Today is a big milestone for me. Five years ago today I got the call that would change my life forever. "You've got cancer," the colorectal surgeon told me that Friday afternoon. Cancer! WTF?
I knew there was a fair chance it was cancer when we did the biopsy but yet I had continued to delude myself by thinking that it would turn out to be benign, even though the pathology had taken weeks to evaluate, which is never a good sign. I sat in my borrowed office at the law firm where I was spending much of my time and let it sink in. "Shit!" I thought as I thought about all of the things I had to do now to get moving on having the cancer staged and the treatment plan established. The surgeon had already provided me with the names of a medical oncologist and radiation oncologist at GW whom he recommended and had also already contacted about me, laying the groundwork to hit the ground running. I immediately called both doctors' offices and set up appointments for early the next week. Next to deal with the inevitable phone calls to friends and loved ones to tell them the news.
I called my big brother, Andy, first and matter-of-factly dropped the bombshell. He was beside himself and I spent time reassuring him that it would all be OK. Hell, I didn't know if it would truly be OK but here I was trying to convince him that it would. I suppose this was key to turning my normally pessimistic stance a full 180 degrees and instilling in me the positive attitude and energy needed to battle the ugly, unrelenting beast that is cancer.
I made a few more calls and stayed at work the rest of the day, trying to stay busy and keep my mind off the elephant in the room. I leaked the news at the law firm while in a meeting as emotions got the better of me. While discussing strategy with others I blurted out something to the effect of "What the hell do you want me to do about it? I just found out I've got cancer!"
The weekend came and I told a few more people and tried to figure out what was going on. As someone with an interest in medicine and years of medical experience while working on the ambulance, I hit the internet hard to find out more about anal cancer, what it was (besides a royal pain in the ass), how to treat it, what the mortality rate was, the whole nine yards. I looked at all of the major cancer centers--Sloan Kettering, Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson--to see if any of them were any better than the others. My head was about to spin. I actually had to stop looking because once I had the basic information in hand, I needed to step away from all of the "bad" stuff I found as well. That can really scare the shit out of you (literally!).
I was doing pretty well but by Sunday afternoon, I was hit by the enormity of it all. This was cancer, dammit! Cancer, like that nasty son-of-a-bitch that took my mother from me when I was only 18 years old. Cancer, that had already afflicted many people I knew and had even taken away friends. So, as I sat in my glider in front of my house, overlooking the valley below, I had a pity party. I finally sat there and allowed myself to doubt, to cry, to play "poor, poor pitiful me" and sulk, wallow, and feel sorry for myself, for about an hour. And then I stopped. There was no time for pity parties. There was no time to wonder about the whys and wherefores. There was no time to waste worrying. It was time to act. It was time to face the beast full-on. It was time to fight for my life and really start to live for every day, every hour, every minute, every second. It was then that I realized what a gift life truly is.
I was lucky. The treatment regimen was modest by cancer standards, lasting only six weeks with a mixture of oral chemotherapy and daily radiation treatments. My complications were all pretty minimal and manageable. I didn't lose my hair, didn't get sick, didn't lose weight (damn, that I could have used). I did get burned up by the radiation in areas that are quite unaccustomed to "sunburn" but that was a small price to pay for my life. I look at those scars and they are like a badge of honor, a tangible reminder that I'm still standing, still fighting, still here. I am blessed.
Has cancer changed me? Hell yes, but for the better. As odd as it may sound, cancer is the most life-affirming thing to ever happen to me. It opened up my eyes to what's really important in life. It's not about your financial and professional successes. It's about who you are, how you lead your life, what you do for others, how you make the world a better place. I am a spiritual person and cancer strengthened my faith. You have a lot of time to think or pray or contemplate when you're strapped down to a table with your ass in the air get radiated. It was like being in a giant pizza oven, your face pressed down into a pillow, the machine whirring around you for 5, 10, 15 minutes. You get lost in the moment with no one but yourself and your God. I never prayed to be cured or to be spared. I prayed for strength and for guidance; I prayed for my caregivers; I prayed for all of the other patients dealing with cancer. And I was determined to survive, to live, to put up a damn good fight.
The physical scars have all healed now and I look at how I've changed: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Things are different now. The physical changes are hard to overlook but yet I look at them with a sort of pride. So I have to poop in a bag. So what? I'm still alive. I'm still active. I can still contribute to my community, my job, my friends and family. Emotionally, I'm so much stronger. I'd always been good at dealing with difficult issues in the moment but less able to really deal with them over the long haul. Now I've learned to accept the things I have no control of and address issues going forward. You have to live each day like it's your last, to really appreciate, enjoy, glorify life. Spiritually, I have a new appreciation of the power of prayer, the power of positive thinking. I also learned that it's OK to ask for help. It's freeing to be able to look to other people and God for support. It's OK if you're not always the badass you proclaim to be. Even a badass needs a hand once in a while.
So, I'm still standing, still fighting, still moving forward. Five years means a lot in the "cancer" world. It's a milestone we all hope for. Not everyone makes it. And even making it to this point is no guarantee of future success but it's still a big deal. As those who've been afflicted by cancer understand, I don't say I'm "cancer free" or that my cancer has been "cured." I say that "I don't have cancer right now" and I hope to hell that I'll be able to say that until the day that I die. As a cancer survivor, I am not naive enough to think that I've got it all beat, or it's part of my past, or I can just forget it ever happened. I am grateful for what I have, for the opportunity to be here for yet another day, hour, minute, second. I'm so damn happy to be alive, and to be able to share my life with you my friends and family, and the world.
As a wise person once said, "Eat dessert first." And another favorite line: "Life is too short to drink cheap beer." Friends, go out and live life to its fullest, enjoy the moment, laugh more, and have fun!
Happy friggin' anniversary to me! I need a beer! And some cheesecake!!