Officially Cured of Cancer

In so many ways, I was never prepared for this moment of my life, and it’s nothing like how I pictured it.

10 years ago, if you had told me that I would be writing a blog post in 2020 about being cured of cancer, I would probably have been grateful, but also slightly horrified about the future developments in store for me.

Five years ago, if you had told me that I would be celebrating my officially being cured of cancer by doing basically nothing because of a global pandemic, I would have thought you were writing some sort of dystopian fan fiction about my life.

When I finished chemo and learned that five years of remission was my new mission, I was convinced that we would celebrate my eventual cure by going out for a big steak dinner like we did when I first received the joyous “No Evidence of Disease” proclamation. We would invite family and friends to join us for the summer backyard party of the century. We would continue the celebration with a trip to Hawaii or some other exotic locale we hadn’t experienced yet.

But none of this is happening. And it doesn’t even matter…Today is a day of joy and gratitude. The wait is over. I am blessed beyond measure. Time to buy some life insurance!

In a way, it’s fitting that the reality of my “cured date” would be as surreal as everything else about the experience of being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. I’ve written elsewhere about how so much of the pandemic social distancing/shelter in place protocols are reminiscent of the lifestyle of a cancer patient. Why shouldn’t this journey toward cured end as strangely as it began?

It’s also fitting that the pandemic has allowed me to spend the majority of my time savoring the greatest blessings of my life–my wife and children–that I am only enjoying because God and modern medicine swooped in to save me from a fatal disease.

There is certainly uncertainty and stress in our day-to-day lives right now, but we are dealing mostly with mere inconveniences and have thus far been spared any real tragedy connected to the pandemic. I am fortunate to be able to work from home (just like when I had cancer!) and we are blessed to be sheltering in our comfortable home and using this time to survive, thrive, and establish the culture of our family with three children aged four and below.

The operative word in the paragraph above is spared. While not the word I embraced when I was first diagnosed or at any of the rougher moments of my treatment, I freely embrace it now, every time I hear about a new cancer patient or the tragic outcome of another cancer victim. I was spared in so many ways with a fully treatable form of lymphoma, stable financial and adaptable occupational situations that were not disrupted by cancerous medical costs, a top-rated oncologist guiding my treatment, few serious side effects, and the ability to have children after chemo–even though my doctor told me it was highly unlikely.

In fact, I was so spared in my cancer experience that the survivor guilt sometimes rides higher than it should. Rather than asking “why me?” as I did at the outset of this rollercoaster, I can find myself asking “why not me?” Why should I have been spared when others with the same disease are not so fortunate? Why should I have been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma instead of a deadlier form of cancer? I was somehow unaware of this statistic until I saw it on Wikipedia just now, but Hodgkin’s Lymphoma accounts for just 10 percent of all lymphoma cases. 90 percent of cases are the deadlier and more complicated to treat non-Hodgkin’s variety.

These questions are at best useless and at worst self-defeating. And yet they have persisted. Even five years after fighting cancer and being spared, the psychological trauma of facing your impending doom and embarking on a mandatory self-poisoning road to recovery will rear its ugly head in the strangest of ways.

For me, it forces existential questions like the ones posed above. But it also has sewn a disconcerting distrust between my body and my brain. Fool me once, shame on you. Give me cancer, shame on everybody. My brain feels betrayed by my body. What’s stopping that from happening again? My pre-existing hypochondriac condition was aided and abetted by my cancer experience. I have lost count of the number of times I have stress-Googled and diagnosed myself with various maladies, always checking to see if Hodgkin’s survivors are at a greater risk for these perceived new conditions that I’m so sure I’ve contracted.

The freshest–and somewhat laughable–occurrence came at my most recent visit to my oncologist. Since I have been dealing more frequently with bouts of Raynaud Syndrome (this one isn’t in my head…my fingers turn as deadly white as this), my doctor wanted to collect copious amounts of my blood and run a battery of tests for various autoimmune diseases and arthritis. In the few days between the blood draw and the follow-up appointment, I had firmly convinced myself that I would be diagnosed with lupus. You like #DownWithLumpy? You’ll love #DownWithLupus.

I was so dreading the actual test results that they took my blood pressure three times to see if it was really as high as what the machine was showing. It was. When the doctor came in, it might shock you to learn that I did not, in fact, have lupus or any other autoimmune disease. I am in good health and got to hear my oncologist’s (and my) favorite refrain once again: You’re more likely to get hit by a car than to have your cancer come back. That’s music to my ears and the rest of my lupus-free body.

But this is a celebratory post, and as I’ve reiterated in many of my cancer-versary-type posts over the years, the trauma of facing cancer has left many more positives than negatives in my life, so much so that I actually find myself grateful for the experience.

