By Grace Stratford
“I believe I am the healthiest I have been in my life because of cancer,” states Upper School guidance counselor, assistant varsity lacrosse coach, and mindfulness teacher Alex Peavey. Often times you don’t find the words “healthiest” and “cancer” together in a sentence, but that sentence gives insight into Peavey’s inspiring mindset. Through his 14 years at Collegiate, he has spread this infectious positive spirit through his mindfulness classes and by helping any student or athlete that approaches him. It became apparent that something was wrong when his absence was felt by the whole school this past spring. Peavey had been feeling more fatigued, but his positive attitude was still apparent. Suddenly, however, he was missing around campus, and he first realized there was a more serious problem than just fatigue.
This past March, Peavey started to notice a change in his body. On St. Patrick’s Day, he checked into the emergency room to find out that both of his kidneys were failing because the lymph nodes around the kidneys were severely swollen. He underwent surgery to reduce the swelling around the kidneys, which then allowed the doctors to locate where the initial issue was. After a number of tests, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer as a 39-year old. To the doctors, this was a new situation, because prostate cancer is rare in men under 40, so he decided to make new stats and a prognosis for himself through a positive mindset and love.
On April 14, Peavey started on six rounds of chemotherapy to try and reduce his PSA, which stands for Prostate-Specific Antigen, the level of cancerous cells in the prostate. Peavey’s number was 377 when he was diagnosed, whereas a non-cancerous PSA is 0-4. After just four rounds of chemotherapy, his PSA dropped dramatically to a 1.9, which meant the cancer was primarily contained and treated, but not cured.
One of the commonly known side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss, and one morning in the summer, Peavey woke up and started to see these effects. He walked downstairs with clippers in his hands and handed them to his wife, former Upper School French teacher Sarah Peavey (‘01), and they took matters into their own hands. This was a moment where the Peaveys “chose joy” together by taking control of what they could.
Peavey’s lifestyle has changed in these last few months, and he has decided to work toward becoming an overall healthier person through changes in diet and exercise. He says he could have let the cancer bring him down, but instead stated, “Cancer is what it is, but brings amazing opportunity to choose joy,” and that’s just what he did. He focused in on things he loved and that gave him energy on some of the harder days, such as his family and friends, music, and the varsity boys lacrosse team. Ben Tavenner (‘18), a varsity lacrosse player since freshman year, states, “If anything, his demeanor changed in a positive way, and he became more motivated to coach us, even if he wasn’t always there. His mind and spirit were both fully with us, and we all knew that.”
Over the summer, Peavey traveled to Boston, which was a milestone because the doctors hadn’t expected him to be able to travel so soon. He also attended many concerts and went to the beach with his family, which posed a temptation for Peavey, as one of his greatest loves is the ocean and surfing. Unfortunately, the kidney-related surgery left him unable to get in the water, which gave him a time to meditate and practice mindfulness. Although these days were challenging, Peavey walked away saying, “every day presents challenges, a lot we can’t control, but we can control response. We can still get mad or sad, but we have the ability to experience let those feelings go, and return to joy.”
A primary source of his joy and strength is his wife Sarah, as he states that she was the strongest one throughout his entire journey. She has noticed slight changes in Peavey, such as, “Ever since the diagnosis, Alex has been more present and more grateful (if that’s even possible.)” She also has had an incredible mindset and positive message of her own that she has been sharing on social media. One of her posts from July 28th, after Peavey had finished his chemotherapy, states, “While I don’t like or understand your presence in our lives, I accept what I cannot change and I change what I can. I choose love, presence, kindness, peace… and most importantly, I #choosejoy.” Sarah has lifted up Peavey on the hard days, informed but also also nurtured their two children, and been with him every step of the way as a constant positive presence.
The Peaveys have been very open about their experience, especially through their social media pages, where they have been documenting the journey. Although he is not a fan of social media, Peavey decided to use it to share positivity in his life and have an open book for everyone on what he was going through. Peavey pulled this positivity from many sources and people, but one person that he directly related to during this journey was Thich Nhat Hanh, commonly called Thai, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist whom Peavey admires. Thai is a thoughtful and practicing monk who leads by example and states, “When people are exposed to the practice, they are inspired. You don’t need to talk in order to teach. You need to live your life mindfully and deeply.”
Thai’s message has influenced Peavey to use his social media to show people what is right and joyful in his life, such as friends coming to visit, sharing in music, coming to Collegiate for the day, or his children playing outside with smiles from ear to ear. He also wants to show gratitude for people in his life, especially people who create experiences that allow him to smile. That could be a visit to his house, a text during the day, or just sitting together in his backyard gazebo.
Cancer is a serious disease that affects many families, and each patient and family approaches the challenge differently. When asked about what he might say to those who find “choosing joy” difficult, Peavey says “Choosing joy is not always very easy, by any means, and when we can’t choose joy, we should at least make an attempt to discern between the things we can and cannot control. So much of our energy, with or without cancer, is expended on things in life that are completely out of our control, and, when you do have cancer, maximizing the use of your energy, of your vitality, is absolutely paramount to living in a manner that can slowly bring you back to the possibility of discovering your joy again.”
This fall, Peavey is back full time at Collegiate and ready to keep the cancer away. He will be receiving regular injections in an attempt to prevent the cancerous cells from spreading, and he will be focusing on what he can do to contribute to his health. His journey also stands as a reminder to him to do what you love while you can. He wants to remind everyone to remember the little things, and to do everything with 100% joy and happiness. Despite the challenges of the disease, Peavey’s positive attitude has helped him and his family persevere, “And for this, I am grateful.”
Featured image courtesy of Alex Peavey.