Mitch Lortz was diagnosed with terminal Stage IV Synovial Sarcoma at the age of 20. He is now 24 living in Boston, MA with his Fiance, Sydney and dog, Meatloaf. You can usually find him at Mass General Hospital but he also splits his time between his professional career in Marketing and managing his personal cancer blog. In an attempt to use humor and a positive attitude to promote wellness, Mitch has been writing for his blog Are You For Serious? and covers topics ranging from the positive aspects of cancer to dealing with hemorrhoids and other chemo side effects.
Hey there, my name is Mitch and I have stage IV soft-tissue cancer. It’s a real bummer. I got diagnosed when I was 20 and if we’re gonna be honest with each other, it’s put a real damper on the first half of my twenties. All my friends graduated college and went off and got cool jobs and I had to drop out and move in with my mom. She’s a sweet lady, but not my ideal roommate. Anyways, I’m not here to talk about the negatives of cancer. Rather, I’m here to talk about the exact opposite: what happens after cancer.
I was diagnosed with terminal stage IV synovial sarcoma and was given a few months to live. I was diagnosed in July of 2015 and was told it was unlikely I would make it to the holidays of that year, so about six months. Ready for a real plot twist? I actually survived past that time. Crazy right? It’s true. That’s how I’m sitting here, writing this article in the year 2019. But a lot of shit happened between July 2015 and today, including about eight months of remission.
It was pretty dope news when I got my scan results from my oncologist and he told me that after 28 cycles of chemotherapy, 12 weeks of radiation, and one open-heart surgery, I finally had no visible tumors. It was amazing, I figured I was finally going to be able to go off and live my life the way I wanted to again. In a way, I was right.
But in a much bigger way, I was like a 13-year-old dating their cousin: just plain wrong.
You see, you never really stop having cancer. It’s like a dark shadow that is always looming behind you, just waiting for the day when it can show back up and ruin your life all over again. Statistically speaking, the odds of your cancer recurring don’t really start to dwindle until after five years of having no sign of recurrence. So that’s 1,825 days you must spend fearing that today is the day it comes back. And even after that, it is still possible, just less likely. So now that I’ve introduced some extremely pessimistic stats and concepts like an absolute ass, let’s discuss the matter at hand: sur(thr)iving in remission. Like that pun? Surthriving? Just thought of it. Pretty clever.
After my eight months of remission, I was utterly relieved to hear my cancer had returned. Seems odd, but the truth is the waiting is the hardest part. Not knowing whether something is wrong and whether I may be letting my cancer grow uncontested is so much worse than just knowing the enemy at hand and taking steps to resolve it. It is to me, at least. I felt like a bag of popcorn: I had all kinds of tiny seeds in me, and I was spinning around the microwave just waiting and waiting until they all suddenly would start to pop and grow. So if you want to enjoy your remission and not spend it feeling like an anxiety-riddled low calorie snack, I came up with a four step process to achieving that. I call it the SGKC method (not as clever as surthriving but whatever. I’m not Mark Twain, leave me alone). It goes as follows:
Let’s break it down step by step and get you on the path to living the shit out of your remission.
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You probably just finished chemo or radiation or surgery or something like that, so you probably feel like a half-full bag of NYC garbage sitting on a sidewalk on a hot summer’s day. It’s OK, that feeling goes away if you treat yourself right.
At first, treat yourself. Give yourself a nice pat on the ass for surviving treatment and go eat some cupcakes or something. Take naps. Do whatever it is that you haven’t been able to do or enjoy while you were in treatment. But once you do those things, you gotta get your head back in the game. If you want to stay healthy, you got to be healthy. Drink lots of water, eat your veggies, exercise, meditate, use essential oils if you’re into that kinda thing. Do what you can to make your body a well-oiled machine. I have no idea if this helps prevent cancer, but it can’t hurt to try and get your body back into fighting shape so that if/when your cancer does return, you’ll be fit as a goddamn fiddle for treatment round two rather than an amorphous blob dragging its lazy ass back into the hospital. It also helps you mentally. When I went into remission, working out gave me the confidence that I was still creating positive change that was helping my fight against cancer, even if it was only in my head.
You’ve been given a second chance at life, make the most of it. Get started on this once you’ve recovered enough and you feel like a human again. If you have stuff on your bucket list that you were waiting for the right time to accomplish, now is that right time. And if you don’t have a bucket list, start one. It’ll force you to get out there and have cathartic experiences. Don’t pigeon-hold yourself to just experiences like vacations or sky diving though.
A bucket list can be things like getting into the habit of reading or picking up knitting or some shit like that. Don’t think the only way to live is to go out and spend money on experiences, because if you were anything like me, you’re probably broke as a joke cause you just spent the last year fighting cancer instead of earning money. For me, I made it my goal to get the hell out of my mother’s house and live with my friends during remission. So I went out, got a better job, and did just that. It wound up being one of the best years of my life living with those guys and it made me feel like I was making up for the senior year of college I missed out on.
It’s important to keep your mind clear of negative thoughts or influences. If you let the bad shit in and start fearing what might happen, it can consume you and ruin what time you have. I would recommend getting a therapist if you can. I didn’t get one until after my remission had ended and she has done wonders for my mental health. I wish I’d had her earlier to guide me through the negativity that can come with stopping treatment.
Remember that the recovery stage is important for your physical health early, but your mental health should be a focus for the entirety of your remission. I didn’t really believe in stuff like meditation, acupuncture, aroma therapy, etc. until I tried it and it really does help. There are even mindfulness apps you can download that have guided sessions for free that can help you to keep a positive, optimistic outlook. If you’re not into the whole mindfulness thing cause you think that shit’s for hippies, there are other things you can do to keep your mind occupied like finding a hobby or taking anti-anxiety medications like Ativan (though try not to rely on these, their effects fade over time which means you’ll find yourself taking more to achieve the same results over time).
Fear is the one thing that can really ruin your remission like it did for me. What got to me the most was feeling like I didn’t have control over my own life. I felt like the dormant cancer inside of me was controlling me, rather than the other way around. I think the key to keeping this fear from ruining your mental health is to find a way to get control. Everyone has different beliefs, which means that everyone will have different ways of gaining that sense of control and feeling like they are the ones driving their future. It’s important to look into yourself and find what that action may be for you. Maybe it’s meditation, maybe it’s working out, maybe it’s eating healthy. Whatever it may be, find that sense of control and keep the fear out.
These are my four steps for enjoying remission, but don’t think of these as hard-and-fast rules. Maybe you have a different set of steps for enjoying your remission, and that’s fine. Just make sure you find what the process is that will help you to live your life as meaningfully as you can.
After all, life can be pretty fun if you know how to live it.
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