat and 49ers jersey. He didn’t need a utility belt, his selfie stick more than sufficed.
“I fight not for fear of dying, but for the joy of living” was his guiding mantra. Come on, doesn’t that sound like something Tony Stark would say? That line could have easily been in Iron Man 3.
Brian’s unwavering ability to focus on what he did have in his life, his relentless optimism and his uncanny ability to spread positivity is a testament to the power of the human spirit. It screams “real life superhero.”
I think I speak for everyone that knew Brian in saying that we’ll always stand by him through #RozelleStrong. Life may have stepped in to force an early goodbye, but trust me, his joyful spirit is forever etched in the minds and hearts of his family and friends. He lives there and isn’t going anywhere.
I see now I was wrong about your fight with cancer Brian. Cancer may have taken you from us, but you didn’t lose. Despite the unfathomable pain you endured, cancer couldn’t break you. You took all that pain and somehow stuffed it into a black hole. You didn’t bother asking, “Why me?” Instead you roared back, “WHY NOT ME?!”
You smiled knowing you didn’t need to win, you just needed to live life on your own terms.
When people look at your selfies or ask me about #RozelleStrong, I’ll tell them how you grabbed life by the balls. I’ll tell them how you loved your friends. I’ll tell them about your off-the-charts mental strength. I’ll tell them how you were the life of the party – even when there was no party. I’ll tell them you were the toughest, strongest and most positive man I’ve ever met.
When life drags me down, I’ll think of your quiet strength to break my fall and pull me back up. I’ll imagine your cackle laugh to cheer me up. I may not smile as often as you did, but I’ll try to find a way to smile when all I want to do is frown or cry. I may even take some selfies as a homage to your carefree way of life. If I’m lucky enough to live my life a fifth of the way you lived yours, I’ll consider myself blessed.
“How is it you can make me laugh and cry at the same time Brian?”
If nothing else, I’ll embrace any challenge life may unexpectedly throw my way. I can promise you that Brian. I’m grateful for the wiser person I’ll be for having known you. Long live your unbreakable smile and joyful spirit. The world is a better place because you skateboarded through it.
Do Brian a favor and share his story. People need to know about his journey.
Saul Juan Antonio Cuautle is a writer, entrepreneur and coach living in Palo Alto, CA. He believes in healing people through physical fitness. He's the Founder & CEO of MOS Training Systems, a tech company focused on leveraging technology to teach everyday people how to "Discover Your Inner Superhero." Please visit www.bringbackfit.com to learn about his company and see more of his writing in action.