On Two Years of Remission

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.

IMG_20170811_162101_015

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.

Advertisements

Running for my Life or 5 Tips to Help You Not Hate Running

When I was in fifth grade, I became fast.

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.

track-a-thon
If you have to run, run in Ronald McDonald sweatpants.

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.

first 5k.jpg
Running my first 5K with my brother

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.

hot chocolate 5k 2
I’ll pay for a race, but I won’t pay for race photos.

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.

IMG_20170618_084501
The family that runs together, stays together.

Back to The Room Where It Happened

In the epic hip-hop Broadway musical Hamilton, there is a show-stopping number called “The Room Where It Happened,” that details a momentous backroom political deal that had long-lasting results. Over the course of my nearly year-long love affair with Hamilton, the title of the song has slipped into my lexicon to represent (sarcastically or otherwise) places where important things have occurred. Tonight–without sarcasm–I can honestly say that I returned to what is the most significant Room Where It Happened for me.

Tonight marked the first time in nearly four years that I came back to the school auditorium at Saint Mary of the Angels in Chicago. From the outside and the inside, it looks like any other 50-plus-year-old Catholic school facility in the city–certainly not the kind of place where you would expect your life to change.

DCMU3132

But there I was tonight, in the same space where almost exactly four years ago (give or take two months), I met my wife. Four years ago, I was a 29-year-old bachelor showing up for an intermediate swing dancing class with a bunch of Catholic young adults. Looking back, I remember feeling a lot of uncertainty about my life at that point. I was drifting toward my fourth decade with doubts about what exactly I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had a picturesque life–a steady job, a college teaching gig, a nice condo, a great family and friends–but the vocation of marriage and family that I longed for and fully expected to already have achieved by that point would still gnaw at me in my weaker moments. I began to have doubts about what the future would look like.

I trusted in God’s plan for me, but wondered if the blue prints I had drawn for myself didn’t actually match those of the architect. Faced with that conundrum, I guess I decided to sign up for my friend’s swing dancing class and look for pretty girls to date.


Tonight I found myself back in the auditorium and once again surrounded by Catholic young adults, this time for a speaker event sponsored by the Catholic Young Professionals of Chicago. I’m sure I would have attended this event four years ago as well, in search of spiritual wisdom, but also pretty girls to date. Tonight, I came to the event as a 33-year-old married man who is about to become a father for the first time. Consequently, I was able to focus solely on the spiritual wisdom…and that sharpening of my focus was actually one of the points of the speaker’s talk.

If you ever get the chance to hear Jeff Schiefelbein give a speech, make sure you take advantage of the opportunity. He is dynamic and inspiring and wise beyond his 38 years. His passion is contagious and I think I speak for many in the room when I say that his words left me wanting to be a better person and a better Catholic.

The theme that stood out–and played right into the nostalgia of the location for me–was commitment. Jeff posited that when you fully commit yourself to something, it can be a challenge, but ultimately a freeing experience. Based on the ways my life has changed and the commitments I have undertaken in the intervening four years, I couldn’t agree more.

By committing myself to Theresa for the rest of my life–and now bringing a new soul into the world to share in that commitment–I have freed up so much of the energy and attention that I was wasting on meaningless activities like forced relationships, physical and emotional insecurities, fears and doubts. The difficult and permanently binding commitments of marriage and fatherhood have given my life a purpose and fulfilled a vocation that were previously lacking. I am so grateful for the gift of this vocation, and the ways it has challenged me to become closer to being the person I always wanted to be. I know the refining process will continue as Theresa and I prepare to raise our daughter. I know there will be challenges that will sometimes make these commitments difficult to fully keep. But I also know that I have the focus and ambition to keep them–powers of self-mastery that I had not yet realized when I entered that auditorium four years ago.

Jeff’s challenge to the audience tonight was to live a life that honors your commitment to your chosen vocation as well as to your faith…and to live authentically in a way that makes these choices visible to the world. I am well aware of my shortcomings in both of those categories, but I look forward to integrating his advice into my life and helping others that I encounter to understand and respect the commitments I have made, as well as to embrace their own commitments and experience the freedom with which I am now so richly blessed.

