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April 25, 2024

Francisco Davila on becoming a ‘Peaceful Warrior’

When Francisco Davila was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2021, he vowed to keep up his active lifestyle. He says it saved him.

Francisco Davila on becoming a ‘Peaceful Warrior’

By Loreen Pindera

The Alto de Letras is the world’s longest mountain pass – and one of the most gruelling cycling climbs on Earth. In February 2024, Montrealer Francisco Davila returned to his native Colombia to make the ascent. “It was much, much harder than I thought,” he said. “Seven hours of relentless climbing, always going up, up, up for 83 kilometres.” Almost 4,000 metres of elevation gain. Tired legs. Thin air. “By the time you reach the last 12 kilometres, it’s like breathing through a mask. After going through what I have, I just felt very lucky to be able to do it.”

Conquer it, he did. It was an epic feat, made more astonishing by the fact that less than a year before, Francisco underwent a second round of surgery for rectal cancer.

Francisco, 53, didn’t become a cycling enthusiast until recently. But he has been physically active all his life. He grew up playing soccer, surfing and practising jiu jitsu. Staying fit and focused on sports is how he survived a childhood in Medellín, the only child of a hard-working single mother. He was driven to succeed, escaping poverty as a young man by finding work at the beach resorts of Venezuela’s Isla Margarita. Eventually, he landed in Montreal.

Fast-forward to 2021, and Francisco was living his dream, happily married, the father of three girls, a personal trainer and owner of Athletica Studio in the Town of Mount Royal. Then came the news that sent him spinning. He had rectal cancer.

“It had to be me?” he asked. “It was a big shock.”

How could this happen to a man who didn’t drink, who never took drugs, who had devoted his life to helping others get healthy?

“The first night was really hard. You had to wrap your mind around the idea. You don’t know if you are going to make it. You don’t know how much the cancer has spread at that moment. So you go into a vortex of desperation, frustration, pain, anger.”

“That lasted one night.”

Francisco realized if he had to face months, perhaps years, of dealing with cancer, he had to do his best to stack the odds in his favour. With the support of his wife Amélie, Francisco vowed to keep showing up at the gym every day that he was able: working out, encouraging his clients and continuing to model his active lifestyle.

“Exercising was fundamental for me, to strengthen not just the body but the hope,” Francisco says. “It’s about feeling good. It’s the peaceful warrior mentality that you’re OK with the universe. You’re accepting you are sick. You’re praying things will improve, but the immediate thing you could do is bring the odds in your favour.”

After months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the tumour, he underwent surgery in December 2021 and, three months later, a procedure to reverse a colostomy. By summer, there was no sign of cancer, so he, Amélie and their girls flew to Costa Rica to celebrate. But weeks later, the tell-tale signs of cancer were back. He felt weak. There was blood in his stool. He was losing weight.

“Nobody that has not gone through something so big will understand,” Francisco muses. “The way I conducted my life, you think, ‘I’m going to live to 80. I’m going to be OK.’ As it happens, destiny has a different journey for you.”

What followed was another regimen of radiation treatment, then more surgery in March 2023 and a second temporary colostomy. This time, Francisco rested a little more, but soon he was back in the saddle – literally. By summer, he’d joined a group of Montreal cyclists on their annual four-day, 550-km trek to Kennebunkport, Maine.

He prepared himself mentally as much as physically.

“You create a desire in yourself. You nourish it, you feed that desire. You see what you need to do. You create a routine, and you stick to it.”

“I said, ‘I’m going.’ I asked my doctors and said, ‘Hopefully you tell me I can go because I’m going to go anyways.’”

For now, Francisco is cancer-free, feeling strong and optimistic. And he is a changed man: more empathetic, just as driven as before, but driven to compassion rather than to material success. He embraces every day as an opportunity to live fully – and to love fully. Not just those he calls “easy to love” – his daughters, Amélie and his friends – but the ones it takes effort to love, like the driver who cuts him off on a city street.

“Everything you do has to be done with love,” he says. “Your day just becomes a lot lighter, a lot better.”

Francisco credits cancer for bringing his life into such sharp focus.

“It has been the most revealing journey I have ever taken,” he says. Tougher, perhaps, than Alto de Letras, but like the feeling he had upon reaching the summit at Páramo de Letras, “that suffering was worth it, I swear.”

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