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.
I ran into a friend on my commute home this evening, who told me a story about one of his friends. This simple story was an instant lesson in humility.
My friend is a lawyer, and his friend — let’s call him Alex for the sake of this recounting — is also a lawyer. But there’s something else you should know about Alex: He has cerebral palsy.
I’m sure those two facts alone are enough to make you pause and reflect on all the challenges he had to overcome to embrace that vocation — and how relatively easy your path has been to get to wherever you are right now.
Alex’s life is a daily exercise in humility. Imagine being the person who holds up the train every morning so that the ramp can be employed to get you aboard. All I do is complain that the train is late. Imagine going to lunch with a friend and having to ask that friend to physically help you to use the restroom. Sometimes I wonder if I would even have the humility to be the helpful friend.
If you struggled daily against such overwhelming physical challenges since the day you were born, how would you be different? Would you complain as much about the petty daily annoyances that often seem so difficult and important in the moment?
If it was a physical struggle to get from Point A to Point B, I think my whole perspective would have to change. The challenge of doing simple things like getting on a train or having to wonder if a new location is handicapped accessible would probably force me to embrace the beauty of the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. Someone smiled at me.
The humbling part is that I don’t have such challenges, and yet I am usually unwilling to pause and recognize the blessing of the simple or the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. I have to stand on the train, but I am blessed to be physically capable of standing on the train.
It’s always a good time to be reminded of something that Alex proves every day: Our only real limitation is our inability to embrace what we do have.
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It’s almost the third anniversary of the day I started chemotherapy. It has been three years since chemo went from being something that my grandfather did when he was losing his life to lung cancer…to being something that I had to do to save my own.
It lasted for six months.
When I think about the enormity of that experience and its defining effect on my biography, it’s hard to believe that it can be fully encapsulated in a short hyphen between January 2015 and July 2015. That’s only half a year. That’s shorter than a pregnancy.
But when you’re pumping poison into your veins on a bi-weekly basis, you start to measure time differently.
You’re measuring the time between lying on the floor on a mattress in the living room and going back to lie down in your bed. (Healthy folks call that a “day.”) You’re measuring the time between weekly oncologist visits. You’re measuring the time between meals you’re forcing yourself to eat. You’re measuring the time between when you start to feel a little bit better and when you have to go back for more poison.
I was dealt the cruel hand of starting out with a treatment plan calling for three months of chemo that suddenly evolved into six months somewhere around the middle of the first three. Time seems to move a lot slower when you think you’re halfway done with something and it turns out that you’re further back than where you were when you started.
When other people find out you had chemo, you get instant credibility. You must be so strong. So resilient. It’s unimaginable having to go through that. They can’t believe you actually did it.
The distance from the chemo experience and the relative lack of reoccurence scares in its wake has led me to sometimes rewrite the narrative in my mind. I think back to how it “wasn’t really that bad” and that maybe I don’t even deserve to claim the vaunted title of cancer survivor, with all its rights and privileges and instant respect. There are so many others who have it so much worse and are fighting so much harder. But that’s no way to honor my own struggle or the struggle of anyone who battles cancer. Chemo is chemo. We were all worthy opponents and we are now blessed and thankful survivors.
But heroism and strength aren’t exhibited simply by doing something that you’re forced to do. It’s the way you endure it that defines you, and there’s something about cancer — for all its wickedness — that seems to bring out the best in its victims.
You are a cancer survivor long before you can actually claim to have survived cancer. Chemo puts you in survival mode.
No matter how much time has passed, there are things about chemo that I will never forget. Dreading the appointment all morning. My wife coming home early from work to join me for the treatment. Putting the chemo parking pass on our dashboard so we could park right by the hospital door. The distinct smell of the waiting room, where insipid daytime television droned on, oblivious to all the sick and worried people watching there. Being the youngest person — by a mile — in that waiting room.
Unbuttoning the first few buttons of my shirt so the nurse could access my port for the day. The smell of the disinfectant solution applied to my port before they inserted the needle. The unpleasant pressure and pinch of the needle entering the foreign lump on my chest just above my heart. Watching the vial of blood fill up and knowing I wouldn’t get woozy like I did when they drew from my arm. Getting my port flushed and cramming animal crackers into my mouth to hide the taste of the saline.
