“Before, I did recreational drugs, was drinking and very promiscuous. I didn’t take care of myself. Now I’m vegan, work out six days a week, try all organic food,” he said. “I started eating eggs and chicken when I started lifting weights. Even my friends are amazed.”
Learning he was HIV positive caused Shumake to reevaluate his life. Now, “this is the best I’ve ever felt,” he said.
It took Shumake two years to turn his life around and he realized that to be healthy he had to change everything — he couldn’t hang out with the same people, go to the same places, keep the same habits.
Before he became HIV positive, Shumake said he never worked out or watched his diet.
“I never lifted weights. The farthest I walked was to my car. Now I can easily run seven miles,” he said.
He ran in the AIDS Walk Atlanta 5K in October and is set to run in the Spartan Race in April.
Being HIV positive meant Shumake wanted to “micro manage” everything that went into his body because anything could cause his immune system to weaken, he explained.
“You really have to take care of yourself,” he said. “Since 2007, I’ve been on Atripla and my meds haven’t changed. Sometimes people have to change meds after a few years because their bodies get used to the drugs. Once you know you have HIV you have to take your life in your own hands and start micro managing everything. And you should. I want to live as long as I can.”
Shumake’s health turnaround is also inspiring him to take his love for fitness into the business world. He plans to open an organic vitamin shop in the Virginia Highland area in the near future.
Dating, Shumake said, is the hardest part of living with HIV. He said he wants to date a man who is HIV positive, but he continues to meet many men who are in ruts, who are not active or not taking care of their bodies like he does.
“Being HIV positive is not something to be embarrassed about. I find some men are still dealing with that stigma,” he said.
“I just recommend people look at their lives and if you have bad habits make an effort to change them. It makes [being HIV positive] so much easier by being healthy,” Shumake said. “This is not a death sentence. AIDS is not the end of the world.
“Now I’m satisfied,” he added. “I don’t always think of my status.”
— Dyana Bagby
Quitting smoking: Joan Sherwood
‘My final prompt was my wife and family of choice’
Joan Sherwood started smoking for the same reasons many people do. She was young, and people she liked were smokers.
“I was probably 18, my sophomore year of college,” Sherwood said. “I hung out with theater students and writers, and it was a prevalent habit in that crowd.”
It was, of course, a habit that only grew through the years, as Sherwood moved on to a successful career as an editor.
“I smoked filterless, hand-rolled cigarettes, probably about 30 a day,” she recalled.
Smoking increases risks for many illnesses, from cancers and lung diseases to heart disease and stroke. Tobacco use causes more deaths each year than HIV, car accidents, murders, suicides, alcohol use and illegal drug use combined, according to the CDC.
The National LGBT Tobacco Control Network reports gay people are 50 to 200 percent more likely to be addicted to smoking than the general public. According to estimates by the American Cancer Society, more than 30,000 LGBT people die each year of tobacco-related diseases.
It was family — both her birth family and “family of choice”— that motivated Sherwood to quit.
“I had wanted to quit and had tried before. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer just a few days before he died from a pulmonary edema. And even my attempt to quit after that didn’t succeed,” she said. “My final prompt was my wife and family of choice saying they wanted me to quit.”
Instead of quitting cold turkey, Sherwood took a considered, carefully planned approach, using a combination of rewards and nicotine replacement therapies.
“It was hard at times, but I gave myself time to prepare for it mentally,” she said. “I had a big personal reward to look forward to if I stayed off of cigarettes for six months, so that kept me motivated to stick with it. And I used nicotine replacement — gum and an inhaler — to help me through cravings. I had to get a prescription to get the inhaler, but it helped a lot with the hand-to-mouth part of my habit.”
The inhaler also let her put peer pressure to work in a positive way.
“It looked so ridiculous that I also wanted to stop using it as soon as I could,” she said.
She reports improved health almost immediately, and notes that quitting smoking also helped her improve her overall fitness.
“I started to feel much better soon after I quit,” Sherwood said. “It became a lot more easy and fun to work out and I was able to do much more aerobic activity without getting winded. It’s been fantastic.”
Her advice to anyone considering stopping smoking? Don’t quit trying to quit.
“If you don’t succeed the first time you try to quit, find a different motivation or a different method,” Sherwood said. “Those nicotine replacements can cost a lot, but if it gets you through the worst of the process and you succeed, it’s worth it.
— Laura Douglas-Brown
Fighting cancer: Jason Cohen
‘Attitude is everything’
It turned out it really was all in his head — but in a way Jason Cohen never could have imagined when a variety of ailments, all “pretty odd,” first sent him to his primary care physician searching for answers.
Fatigue was a primary problem, then severe stomach pains, but two years of doctor visits failed to find a diagnosis.
“My friends and [life partner] Patrick started teasing me and calling me a hypochondriac because there was always something wrong with me,” Cohen recalled.
He switched to new, more receptive doctor; meanwhile, his symptoms got worse.
“I eventually had my first seizure — it was non-convulsive so I was not aware it was a seizure at the time — but did not tell my doctor about it for months until it happened while I was driving one day and almost had a terrible accident,” Cohen said.
“I was so embarrassed that I cried when I told my doctor,” he continued. “They could not find anything physically wrong with me so I started thinking that maybe it was all in my head and that he thought I was crazy — little did I know it literally was in my head!”
The seizures prompted his doctor to order a battery of tests, including a scan of his brain.
