Animal flow regional leader and coach Clark Cheung was at the peak of his career when he unexpectedly had to face the hardest battle of all: cancer. Clark led an active and healthy lifestyle when he was diagnosed with a stage IV follicular lymphoma that had metastasized to his bone marrow at the shy age of 34. After the shock, his coach mindset kicked in and he grasped the nettle as he coped with chemo cycles like they were high-intensity training. Although giving himself up to commiseration would be more than understandable, the passionate animal flow coach made a choice to see cancer in a different way. After being diagnosed in April 2021, it only took him three months to get back to teaching animal flow, a workout he first introduced in town and a driving force in his life. We chatted with Clark Cheung about this ground-based workout and his battle with cancer.
For those who might not be familiar with you, please tell our readers what you do.
I am a fitness coach in Macau and an animal flow regional leader. I also have a passion for theater and often act in plays in the cultural center and the old court.
When and how did an interest in fitness and wellness spark?
My interest in fitness and a healthy lifestyle sparked in 2014 while working in a cold-pressed juices parlor, Greens. I also wanted to become stronger. I went to Hong Kong to get my fitness coach certification and by the end of 2015, I was already working at the gym at Studio City as a fitness instructor. I left the position a couple of months later to do freelance fitness coaching. In 2018, I came across a modality on social media. One of my favorite MMA fighters was performing some movements on the ground, crawling all around and it left me intrigued since I couldn’t tell what it was. I went online and did some research on what I had seen and found a series of new-to-me movements. That was animal flow.
I found a studio in Hong Kong where I could get my animal flow certification and immediately registered. Even with my background as a fitness coach, at first, I couldn’t get the animal flow movements right! It seemed so easy on social media videos. So I kept trying harder and harder to perfect each movement. In 2019 I went to Koh Samui for a week of animal flow mentorship, which has considerably broadened my horizons in terms of training and movement. When I came back from Thailand, I created an animal flow course to introduce the modality to the local audience. My first class had only six people. However, when the pandemic hit and people found themselves unable to leave the city, they started to look for something new to do in the city. Suddenly I was coaching six classes, between 60 and 70 people. I had to get an assistant instructor to help me keep up with the high demand for animal flow classes.
What is animal flow? Why do you think it’s so popular?
Animal flow enhances flexibility, mobility, core strength, and most importantly, having four supporting points on the floor increases body awareness. We teach people how to move on the ground and use their upper bodies. Those who are not fitness enthusiasts might go for a run occasionally, play golf, or any other movement, don’t train so much their upper body, and risk losing the primal connection that is the movement of having their palms on the floor. Once people have their palms on the floor their brain starts reloading and processing the fact that they’re not only using their two feet anymore. It’s like unleashing the animal inside our bodies. In my classes, there’s also a strong sense of community. Classes are divided into several groups practicing moves and they try their utmost to get it right while cheering and motivating each other. To be honest, I enjoy more leading animal flow group classes than one on one. However, those who seek to perfect the technique will benefit more from one on one classes.
I think animal flow’s popularity has to do with the marketing behind it, which is doing really well. Cool videos on social media attract people’s attention and make them feel like trying it out.
What are the benefits of practicing animal flow? Who would you recommend it to?
The benefits are increased body awareness, flexibility, core strength, and mobility. I would recommend it to everyone regardless of age, as long as they can move and don’t suffer from any injuries. My youngest student is six years old and the oldest is 65. I personalize the level for my students so all are welcome to join!
Where can people have a session of Clark Cheung guided animal flow?
What are your thoughts on the current wellness scene in Macau?
If you were to ask me this in 2020 I’d say it’s booming! But since then things have slowed down, which was predictable because the Macau market is not that big. At some point, there were streets with four different fitness studios, which is insane. The market was becoming overcrowded and only the best managed to survive. On the other hand, this is a very positive sign of a society that is focused on health. Fitness and working out are now a part of people’s routine, people make time for it and consider it a priority.
In April 2021, at the shy age of 34, you were diagnosed with Stage IV follicular lymphoma. Could you share with our readers the story of your battle with cancer?
I’m always happy to share. It all started when I noticed the right side of my neck was swollen and had two small nodes. I didn’t give it much thought, just wondered if perhaps I had eaten too much junk food during the lockdown. I quit the junk food and went back to my healthy diet and although the nodes didn’t disappear, they became smaller. Cancer never crossed my mind. A couple of months later, the nodes had spread all over my neck so my wife helped me to have it checked up in Kiang Wu Hospital. The doctor decided to remove four nodes for testing and in order to determine whether it was a benign or malignant tumor. Two weeks later the reports came out and showed I had follicular lymphoma.
Looking back now, I realize I might have ignored a few symptoms like fatigue and night sweats. Some days, during the lockdown, I was teaching eight to ten clients a day, one on one! I thought that was the reason I was fatigued so I didn’t take it seriously. But that was a signal from my body. Doctors later told me that it is actually common for cancer to spread quickly for those who are too active and don’t get enough rest. Perhaps that’s the reason I might have gone from stage I to stage IV so quickly plus, I had no family history of cancer.
How would you describe the moment you found out you had cancer?
I would compare it to being dumped by a girlfriend that you love dearly and treat like a queen! This has happened to me quite a lot during my teenage years I must confess (laughs). I consider myself a healthy person and I’ve worked so hard for my health that it felt tremendously unfair to be facing such a severe illness. The day after I got my preliminary diagnosis, I went back with my wife to see the doctor again so we could learn more about what kind of cancer we were dealing with. I still remember the doctor’s exact words: “Mr. Cheung, I regret to inform you that you have a stage IV follicular lymphoma and we found cancer cells in your bone marrow too, which means it has metastasized.” My whole world crumbled at that point. I just couldn’t accept it and refused to undergo treatment.