A Year to Remember

Every year of your life is memorable and important in its own way, but when you’ve had a year like the 2015 that I just experienced, it’s pretty easy to see that this one stands out from the rest.

On December 31, 2014, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at my parents’ house with my three younger brothers and my wife of three months. We had just come home from a wonderful dinner at a steakhouse and finished baking our traditional batch of New Year’s Eve peanut butter cookies. My brothers and I had pulled out our old karaoke machine and were taking turns singing songs from the three karaoke CDs we own and then moved on to attempt a cappella covers of Rockapella songs. (Yes, they sang more than just the theme song to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and back in the day, we had a cassette of all their “hits.”)

I look back on that evening with such fondness, as it was truly the calm before the storm. Three days later, I was punched in the gut with a cancer diagnosis that would come to define the year for me.As I heard the diagnosis and fought back tears, I never would have dreamt that in the final analysis of 2015, I could look back positively on the experience and on this year. The next seven months involved surgeries and tests and doctor appointments and working from home and hospital stays and chemo treatments.

But those months also included well wishes and prayers and cards and care packages and the unending support of hundreds of people. This turned the trials and tribulations of my cancer experience into an opportunity to grow in faith and love–and a chance to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of enduring when God, family and friends have all got my back.

The second half of 2015 featured a wonderful return to normalcy, but with a renewed sense of gratitude for the awesome life I have and the abundant opportunities and blessings that continue to pile up for me.

I saw Pope Francis up close in D.C., and Pope Francis saw my Flat Francis social media campaign.I crossed Billy Joel and Harry Connick, Jr. off of my concert bucket list. The Cubs made the playoffs and I got to be at Wrigley to watch them beat the Cardinals in the NLDS. I went to Disneyland with my family and went back to Newburgh to see my wife’s family several times. I beat cancer in time to celebrate a Lumpy-free, one-year wedding anniversary. What’s not to love?

2015 was also an epic year for this blog. In 2014 I wrote 3 posts and had about 4,000 views. This year I wrote 72 posts and had more than 25,000 views.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 12.01.52 PM

I can’t thank you enough for reading my posts and caring enough to follow along with my adventures and random musings. I’m a writer, and writing will always be a fun and therapeutic way for me to process my experiences, but it’s much more gratifying to know that people are reading or enjoying or learning or getting something out of what I write. Being able to share my cancer experience through this blog was great medicine for me. It meant that most people in my life didn’t need to get caught up on the details of my treatment when I saw them. And I have been incredibly flattered by the number of people well outside my circle of immediate friends and family who have taken the time to read this blog and reach out. THANK YOU!

Every year I make a New Year’s resolution, and unfortunately I usually can’t even remember what it was by the following New Year’s Eve. I hope this year is different.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 11.51.06 AMI resolve to remember the main lesson that I learned from 2015 and to pay it forward: I want to be more mindful of all the challenges people in my life are facing and proactively reach out to them to see how I might help. I know now that a simple “How’s it going?” email can sometimes be exactly what someone needs to make it a better day. Telling someone that you will pray for them could be enough to give them a little more strength to persevere. The gift of time and attention should never be minimized.

Throughout 2015, people were going out of their way to make sure I was OK and feeling the love. I’m more than OK now, so I want to help everyone else feel the love.

Happy New Year!

Is That a Lump in Your Neck or Are You Happy to See Me?

Editor’s Note: I originally posted this on my other blog on Medium, so that’s why the tone assumes little knowledge of my cancer experience. If you’ve been a longtime follower of this blog, you can ignore those parts.)

There’s a recording that plays over the loudspeaker on CTA trains that is no doubt familiar to anyone who has taken public transportation in Chicago:

If you see something, say something.

While this message is meant as a security measure to encourage passengers to report suspicious activities or individuals to CTA personnel, it’s also pretty good health advice.

READ THE REST…