As a football player growing up, I was always taught to never show emotion on the field. Tired? Stand tall and take deep breaths. Opponent getting the best of you? Keep pushing, and get him back on the next play. One of my coaches said it best when he stated, “Always project strength and confidence, even if you’re getting your ass kicked.” In the world of a football player, showing emotion means you have lost control of the situation. And therefore, you are showing weakness.
It comes as no surprise then that when faced with cancer and placed on the largest battlefield of my life, my emotions were nonexistent. I resolved early on in treatment that neither chemo nor a stem cell transplant would defeat me. As such, my sole purpose for living became overcoming this awful disease. Work, school, friendships, and relationships all fell by the wayside as I strove toward a goal that came into my life swiftly and unexpectedly. It was a goal I had no choice other than to face head on, though. I was in a fight for my life.
Many days were spent in the hospital being poked, prodded, injected, and infused by my team of docs. While things were challenging at times, I kept a smile on my face and never complained. The way I saw it, waking up every day was a blessing, and one step closer towards a win. 30 months into treatment, the win for which I had long yearned finally arrived. March 14, 2014 is a day I will never forget. It was the day my transplant doctor told me, “Go home. Celebrations are in order. There is no evidence of disease.” I was in remission. The battle was over, and I won.
While the news of remission was not totally unexpected, the accompanying wave of emotion that followed caught me by surprise as I drove home. I was flooded with all the emotions I repressed throughout treatment. Celebrate? Celebrate what? Sure, I had just beaten cancer after fighting for almost three years, but at what cost? My once large social circle was now a triangle. My career path was dead in the water. And even though I was often mistaken for a Dallas Cowboy in the hospital, I was weak – mentally and physically. Many pieces of my life were broken and scattered across the floor, and I had no idea how to even begin to pick them and move forward.
Luckily, toward the end of treatment, I met a fellow young adult survivor one morning while on the hotel shuttle as we headed to the hospital. It was an instant bromance, and that friendship became one in which I leaned into heavily as I headed into this new reality of survivorship. Tarek and I were close in age, and we had many things in common outside of being cancer survivors. Our conversations went from raging on Tony Romo for being such an awful quarterback, to jailbreaking our iPhones, to planning our next road bike sesh, to discussing upcoming doctor appointments. We also talked quite frequently about the many changes and challenges cancer and its aftermath brought into our lives.
I will always have tremendous gratitude for Tarek and our friendship. While he’s no longer with us, his spirit still lives on in my life and the countless others whom he befriended. He showed me that it is ok for guys to talk about their emotions and feelings, and be supportive of one another without things getting awkward. In my early days of survivorship, that is exactly what I needed. He also set the stage for what was to come next in my life by introducing me to organizations like First Descents, Epic Experience, Camp-Mak-A-Dream, and Stupid Cancer, which in turn led me to organizations like Send it Foundation, Elephants & Tea, and Dallas YACS.
My first outdoor adventure cancer survivor experience came when Tarek and I joined First Descent’s Austin Trib for a day of paddle boarding on Ladybird Lake. There was something so cathartic about being in the middle of the beautiful lake on paddle boards, in the company of other guys who have all experienced the trauma that is cancer, and sharing our stories. I was hooked, and soon after I attended Epic Experience’s week long camp in Colorado.
Epic Experience’s program is designed in such a way that while there is healing through outdoor adventure, the tough guy mask comes off during discussions, and that’s when the real healing happens. This is partly due to the words, themes, and quotes posted daily that are designed to get you thinking while you’re out and about during the daily adventures. There is power in being able to take all of your burdens down to the river, and leave them there. Discussions at Epic’s camps also left me better equipped to deal with my own relapse at the end of 2016.
My cancer journey of almost 10 years has been filled with many highs and lows. Remissions, relapses, friendships, and loved ones have all come and gone. My one takeaway from this entire experience in regards to emotions is you have to find effective means to release them. Otherwise, those emotions will eat at you until you’re a shadow of the man you used to be.
Thankfully, long gone are the days of suffering in silence. In addition to the organizations I’ve previously mentioned, there are men specific cancer orgs and groups as well like Cancer Dudes, Man up to Cancer, and Reel Recovery. Find an org. Find a friend. Find a therapist. Find someone to talk to. And do not be ashamed because you are not alone. I’ve met many survivors over the years, and I’ve yet to meet one that has not dealt with some sort of mental anguish caused by their diagnosis.The first step in the healing process is being open and honest with yourself about the struggles you’re facing, and then seeking appropriate help.
Society tells us that as men, we cannot show emotion because it is a sign of weakness. Take off that mask. What good is surviving if you’re only living a half-lived life, constantly burdened by crippling emotions? That is no way to live. Especially considering that as survivors, we are fully aware of just how precious life is, and how it can be gone in an instant.
Be grateful for life. We only get one shot on this planet. When it’s your time to go, will you rest well knowing that you made the most of your time here in spite of your circumstances? Do not let your emotions get in the way of you living your best life. Let them all out.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.