Settling into our chemo room and putting the pink pillow behind my head on the less-than-comfortable recliner. Debating whether we would get the nice nurse or the cranky nurse. Getting the cranky nurse. The first round of painkillers and anti-nausea medication that sometimes had weird side effects that almost made me nauseous. The impossible-to-fight feeling of drowsiness that would overtake me. Drifting in and out of a weird sleep to the sounds of the “Arrested Development” episode that we watched on my laptop as a distraction.
Awaking more fully when it was time for the nurse to switch out the IV bag. Getting up to pee and dragging the IV stand behind me. The nauseating metallic taste of the “red devil” component of chemo that the nurse had to manually and all-too-slowly push into my IV line. Desperately munching more animal crackers and wondering how I got to this point and how I could possibly keep doing this.
Enduring the short drive home in a semi-nauseated, completely exhausted state. Collapsing into bed without knowing what time it was or what time it would be when I awoke. Finally waking up and feeling a tad more human. Hearing my wife making dinner in the kitchen, but knowing I wouldn’t really want to eat any of it.
I did that 12 times. I’m not sure if that sounds like a lot or a little, but it certainly felt like enough.
Now that I’m healthy, it’s easy to sometimes feel a disconnect from the person who went through all of that, even though it changed me forever in so many ways. I see the fading scar on my neck from my surgery and on my chest from my port, and I feel like someone who was abducted by aliens. In this case, the bodysnatcher was cancer. The scars help me know it wasn’t just a dream.
There was undeniably so much good that came out of this experience, and I think of that often. But when I reach the anniversary of various stages of my cancer fight, it’s important for me to remind myself of these grittier details and memories.
“Remission” too often means being remiss in my pledge to never take my good health for granted again.
They need to invent a new tense for talking about cancer.
Tense is a good word for it. It’s a tense tense. It’s an intense tense. It’s a past tense and a present tense. It’s an imperfect tense.
I had cancer. It’s gone now, by the grace of God. No evidence of disease. That’s the past tense.
But it’s never forgotten. Every time I get out of the shower, I see the fading scars on my chest and neck, and I remember. Every time something is out of the ordinary with my health—an innocuous cyst on my face or a prolonged mouth sore or an enlarged gland in my neck—I feel a creeping uncertainty and fear. Every time I hear a story about someone else who is receiving treatment or has lost the battle, I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the blessing of my continued life and my two years of remission.
That’s all present tense. This is how I live with cancer even after the cancer is gone: I remember the past. I value the present. And sometimes I fear for the future. No matter how much time goes by, a part of me will always be living cancer.
Cancer is an epic disruption. It disrupts your immune system and your plans. It disrupts your appetite and your mood. It disrupts your work and your play. It disrupts your priorities and your prayers. It disrupts the lives of everyone around you. It disrupted my life as a newlywed—first haunting me on my honeymoon and ultimately shaping the first year of my marriage.
It’s still disrupting me. First every three months, then every six months and now once a year, cancer bursts on the scene in the form of a CT scan. As I enter the machine, I’m instructed to hold my breath in order to get a clear reading. I don’t fully exhale until I get the results back days later, and I can be assured that the cancer itself remains in the past tense.
Getting a fully clear scan seems to be a struggle for me, as tiny ambiguities always seem to pop up, pulling me back into present tense. One time it was mysterious activity in my throat that could have been a cold or could have been something else. It was a cold. Another time it was an enlarged spleen that could have been something else but turned out to just be my larger-than-average spleen. For my most recent annual scan, the ambiguity still remains too tensely ambiguous for my tastes. A couple lymph nodes in my neck measured at 3.1 mm instead of within the safety of the 3.0 mark. One-tenth of a millimeter is enough to potentially blur the lines between past and present tense.
It was hard not to think about that while I waited for the doctor’s call with the results. When it comes to getting results from a doctor, voicemail is the enemy of good news. I missed his first call—both on my cell phone and my office phone—and he left a voicemail saying that he wanted to discuss my results. No rush, just wanted to chat about them. I missed his second call and had to wait a full 24 hours before I would hear from him again. Those 24 hours were spent in frenzied future tense, playing out terrifying scenarios in my mind and rhetorically asking questions of “what if?” and “what then?” and “why me?” and “how come?”
My doctor assures me that everything is fine, that my blood work is pristine and that the one-tenth of a millimeter could have numerous non-cancerous causes. I’m choosing to believe him. I recently had the aforementioned innocuous cyst removed from the side of my head. The lymph nodes could be reacting to that. I don’t feel like I’ve had a cold or illness, but my oncologist said I could be fighting something off and the lymph nodes were helping. He also said that if it was cancer, I would have other symptoms and the nodes probably would have grown a lot more than one-tenth of a millimeter in the year’s time between my scans. He said he will order another scan of my neck region when I see him for my usual checkup in four months, and we’ll see what that shows.
