Battling Prostate Cancer With Weight Lifting – This is where his 22 years of battling prostate cancer disappear by sheer iron will.
It happens beneath the plated metal poised on the bench press in the bowels of Harrisburg’s century-old YMCA. The basement weight room is appropriately dubbed the dungeon.
There, powerlifter Gerald “Jake” Burke, age 75, takes position underneath 260-plus pounds. He wraps his hands tightly around the bar. His eyes narrow, focusing on the weight. He sucks in a deep breath and his whole body tenses as he jerks the weight from bench’s rack.
Metal clangs. The heavy load now dangles directly above his broad chest.
His muscles quiver slightly as if in anticipation. After a single frozen moment holding the weight, he lowers it all the way down to his fully flexed pecs. Then, all the strength coiled up in his entire torso surges into his hands, pushing the load back into the air.
Voices from all around bark into his ear. “It’s you! Up, up, up! You got this, Jake!”
Everything is in the lift now. There are growls and grimaces. His face contorts and reddens. His mouth disappears into a tightly clenched line.
The bar rises until it reaches the height of his fully-locked arms. He releases a relieved, exhausted exhale as a spotter grabs for the bar, guiding it back to the rack.
Jake’s prostate cancer, which has roared back following a long remission, is completely gone, if only for the moment.
“Cancer isn’t allowed in the weight room,” Jake explains later in a PennLive interview. “If it’s not in my mind, it’s not there. I’m not thinking about it.”
This has been his secret weapon for beating cancer for 22 years now. In fact, Jake took up powerlifting when he was first diagnosed in his early 50s. He was reluctant, but Long-time YMCA powerlifter Steve Fink convinced him to give weight training a chance.
“Steve said, ‘do you want to try this?’” recalled Jake, who resides in Harrisburg. “I said, ‘you’re crazy. I can’t do that’.”
Turns out, he could.
The first time Jake wrapped his hands around a bar, the number on the weights was about 95 pounds.
But he kept at it, eventually competing in 60- and 70-year-old categories in regional, national and international powerlifting competitions. This culminated in a second place in the bench press at an international event in South Africa in 2014. There were 304 pounds on the bar.
Jake’s personal best bench press in competition is 330 pounds. In the gym, it’s 350. Steve, who was spotting him at the time, confirms this.
Powerlifting not only changed Jake’s life — it saved it.
“I thought this was going to be a good way to build up my immune system,” Jake said of his initial decision to begin lifting.
Over the years, it has built much more.
The YMCA’s basement weight room became Jake’s cancer-free refuge. A close-knit group of powerlifters who call themselves “the beasts of the dungeon” form Jake’s support system — and he, theirs. Most are in their 50s, 60s and 70s – a band of brothers battling age.
“What we do is something not a lot of people do at our age,” Jake said. “We’re down here getting it in and living our lives. We’re living as strong as we can.”
The newest member of those dungeon beasts is Brent Stine of Harrisburg. At 69, he was fresh off a hip replacement that put an end to his running career.
“I thought, ‘Geez, is this the end of what I can accomplish?’” said Stine, now 70. “Even though I was not a class runner, it was important for me to go out once in a while and compete in a 5K and go out every day and run.”
So as Steve had done for him, Jake brought Brent to the dungeon.
“We started him out on tens on each side of the bar,” Jake recalled. “We worked our way up. Now, he’s a 235- to 245-pound bencher.”
In fact, Stine just won his age division in the bench press at a powerlifting competition in York. He has the medal to prove it.
“He’s my champion,” said Jake, who seems to draw as much satisfaction from other’s success as his own.
“It makes me proud to know maybe I have done something to help somebody accomplish a goal,” Jake said. “It’s about making each and every individual do their best with what they have available to them.”
Age is just another number in the weight room. So is the weight a new lifter starts at. Instead, it’s all about personal progression. The only way to achieve it is to push.