Why did you refuse to do the treatment?
When I got the diagnosis in April, I was part of the organization of a big event set to take place in May. It was a three-day, two-night walk from Macau to Guangzhou. I wanted to do the event so badly and taking the treatment would mean canceling it. Also, I had heard of so many cases of people who undergo treatment and no matter how many chemo cycles they do in the end, they still don’t make it. My cancer was already a stage IV. I contemplated accepting that the end was near for me and doing the things I loved the most while I still could.
But you eventually agreed to do the treatment. What made you change your mind?
I learned that the treatment was totally free of charge at Conde S. Januário Hospital, which I wasn’t aware of before. But more important than that, there were a few turning points that made me change my mind. The attitude of the doctor and nurse touched me deeply. They treated me as if I were their own son and showed an earnest will to help me pull through. The nurse even handled all the paperwork for me so I could get treatment immediately and for free.
One day I was having breakfast with my wife in Coloane Village and one of the sponsors for the event I was organizing showed up. He suggested we should cancel the event so I could do what I had to do. I was shocked because I wasn’t expecting him and I hadn’t told him about my illness. Later I learned that my wife and godfather both knowing I was being stubborn and stupid, spoke with the sponsor so they could get his help to convince me to get treated. We all cried together that morning. My sister, who lives in Hong Kong, was also calling and yelling at me, urging me to do the treatment. All these people were worried about me and I felt terribly sorry for that. At some point, I even blamed myself for having cancer. After the chat with the sponsor in Coloane, I went to see the doctor and told him I was ready to start my treatment.
Once I was admitted to the hospital for my first chemo cycle, I felt so sick I couldn’t sleep. The side effects were harsh. I noticed that older patients around me required assistance for the most basic needs, like eating. I was the youngest in that hospital ward and I was lucky I could still manage to do everything by myself. There was a fire and a voice inside telling me “You can still do everything by yourself. You’re still good so fight for yourself”. My coach mindset kicked in. I was committed to fighting cancer and I started seeing it in a different way. I took it as a high-intensity workout, the hardest I ever had to face in my life.
Is it true you kept teaching animal flow all along?
Not all along. After my fourth chemo cycle, I went back to teaching a class per week. During the time I was unable to teach, my students kept practicing on their own. I felt their passion for animal flow and that motivated me to go back. I told them once I felt better I’d go back to teaching them. Midway through treatment, my PET scan exam showed good progress so I decided to go back to animal flow training. I was diagnosed in April and I was back to teaching in July, after my fourth chemo cycle.
How important do you think it is to keep a positive mindset when battling cancer? More importantly, how to do so when facing such hardship?
Because my cancer had metastasized to my bone marrow, my chemotherapy had to be done through a lumbar puncture. During treatments, I put on my AirPods, listened to music, and laid still while the toxin ran through my body. After each treatment, I felt extremely nauseous for a whole week. I couldn’t even drink milk while sitting down, I had to stand up otherwise I felt like vomiting. Sometimes, if you do too many burpees you feel like that too. So I used my coach mindset to help me through it. I was used to training so hard, I could live through a bad week too. That is why exercising is so important, it trains the mind too. Through exercise, we learn to accept and overcome difficulties in our lives. In six months I did six cycles of chemo and my “six-pack” became a “one-pack”. I lost my shape, but I kept my strength. Now when I tell my story to people and I tell them that they too can become strong, it really resonates with them. Also, all the love around me helped me through this difficult time. I felt it not only from family and friends but from unexpected people on social media and clients.
We need to see cancer in a different way, I would even say we need to see it in a positive way. We need to let go of the anger, a feeling which of course in the beginning I’ve experienced too. Nowadays I feel thankful I had cancer. It sorted out my value, it showed me who really cares about me and who I really love. Now I know who I really need to be focusing on. The people I really care about, now I care about them even more. When you’re going too fast you lose focus. This cancer stopped me and opened my eyes.
While fighting cancer I kept being myself. I couldn’t work out so much so I’d go on hikes. I treated myself as a normal person. I was still Clark Cheung! No hair, but still handsome (laughs).
What would you like to say to others fighting cancer?
Try it in a different way. If you really love doing something, keep doing it because even cancer can’t stop you. Keep having faith in your life. Stay strong and positive. You’ll feel sad, frustrated, depressed, and stressed along the way. I’ve been there. After a couple of weeks, you’ll feel better. Then you’ll face another chemo cycle and go through the same feelings and emotions all over again. No problem, just hang in there. The day you get over cancer you’ll know you’ve become stronger. Cancer’s got nothing on you.
You are now free from cancer and we couldn’t be happier for you. How has this battle changed you and the way you see life?
Ever since my diagnosis, every day I wake up, step on the floor and tell myself “I am alive. I am still here”. I never took the time to acknowledge that gift during my 33 years of life before having cancer. There’s a lingering feeling of gratitude. The second day after my third chemo cycle I had a great night of sleep and I felt so good I cried. I felt so grateful for sleeping well, which may seem trivial to others, but during my first few chemo cycles, I could barely sleep. In a sense, I feel like a child now because children are so curious. I am curious again to see the world, meet new people, talk to people and know more about people, listen to them carefully.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to keep the animal flow flowing not just in Macau but maybe in China too and introduce it to more people. I don’t want to force people to fall in love with it, but at least show them how much I love it by sharing my story. Even after having cancer, I’m still practicing and enjoying it. That’s how much I love it.