But today is the anniversary of my remission and there is still technically no evidence of disease. So I want to celebrate in the present tense. Cancer made me a better person. It made me more empathetic to the suffering of others—especially the invisible suffering that the stranger next to you might be experiencing before their hair falls out from chemo. I’m more attuned to the physical suffering that comes with side effects from treatment as well as the mental and emotional suffering that comes from being diagnosed with a terrible disease and all the side effects of uncertainty. I proudly wear the banner of a cancer survivor, but I know that so many others have endured or succumbed to so much worse.
I am grateful every day for the fact that post-cancer life has returned me not just to normalcy but frequently to unqualified bliss. I’m married to a beautiful woman who lifted me up and made me smile during the most difficult moments of my life. We together conquered a challenge that most newly married couples cannot imagine, and
enduring that experience together has reduced many of the usual mountains of marriage to mere molehills.We are now blessed with a beautiful daughter who is changing our lives in new ways every day and who represents a future for our family that is filled with boundless love and endless possibility.
Cancer will always be a part of my history and reality. But despite the wounds of the past and occasional fears for the future, the greatest takeaway from my cancer experience will always be a better understanding of the gift of the present.
I don’t know how or why it happened. If I had reflected on it more deeply back then, I probably would have thought that I was starting to develop my mutant power like the X-Men I was so thoroughly obsessed with at that point.
But this mutant power only lasted a year, and it was very specific in its application. At my suburban Catholic school, there was a circular driveway around the grassy field behind the school. On days when it was seasonable enough for gym classes to be held outside, this driveway doubled as a running track, complete with speed bumps.
While the school has long since shuttered, the driveway remains intact, instantly transporting me back to the dreaded two laps that we were forced to run at the beginning of each class. Or worse yet, I’m reminded of the seven laps around the track that constituted the annual Running of The Mile. You always knew that The Mile awaited you eventually, and from the ages of about 8 through 18, it was one of the worst days of the school year for me.
But not in fifth grade.
When we would complete those two laps to kick off class, there I was near the front of the pack—waiting for the majority of my classmates to finish while I stood around victoriously regaining my wind and trying my best not to look cocky. “Yes, I used to be like you slow-pokes. Don’t worry, your day will come. My day just came quicker than yours. Because I’m so fast.”
When it came time to run The Mile, my latent mutant power kicked in again. I don’t remember my time—probably under eight minutes?—but I do remember being congratulated heartily by the other fast kids. I was standing with the athletic titans of my class: the girls who ran on the track team, the guy who was good at every sport he ever tried, and the incredibly short kid who parlayed his speed into a major source of social capital.
The point of this recollection is to assert that fifth grade was one of the only times in my life that I can remember not actively despising the act of running. Unfortunately, sixth grade rolled around and my mutant power regressed back to its customary place of being awkward around girls, and my love for running dissipated as quickly as my odds of snagging a partner at a school dance.
I’m happy to report, however, that almost 25 years later, I have once again made peace with running and have frequently paid money to run. I’m also married to a beautiful woman who loves to dance with me, which goes to show that nice mutants don’t always finish last…in love or races.
But this is about running and how I learned to un-hate it.
Somewhere around 2010, I realized that my slowing metabolism and life as an office-dwelling desk jockey were catching up to my waistline as well as my longterm cardiovascular health. While I don’t remember exactly what led me to choose my old foe of running as a plausible weapon in my battle against the bulge, it probably stemmed from the fact that I had read one too many of those “sitting all day is slowly killing you” articles. It also helped that I had coworkers and a brother who were also interested in running, which leads me to my first tip for learning to be OK with running:
1. Choose a running mate.
When it comes to exercise, I think it’s important to have a wingman. It’s not all that necessary that they even run alongside you—maybe they’re faster than you, or slower than you or just have a different schedule from you and can’t meet up to run. It doesn’t matter. The point is to find a training buddy who will listen to your sob stories about how hard your run was yesterday and how sore you are today, who will celebrate with you when you break a personal record, and who will inspire you to keep pushing yourself in those moments when you realize that you are now spending your free time willingly doing that thing you hated for so long. It’s also way more fun to sign up for a race with someone else, rather than just doing it by yourself. It gives you a common goal to strive for and someone to eat bananas with after you cross the finish line.
