Tony Handler on Beating The Odds


When doctors told Tony Handler he had two years to live they could not have been more wrong. Or were they? In some ways, it was the end of the old Tony and the beginning of a whole new way of life for him; one filled with activity, courage and gratitude.

At the age of 45, in 1983, Handler was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Doctors tried to fight it with every tool they had including multiple surgeries, chemo, and radiation to little avail. It was Handler who decided to fight it with fitness.

“Two years to live? I was desperate to think of some way to beat that prognosis,” remembers Handler. “From my hospital bed I saw the Ironman Triathlon on television and thought maybe something like that might help. It certainly didn’t seem that I had much to lose.”

While doctors were doing their thing, Handler did his. Running became part of his everyday schedule. Slowly, yet unmistakably, his body began to transform, but health challenges continued to threaten him. He has been treated for six types of cancer, needed an aortic valve replacement, had half of his thyroid removed, and has endured 22 surgeries.

“Every doctor I’ve had told me they believe my ability to recover was due to my physical conditioning,” said Handler. “It just made me more determined to stay as fit as I could.”

Handler began entering triathlons, nearly every one he could find. He could feel his body respond in an empowering way to the combination of running, cycling

and swimming. He was getting stronger, physically and mentally. His focus shifted from trying to avoid death to trying to live his life to the fullest.

When he turned 60 years old, an age where many are winding down, Handler celebrated by completing an Ironman Triathlon. “And I did it again when I was 61,” he said. “Just to prove the previous year wasn’t a fluke!”

He has completed over 300 triathlons, and he celebrated every birthday in his 70s by competing in a 1/2 Ironman. When he turned 80, he rode his bicycle 80 miles, 81 miles for his 81st and he recently rode 83 miles to celebrate turning 83 years old.

“I believe this shows that age is only a number, and that cancer patients should never give up,” he says. “I am proof there is always hope.”

He was told he had two years to live nearly 40 years ago. By focusing on his health and fitness, his fear of death gave way to a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to give back. He now holds an annual walk-run event for cancer research and created a support group for others on their cancer journey. At 83-years-old, Handler is a survivor and an inspiration.

“So many people will tell me, ‘You’re so impressive and I hope to be just like you at your age,’” he says. “To me that’s as good as a shot of adrenalin. To know I can represent hope for people, that really keeps me going!”

This article is featured in the November 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.

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