Ten years ago this Fall I was diagnosed with non-seminoma testicular cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. The treatment regime was also very aggressive. Between September and December 2009 I had four cycles of chemotherapy. After three of the cycles, I ended up on extended hospital stays in bad shape receiving many blood and platelet transfusions. I lost all of my hair and 50 lbs. that never returned (which is probably a good thing)! During the treatments I suffered from mouth sores and acid reflux. Water tasted like metal. It was a chore to eat. I felt like a human medicine cabinet with all the drugs that I needed to take to counteract the chemotherapy.
My oncologist indicated that everyone reacts differently to the regime that I was on and that my body’s reaction to it was more severe than most. Many days it was difficult to get out of bed. The physical deterioration from a 6’4” 230 lbs. athletic, active young adult to a 180lb. semi-invalid was striking and difficult to handle physically, as well as mentally.
After treatment, my cancer was in remission but I was not out of the woods. I suffered for years (and still do to some extent) from nerve damage resulting from the treatments I received called chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy. The best way that I can describe what this feels like is when you hit your funny bone and you get the intense burning and tingling feeling through your forearm to the ends of your fingertips. That is what my hands, and legs from the calf down through my feet, felt like for years. I could only bare the pain long enough to stand in one place for about ten minutes and I could not walk long. It also made me very fatigued which made normal daily functioning seem to take a Herculean effort.
I went back to work at a demanding job shortly after completing chemotherapy. My employer was great in working with me as I recovered but it was difficult not to have the energy to perform as I did prior to treatment. Because of the side effects I was facing I had to pass up opportunities to progress in my career, including a potential international assignment. My weeks consisted of 2-hours of daily commute time and work for 40 hours (which felt like 80).
My weekends were primarily spent in bed resting so that I could muster up the energy to work during the next week. In addition, I was married and a father of three young children. It was frustrating not to be able to be the husband and father that I wanted to be.
In addition, I was no longer able to be active and exercise as I used to. I did not know if I would ever run again. During all of this I asked myself was this what my life was to be like from here on out?
I write of these things not so that you will feel sorry for me. In fact, I know that many of you have been through worse. I write of these things to let you know what I have learned about resiliency and the power of positive thinking with the hopes that it can help you in whatever “living with cancer” stage you are in.
I am a firm believer of the power of positive thinking and perspective. We all face trials and challenges in life of different degrees of severity. Some people are able to overcome while others are not. Why is that? The answer that I have found in my life is resiliency.
Edmond Dantès, the main character in the book The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, states the following when discussing adversity with a young man, “Life is a storm my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment and be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”
Something my Father taught me in my youth has helped me overcome the storms of life and has been especially meaningful as I have lived with cancer. I am a perfectionist and have high expectations for myself. When I do not reach my expectations I tend to get down. This was especially true in athletics as a teenager.
After a particular basketball game when I did not play to up to my expectations my Father gave me a “pep talk.” I do not remember everything that he said that day but I do remember him saying, “No matter how bad you think you have it there is always someone worse off than you.” As I went through my cancer treatments, and have lived with the side effects, this statement gave me strength. During treatment no matter how terrible I felt my cancer markers were coming down and I was getting better. Unfortunately, many people are not so lucky.
After treatment, when I had little energy and physical limitations, I reminded myself that although I could not stand or walk long, at least I could stand. I was not bound to a wheelchair, or a bed, as many people are in this world.
Cancer is certainly a heavy storm to bear. Few storms in life come with darker clouds and heavier rains. Life is never the same afterwards but it does not mean that it has to be worse than before. After the removal of one of my testicles I am quite literally half the man I used to be! However, I am a better man today that I was ten years ago. I have learned that with perspective and a positive attitude I can weather the storms of life and overcome them. You have this ability too!
As you live with cancer look for the rays of sunshine that pierce through the clouds of the storm. I promise you they are there, no matter how small or faint. As you do so, you can find hope and joy to help you get the most out of each day.