“I did not make it to the hospital parking lot after my CT scan before my phone rang and he came to find me to talk to me,” Cohen said.
He was diagnosed with a brain tumor on Aug. 18, 2005. Surgery a month later showed it covered more than one-third of his right brain, which controls the left side of the body. The official diagnosis was Grade 3 Anaplastic Astrocytoma — cancer.
“Looking back all of my ailments were on the left side of my body,” Cohen said.
He described his initial reaction to the diagnosis as “absolute shock.”
“I was about to turn 30 years old, starting the prime of my youth, how could I have a brain tumor?”
Telling his parents about the tumor was worse than telling him he is gay, Cohen said.
“It was harder to tell my parents about my brain tumor than it was coming out to them at the age of 17 while still living in their house. … They both asked me if I was kidding and to please stop it.”
Cohen’s cancer is not curable, and doctors initially expected him to live only two years, even advising his partner and parents to make sure he had a good Christmas that year.
That was more than six years ago.
The road hasn’t been easy, but Cohen has persevered through a combination of positive attitude, sometimes dark “tumor humor,” and strong support from Patrick, his family and friends.
“Luckily, I am blessed with a wonderful partner who has been my rock through everything I have gone through. … As long as I have him by my side, I know there is nothing I can’t face head on,” Cohen said.
After his first craniotomy surgery in September 2005, Cohen faced radiation and chemotherapy. The medications caused bone tissue death in his hips, and he endured two hip replacement surgeries, in March 2008 and August 2009.
He stopped working, then reached out to help others by volunteering in increasingly involved roles as a peer partner at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, where he had been treated.
In December 2010, on his final day of hosting Winship’s Gifts in the Garden fundraiser and the day before his and Patrick’s seventh anniversary, Cohen learned his tumor was growing again.
He had another craniotomy in April 2011, followed by chemotherapy and allergic reactions. But Cohen recently celebrated a milestone — his doctors decided he could stop chemo five months short of the year of treatment originally prescribed.
“Since my recent scans continue to look good and the tumor cavity appears to be shrinking, my oncologist decided that seven treatments was satisfactory and I was allowed to come off of chemotherapy five months early,” he said.
Now Cohen is looking forward to 2012, hoping to get back to volunteering at Emory.
He encourages others with cancer to be their own advocates, refuse to be statistics, lean on family and friends, and remember that “above all else, attitude is everything.”
“When people speak of cancer they tend to whisper the word like it is the dirtiest word in the world and I was determined to change that stigma,” Cohen said. “I chose to speak openly and honestly about having cancer and still do to this day, even having a grey cancer ribbon tattooed on my wrist.”
He hopes his story will help others facing similar health challenges.
“Maybe knowing me and how well I have done will help someone else if a person they love is ever diagnosed.”
— Laura Douglas-Brown
Getting in shape: ‘Short Fat Girl’ Lisa Getzinger
‘This has just become a part of my life’
Topping the scales at 248 pounds and watching her mother die at 48 of a heart attack, Lisa Getzinger knew she had to change her life completely to avoid a similar fate.
“It was a kick in the seat,” she said of her mother’s death.
Getzinger, 47, who quit smoking eight years ago, liked to eat out a lot, drink several beers and sit on the couch watching TV. As a child and all through her life, she struggled with her weight. But after working in a diabetes and endocrinology clinic and seeing other people suffer because of poor health habits, she knew she didn’t want to end up sick or like her mother.
Ten months ago, Getzinger joined a local fitness boot camp. She was the heaviest participant, finishing last in all exercises, but determined to keep going.
“When I first started I couldn’t do one sit up, now I’m doing 25 sit ups in under a minute,” she said. “On my first day I almost threw up. I’ve learned to love ice and Advil.”
Not only that, Getzinger has run several 5Ks and triathlons. Next up is the Warrior Dash in May. She also keeps a blog titled Short Fat Girl.
“My partner is now joining me and we run together on the weekends. We’re like a team. We bought bicycles and ride from Decatur to Stone Mountain. We like to take our dogs on walks for 2.5 to 3.5 miles on the weekend. My attitude has changed 100 percent,” she said.
Getzinger, a volunteer with the Health Initiative, credits boot camp for keeping her interested in being healthy.
“Boot camp is all about the buddy system and I feed on that,” she said.
“They want you to succeed. They make me feel good about myself. And they hate the name of my website, Short Fat Girl,” she said, laughing.
The blog, Getzinger says, is a way for her to keep herself in check. People she doesn’t know read and will ask for tips or more about her story and even ask why she hasn’t posted in several weeks or months.
Currently, she and her partner, Kristy Gibson, together 10 years, are considering starting a fitness program for young people. Getzinger said as a child she was picked on because of her size and she wants to help young people in the same situation begin to find ways to lead a healthier lifestyle.
“When you start surrounding yourself with inspiring people you want to be inspiring,” she said.
Getzinger admits she is still the one who comes in last in the exercises and competitions at boot camp. She acknowledges she argues with herself every morning about whether or not she will go and face the elements for a rigorous workout. It’s not easy and it takes discipline.
But, she said, eventually you will want to run that mile or do those sit ups early in the morning.
“[Recently] I worked out with a temperature of 26 degrees and now I can brag about it,” she said. “This has just become a part of my life.”
Short Fat Girl blog
— Dyana Bagby