Once I had found my running mates, it was time to actually go for a run. I still remember the first time I went to the gym after work and ran a mile THAT I WAS CHOOSING TO RUN. It was exhausting, but also invigorating in a weird way. When I was eventually able to run an entire mile without stopping, it became less exhausting and even more invigorating.
2. Sign up for a race.
Just because I’m OK with running, doesn’t mean that I love it. There are still plenty of times when I don’t feel like doing it, which makes me all the more proud of myself when I actually follow through. I’ve always been better about motivating myself to run when there is a date on my calendar when I know I’m going to run an organized 5K. My interest in and stamina for running has not led me to anything beyond a 5K in the last 5 years—and I’m not sure that I’ll ever tackle anything greater than that—but it’s been important for me to use races as a reason to run.
It’s also just really fun participating in a race. Beyond the varying quality of the race swag (I highly recommend the Hot Chocolate 5K in Chicago!), there is a palpable energy at a race that calls you to be the best runner you can be and usually provokes me to run faster and last longer than I would when I’m running on my treadmill or around my neighborhood. It’s almost like you can feed off of the energy of the other runners to replenish your own reserves. It also helps that the race results will be posted online for eternity along with your full name and age at the time of the race, just a Google search away from being discovered by personal stalkers, blind dates or future employers. With those stakes, you want to put your fastest foot forward.
3. Track your progress.
Even before the days when I wore a FitBit that is perpetually telling me to get up and take some steps and smartly tracking my moments of exercise throughout the week (apparently my FitBit thinks mowing the lawn is a brisk bike ride), it was important for me to track my personal progress as a runner. Since the act of running is still not particularly diverting for me, the reward is the process of noticing improvement over time. How quickly can I run a mile? Can I run a full 5K without stopping to walk? Can I run a 5K in under 30 minutes? I always have a goal of some sort in mind, and completing one goal makes me want to tackle the next. It took years of on-again/off-again training, but I recently ran my first 5K without stopping, so now I’ll be moving on to improving my time. It’s also nice to have a device that will tell me exactly how far I’ve run and show me my mile time splits.
4. Make the conditions as perfect as possible.
Running is an investment of time as well as calories, so it’s important to make that time well spent, or you’ll never learn to tolerate it. Once I decided that running was something I wanted to commit to, I tried to make the conditions as conducive to running as possible. On a basic level, that meant buying some dry-fit clothes to combat my profuse sweating and getting new shoes to be used exclusively for running. (I actually started out using my old shoes and eventually hurt my knee, probably because the shoes weren’t giving me the cushioned support that I needed.) I also downloaded an app that could track my runs and eventually bought a FitBit. I like to listen to music or podcasts while I run, so I got an armband to hold my phone. When I was starting to see some progress and increasing my distance beyond The Mile, I paid some hard-earned money to sign up for my first race. (Again, find one with good swag so that it feels like you’re buying something beyond a runner’s high.) Most recently, I bought a treadmill so that I could continue to run over the winter without having to pay for a gym membership or deal with the hassle of driving to and from the gym to go for a run. To my immense surprise, I actually used it quite a bit and was able to maintain some of my running momentum even through the harsh Chicago winter. When spring rolled around, I wasn’t starting at zero, which was a great feeling.
5. Don’t stop believing.
As I’ve hopefully made clear, I still don’t love running. I have yet to have a full epiphany on the joy of spending a half hour banging my legs into the ground as I travel short distances that humankind has invented better methods for traversing. (My bike stares back at me with disgust every time I go for a run.) I also encountered injury (that shoe-induced sore knee) that prevented me from running for a time and derailed the progress I had made. That wasn’t fun, and my break from running extended well beyond the healing of my injury, as I kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t get back into it just yet. But the seed had been planted, and eventually a spring day came that made me say “This is running weather,” and I started pounding the pavement again.
It sounds cliche, but running is almost as much of a mental challenge as a physical one for me. Since it’s not my passion, there are mental hurdles I sometimes have to jump to maintain my motivation, but once I do, I never regret the run. I definitely like running more after I finish than before I start. And for now, chasing that feeling is enough to make it worthwhile.
If you’re like me and you’ve hated running for a long time, I’d encourage you to give it another try. If I could go back in time and tell my childhood self that I would grow up and frequently run of my own volition, he would never believe me, but that thought also inspires some pride that makes me glad I’m doing it.
And, who knows: If I keep this up, maybe I’ll magically become fast again someday.