As soon as I was diagnosed, I took on a parent role for myself. I was somewhat removed from the situation. It felt almost like I wasn’t experiencing it myself. I didn’t get angry and I didn’t cry. I felt emotionally shut down, blunted. I kept going about my old routine, smiling along, and going to the gym. In short, I was trying to live a normal life.
Except nothing about the old routine was normal.
I kept getting distracted, and the more I tried shutting it out, the more the disease kept getting in my way. And this was the last thing I wanted – to become my disease.
Back then (during treatments), I had only told a handful of people. They all offered support, help, and told me to ask for what I needed. But I didn’t know how to ask for it, yet alone what to ask for. I just wanted normalcy, something that no one could offer me in a tangible form.
One day my sailing coach called me up and told me that his old friend is in town. They have spent many years hanging out in college, sailing up and down the East coast. His friend, who now lives and works in New Zealand was visiting for a weekend and sailing with other Yale alumni. They returned to recapitulate the glory of their youthful years when responsibility and maturity have slightly different definitions as their adult versions.
Zack, my coach, thought it would be a good idea for me to meet up with his friend Kevin Hall, so I could talk to someone who has had a similar cancerous experience during their bright college years.
At first I was reluctant to agree to that meeting. I wasn’t sure how an established guy telling me about his cancer would help, other than remind me that I am still sick.
I also wasn’t in “the mood”; though I wasn’t sad about the diagnosis, I was also not happy. I wanted to avoid social situations, crawl up in my own room, and preserve the energy for schoolwork…which happened to get overwhelmingly hard to focus on.
Here is an example:
Bio Problem Set:
“Carefully read the following excerpt from the paper posted online …lymphoma, what the heck… and answer all of the following …wait, when is my PET scan?… questions:
And so on, you get the idea.
Only in retrospect I now realize how quickly things could have gone awry, had I not agreed to that dinner with my coach and Kevin. I put on a smile, some make-up and dressed up to go meet them at a local restaurant.
After a quick introduction, some unavoidable small talk, Kevin caught me off guard: “Besides being a student, what else do you like to do?”
My immediate thought was: Um, dude, I have cancer?
But instead I mumbled a response: “Um, I like to read. Books. Yeah, leisure reading, which I sadly don’t have time for.”
And he told me to do it. Then I said I liked playing sports too, and that I miss skiing.
He told me to go skiing this winter. Though skiing might not happen until next year, I loved the idea of doing things for myself, things that I enjoy.
I instantly liked the guy. Kevin was tall, had no hair, a firm handshake, and a cool tattoo of a clock that doesn’t show time.
Kevin told me little bits of his story – he was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 20, and had, as he put it, gone crazy. He went through a bunch of surgeries, and he was cancer free after a year or so. Then, 2 years later, his cancer returned, and again as he put it, he’d gone crazy. He was cured eventually and now lives a healthy life.
I was too afraid to ask what he meant by going crazy, but then Kevin told me that he would get really upset from time to time. He would punch things. He asked me what I did when I was feeling upset.
I smiled, speechless. “I don’t really get upset…”
I started telling him my, by then well-rehearsed spiel of how I am removed from the situation, and not feeling sad, and blah, blah, blah.
That was the moment when, for the first time, I saw someone give me a look: “Cut the crap, I’m not buying it.”
He understood what I was saying, but told me that it is OK to feel. He told me that it’s OK to get angry. He told me that it sucks. He told me that only I would truly know how I feel, and that only I can fully comprehend what it’s like to be sick at that age, and that I should embrace it because this is all a part of the experience, a part of healing, and a part of my new reality.
At the end of our conversation I felt weirdly refreshed. I was challenged and pushed to think, reflect, and feel.
At first I felt a little guilty because at the end of the gathering I realized that I talked about myself a lot, and didn’t ask too many questions.
But then it clicked – this was the point. It was about me, and I had to embrace it. The meeting was meant for me; for me to talk, for me to open up, for me to express my concerns, for me to ask questions, for me to ponder on life.
At the end of the night I really wanted to leave. This time for a different reason; not to run away from my disease, or finish my homework, but to run to it, get upset at it, spend time with myself, and realize that no, life was not fair to me this time.
That night I became more mindful and empowered. I was no longer emotionally removed. For the first time I cried because of how angry I was. I screamed out loud and got upset. And it felt good, it felt real.