Just so this post can be even more ridiculously long, I’ll close things out with 5 positive outcomes and lessons from my cancer experience.

  1. Empathy is important.
    I have an empathy for cancer patients, survivors and their families that can only come with firsthand experience. When someone tells you that they are undergoing chemo, for example, there’s no way for someone who hasn’t experienced that to understand what they will be going through. Even for people with far worse cancers and treatment experiences than me, I have a better glimpse of what their journey looks like. This makes me want to eradicate cancer from the earth and support cancer patients in any way that I can. One way I do so is by raising money for cancer organizations like Imerman Angels and the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation. Click here to make a donation to my current fundraiser in celebration of my cured status. Thanks to those who have already donated or have donated to previous fundraisers over the years. I am truly grateful.
  2. Sharing my story was vital.
    This blog was a vital way for me to capture and process my emotions throughout the battle. By meticulously cataloging my experiences, I have also left a raw/emotional/hopefully humorous/complete record for future Hodgkin’s patients to discover as they Google the disease in disbelief and fear after being diagnosed. My blog traffic report frequently shows a small number of visitors viewing a large number of posts–which always means another Hodgkin’s diagnosis has gotten its wings. I could not find a comprehensive account when I was in that position myself, and I have been gratified by those who have read my story and reached out in gratitude. I hope that I have inspired others to be more open about what they’re going through to the extent that they are comfortable with that. I certainly felt more supported and loved by sharing my story. Plus, five years later, I finally found something to host a podcast about!
  3. Cancer defines me now. I need to let it.
    I will always be a cancer survivor, and that’s never going away. It will always take me longer than you to fill out a medical history form. While I take great pride in being a survivor, there’s also a perpetual awkwardness about how and when to let other people know about this essential detail of my existence. Whenever I make a new friend or coworker, this piece of my puzzle inevitably comes up, and I have to figure out how to present it in a way that doesn’t make them question my current constitution (“No! I’m cured! Don’t look at me like that!”) but also represents the monumental effect this experience had on my life. I’m still working on this.
  4. Cancer doesn’t define me now. I don’t need to let it.
    Despite all of the above, five years cancer-free sometimes feels like a lifetime. Some of my memories of that time are easily recalled, but in other ways, cancer was an out-of-body experience that feels disconnected from my current stage of life. It helped make me the person that I am today, but it’s not something that I dwell on every day, nor should it be. There should be no guilt associated with getting on with your life–even when that sometimes means that you aren’t being as grateful or compassionate as you should, or that you’re taking things for granted that you swore you never would in the chemo-ridden moments five years ago. Cancer is a touchstone that I can use to reground myself and continually recognize the blessings in my life. I’m still working on this, too.
  5. Keep paying it forward.
    Five years later, everything about this experience seems so perfectly ordained by God to direct me toward a less selfish, more grateful, more compassionate way of life. These are the greatest lessons of cancer that I never want to forget, no matter how far the experience gets in the rearview mirror. Everyone is fighting a “cancer” of some sort in their life–how can we show up for them and help them with their struggle in same way that so many people willingly showed up for me? It’s OK to ask for help when you need it, it’s OK to accept help when you need it, and it’s absolutely essential to offer help when you can give it. And that can be as simple as a text message, a phone call or a funny meme shared on Facebook. When the stakes are high, the acts of kindness can be simple, and the effects can still be profound. I’m working on this one most of all.

Thank you for supporting me over the last five years. I am so grateful to have reached this milestone and for the people with whom I get to share my wonderful life.

I’M DONE WITH LUMPY!

Sign up for my newsletter!

In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t post on this blog very much anymore–and I’m not sure how much I really will ever again, as I’m shifting my limited time for writing efforts over to my Dad blog, my Medium page, and my newsletter.

“You have a newsletter, Matt?” Why, yes, I do. I’m glad you asked! And you can subscribe to it by clicking this link.

I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to write long and deep blog posts here, but I’ve realized that a father of three just ain’t got time for that. I tried this newsletter idea a couple years ago, and our current “Shelter in Place” situation has me craving the ability to just share shorter-form writing.

The newsletter will provide some (briefer) written thoughts as well as links to anything I’ve written elsewhere, other links/videos/music that I find and want to share, and whatever else happens to strike me as worth including. I don’t know how long or if I will keep it up, but I have not given it a name tied to a single decade of my life, so at least I won’t be limited in that regard.

Rounding 30 has served me well, and I’m honestly proud of how often I wrote in it to wax poetic on the big moments of the last 8 years–especially capturing the details and emotions of my cancer journey. I frequently return to these posts and have been gratified by the site traffic and emails I receive from fellow cancer fighters and survivors who have happened upon it and found it worthwhile.

