"I wasn't afraid of dying anymore."
Those were the words JD Walk spoke after months of enduring the most intense physical and emotional pain he'd ever experienced.
In 2016, Walk, who has never smoked a day in his life, was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, the most advanced form of the deadly disease. He was not alone: Approximately 20 percent of those who die each year from lung cancer have never smoked or used a tobacco product. Lung is the leading cause of cancer deaths globally. It is expected to kill more than 154,000 people in the United States in 2018.
Life Before the Diagnosis
At 38 years old, he seemed to have everything going for him. He was married to a supportive woman with whom he had brought four daughters into the world. He and his wife had just bought a new house, he'd recently been named one of the top three salespeople for his division at Siemens Building Technology, and was in the best physical condition of his life: 5-feet-10-inches tall, 185 pounds, and 9 percent body fat.
Walk was feeling so good, in fact, the he was starting to think about stepping onstage as a physique competitor. By all measures, he felt like he was on top of the world. Until everything changed.
The Warning Signs
It was in early 2016, Walk says, that his body began to feel "off."
"I thought I was just experiencing a combination of things—some allergies and maybe cold or flu symptoms," he explains.
His doctor told him had a cold, maybe a sinus infection. He advised Walk to wait a week and see if the symptoms went away. When he felt no better, his doctor started him on antibiotics. After several more visits to the doctor's office and countless rounds of antibiotics, Walk was finally referred to a pulmonologist.
Facing Cancer Head-On
The appointment with the pulmonologist confirmed Walk's greatest fear: On June 1, 2016, Walk was diagnosed with lung cancer and told that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and 39 spots in his brain.
Over the next several weeks, Walk and his wife told their family and friends about the devastating news. Although he was burdened by fear and unanswered questions, Walk was heartened by the outpouring of support.
The night before he started his first of a what would be a months-long series of whole-brain radiation treatments, his family had a head-shaving party. Everyone from brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews—even his nieces and his grandfather—shaved their heads in solidarity.
"I had a huge level of support from my family," Walk says. "From all over the United States, my extended family and friends—and their friends, too—began praying for me, which was a palpable feeling."
Walk seemed to be responding well to the harsh treatments, until an extreme stiffness developed in his back and neck. Then, in March of 2017, Walk passed out while exercising. A few days later, brain and spinal MRIs showed that the cancer had spread to his cerebrospinal fluid. This condition, known as leptomeningeal disease, is an extremely rare disease that can accompany a few different types of cancer.
"Most people survive leptomeningeal disease for a few weeks—maybe a few months," he recalls. "It appeared that I had already been suffering with it for a few months, so I didn't know how much longer I had to live. This was the start of some very hard times, most of which, thankfully, I don't remember."
Walk's wife described him at the time as being the sickest she had ever seen him. Exhausted, confused, and weak, he deteriorated over the next several weeks. Fearing his end was near, his wife balanced caring for him with making plans for her and their four daughters should the worst come to pass.
Then, a small miracle happened: The new chemo pill Walk was taking started to work. About 10 days into his new drug regimen, he started to improve—even to seem like his old self again. Every day seemed to bring new improvements until, by the end of August 2017, he was back at work and back in the gym.
Finding A Friend and Mentor
After all his trials and tribulations, the last thing Walk expected to find was a new friend and mentor, but that's exactly what he found in Bodybuilding.com team athlete and trainer Brandan Fokken.
It all started when Walk's brother, who was a big fan of Fokken's, reached out to the IFBB pro with his brother's story. Fokken replied by posting a video on social media asking his followers to send prayers and good vibes in Walk's direction.
Fokken then reached out to Walk's wife to set up a surprise meet and greet at the Bodybuilding.com headquarters in Boise, Idaho. This meeting proved to be a huge morale booster for Walk, and signaled the start of a friendship between Fokken and Walk. Over the next several months, Fokken continued to support Walk while he battled cancer.
"Earlier on in the disease, before I got to the point where I lost my ability to do much of anything," Walk says, "I had reached out to Brandan. He went out of his way to build an entire workout and food plan just for me. He was a big help, but I never expected him to become a friend!"
When Walk started coming out of this darkest stage of his cancer battle, he started working out again, too, but this time with a new focus and new goals. For him, lifting has become a way not just to look good, but to maintain strength and mental resolve. As part of this new focus, he decided early on in his recovery to check his pride at the gym door. This time around, working out wasn't about pushing heavy weight—at least not yet. Right now, he needed to focus on control, form, and tempo.
Over the next 12 weeks, Walk would gradually get stronger. He was careful not to push too hard, especially since his doctor gave him a green light to exercise mainly because she knew how important fitness was to Walk's quality of life.
"Regardless of all that has hindered him," Fokken says, "JD continues to work hard and believe in himself. As long as he keeps that up, he'll accomplish anything he puts his mind to—including fitness."
Walk's recovery plan is going well. He says he hopes to start working out with Fokken again, and to "blow everyone's mind by getting onstage." He acknowledges that it may take a few years to get to that point. In the meantime, he adds, he's happy to have a fitness program in place and to see his health continue to improve.
Looking to The Future
Like most people living with cancer, Walk spent a lot of time feeling angry and scared. He describes those first few months after his diagnosis as a time when he questioned everything. He found himself spending a lot of time in prayer, not only to find peace but to summon the strength to press on.
On April 6th, 2018, Walk's latest scan results showed there is only one tiny spot (0.9mm) in his lungs of concern to his oncologist. Although he is neither cured nor in remission, Walk says he feels better than ever.
"I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was still here on earth and what I'm supposed to do with my time," Walk says. "I eventually came to realize that I want to be able to reach out and help others deal with the kind of challenges life has thrown at me," he says.
Walk says he has a lot of people to thank for supporting him on this journey. But there is one person who deserves more praise than anyone: his wife.
"At the end of the day, she is the true hero in this story. She is my forever. She is my rock. And she deserves more of my love and thanks than I'll ever be able to give her."