If you enjoy my writing, I hope you subscribe to my Dad blog using the subscription box on the home page or to my newsletter, or just send me an email at roundingthirty at gmail.com and I can manually add you to one or both.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me both in my writing and in this wonderfully blessed life that I’ve expended so many words writing about. It’s almost time to round 40, and hopefully you’ll stay tuned for those adventures, too.

Five Years After My Cancer Diagnosis

January 2, 2015. That’s five years ago, but I’ll never forget being told I had cancer.

I immediately got light-headed and felt like I was going to pass out. I always thought people fainting from receiving bad news was an exaggeration in movies and TV shows, but there I was, suddenly covered in a cold sweat over every inch of my suddenly cancerous body.

My wife of almost 4 months put her arm around me for support–a posture she would maintain physically, emotionally and psychologically for the next six months, as we celebrated our first married Valentine’s Day in a hospital room and marched together through six long months of chemotherapy.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is the good kind of cancer, a fact I am forever grateful for, especially as I look back on the experience now and await the all clear “cured” status of five years’ remission this summer. But cancer is cancer and chemo is chemo. It was devastating and difficult, while simultaneously sanctifying and transformative. I’m a survivor now, and I claim that title with a cocktail of pride and humility at the company it puts me in.

How will I talk about this experience with my kids? How will I explain to them the love that I felt from family, friends and strangers who supported me from near and far, in physical and metaphysical ways? I want them to understand the importance of being there for people when life is unexpectedly turned upside down, even if being there just means sending a text message or a card. I want them to understand the real and awesome power of prayer. I want them to believe that bad things can be used to illuminate the best things, and that God is present in all of it. I want them to understand that I believe I was spared from this disease so that they could be born, and so that I would be prepared to be a better father for them.

I want them to know that I am grateful for this experience in ways that I never would have thought remotely possible as I sat in a sterile examination room and almost hit the deck at the news of my diagnosis.

I’m not who I was before I had cancer, and I never will be again. In most of the ways that matter, I believe that’s a good thing.

Please say a prayer tonight for everyone who is battling cancer, those who have conquered it and those who died bravely in the fight. Say another prayer for all the heroic caretakers of cancer patients. If you know someone currently battling the disease, please send them a message of support right now. You don’t know how much it will mean to them, but I do.

#DownWithLumpy

These Are the Good Old Days

I recently happened upon this magnificent post by Michele Weldon, my one-time college journalism professor, two-time work colleague and all-time fellow cancer survivor.

The piece is remarkable in its poignancy and enviable in its prose. I read through it a few times–and even though Michele and I are not that close in age–her words really resonated, shocking me into a renewed sense of gratitude for my current moment in life that has lingered long after I closed the tab on her essay.

One image Michele offered hit me particularly hard in the taking-my-life-for-granted department:

I am the old lady in the lap lane … I swim in the same pool where I took my three children when they were young and never seemed to get tired; now I wonder how many laps I have left in me.

While I don’t swim, I immediately applied this haunting passage to my own life and the things I do with my kids. I could suddenly see myself walking the two blocks to the beautiful park by our house on a sunny summer Saturday, pulling my two beautiful kids behind me in the second-hand Little Tikes wagon our neighbor gifted to us. I could see myself idly checking my phone as I pushed my kids in the swings, preoccupied with thoughts about a work project and impatiently wondering when it would be nap time so I could take them back home and finally get some time to myself.

I didn’t hear the question my three-year-old daughter was trying to ask me until she raised her voice in frustration to ask it a third time. I didn’t notice that my one-year-old son was smiling up at me as he laughed with each thrilling sway of the swing. This outing had become a time-killing necessity, not a joyful bonding moment. I was embodying the kind of father I swore I’d never become–unengaged, unaware and ungrateful.

I didn’t notice the elderly man sitting on the park bench, wistfully taking in the Rockwellian scene of a father spending quality time with his two children. In this revery, I’m that guy, too. I’m the old man in the lap lane–walking ever more slowly the two blocks to the park where I spent so much time with my kids. There were times when I didn’t appreciate it enough in the moment, but there were even more times when I did. All of those times are enough to bring a tear to the old man’s eye, and to this younger man’s eye as I think about that scenario.

I am grateful for Michele’s essay as a pause button in the midst of my seemingly chaotic life to force me to realize anew thatĀ theseĀ are the good old days. This chaos is what I was created for and what I have craved.

When Theresa and I were dating, one of us said that we would look back on that time of our relationship as “a real Golden Age.” We meant this in all seriousness at the time, but we have since frequently laughed at the remark, as time has proven its arrogance and inaccuracy. Despite the temptation to view those unencumbered, carefree, dopamine-fueled days as the summit of our association, the reality is that there have been countless better times since we got married. And these are the times that I want to fully invest myself in so that when I really do become that old man on the park bench, the single tear on my cheek is full of joy and not regret.

I don’t fear the reaper of the lap lane–I know I’ll be there eventually. My greatest fear is the sin of preoccupied apathy–robbing myself of truly experiencing special moments, memories and interactions because I’m simply not present enough or too wrapped up in my work, my stress and myself to even notice the specialness anymore.

There is no denying the seasonality of life. It’s what we unknowingly signed up for. You don’t get the thrill of the rollercoaster’s drop without first taking the arduous journey up the long hill of the track. But it’s as important as it is difficult to try to admire the view as you rise, to enjoy the excitement of the descent and to bask in the afterglow when the rollercoaster is back in the station. There’s value in all of those stages, and we miss the point of the ride when we fail to recognize that.

IMG_20190929_135248

This Is Where I Used To Live

I wrote my first blog post in a while over at Dad Has A Blog, and that got me doing the kind of reflective life pondering that usually leads me to post over here on my (also somewhat abandoned) “regular” blog. I knew it was meant to be when something happened today that flipped my nostalgia switch into overdrive.

There I was minding my own business at work when I got an email from Redfin. Now even though my real estate fortunes are fairly locked up in a 15-year mortgage on a house that I’m in the process of remodeling, Redfin still sends me friendly missives every once in a while. These are usually updates on how the value of my three-bedroom home is decreasing and the value of the two-bedroom condo I sold on Redfin five years ago is skyrocketing and now somehow worth more than I paid for my house. I’m not sure if this is supposed to fill me with regret or make me want to sell my house, but it’s mostly just making me hate Redfin.

Today’s message did not provide another helpful update though. It just reiterated the sale price of my condo and listed a bunch of other recent sales and listings in the area. This got me wondering how much condos in that complex were actually going for these days, so I scrolled down to look at the recent listings. I saw one that was listed for quite a bit more than I listed mine.

Unit 307. Wait a minute. 307? That’s my unit!

Instantly, someone cued the Barenaked Ladies in my head:

It was back on the market! That meant there were probably fresh photos of the current interior! I could virtually break into the old apartment!

Pathetic or not, this was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for me. I’d been wondering since I sold the place what the new owner would do with all the aesthetic decisions I had made. Being the first time that I ever lived away from home, I poured some money, sweat and personality into the place. My place.

Before moving in, I spent many weeknights there cleaning things and painting things and filling it with necessary new things to make it my home. I spent a lot of quality time at Home Depot. I cleaned every inch of every appliance, cabinet and countertop. I chose colors and repainted every wall. I had new carpeting installed. I had a tile entryway installed. I tried to fix a toilet. Then I hired someone to replace a toilet.

When the eventual new owner first toured it, I remember him looking at my blue-walled Cubs bathroom and muttering something about that being the first to go. Would my light purple Northwestern bathroom suffer the same fate? I remember his real estate agent coming back a second time to measure the dining room to see if his moose antler chandelier would fit in the space. I remember asking her if she was serious. She was. I believe the word she used to describe it was “impressive.”

I never expected to sell it as quickly as I did. According to my vague life plan, this was going to be my place for a while. And those brief years when it was my place were vital for my formation into the independent, self-sufficient and less selfish person that I have become.

The place is also inextricably linked in my mind to the courtship of my wife. Living on my own and having a condo meant my first sustained foray into the dating world. I remember preparing dinner in my kitchen for various would-be sweethearts–my specialty was baked salmon and green beans–only to have things end with the usual disappointment.

Then I met Theresa, and the memories get a lot better. I vividly recall the excitement of my phone buzzing on my nightstand with a new text from her. Or the first time she came over for dinner–yes, it was salmon–and we died of laughter afterward while watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special on the loveseat in my living room. Or that time that I didn’t think I would be seeing her one night and she texted me to look out on my balcony, where she was smiling below in the parking lot. Or the time we sat on the couch and she showed me her favorite engagement ring styles.

We threw some great parties here, watched a lot of movies here, practiced swing dancing here, played a lot of board games here, had a lot of fights here (especially after board games), and just spent a lot of time here. This is where we fell in love. We affectionately refer to this era as the Dopamine Days, and they are forever linked to this condo.

So I was very excited to see what had become of a place that has such a special place in my heart and memory.

See for yourself:

If you like his better, don’t tell me. Sing it, Ladies:

Why did you change the floor?
Why did you paint the wall?
Why did you swap appliances?
I see no moose here at all.
This is where we used to live.