How Cancer Taught Me What Really Matters

by Jordan AdamsSurvivor, Uveal MelanomaSeptember 20, 2022View more posts from Jordan Adams

Hello, my dear reader. My name is Jordan, and I am a cancer survivor. I am here to share with whoever feels like listening a little bit about my story, and more importantly, what it has taught me. I am sure my story will sound familiar to many other cancer patients who may stumble across this. I hope you enjoy it.

It all started on a nondescript Wednesday in September 2016. It’s a day that seems to live on in my mind as a kind of paradox; it was a seemingly insignificant day when I woke up, and it ended as the day my whole life fundamentally changed. I walked into the boutique retinal specialist’s office in Carmichael, California, more concerned with my professional priorities and the length of the drive I had just taken than I was about the doctor’s appointment itself. My indifference wouldn’t last.

Several months prior, while testing the prescription in my then brand-new glasses, I noted that the bottom right quadrant of my right eye’s vision had begun to fog over, as though a thick, black-gray shimmering haze had settled in the corner of my eye. I was new to the world of prescription glasses, having gotten my first pair less than a year ago, and thought little of my unusual observation. I was 26 years old with a history of good health, someone unaccustomed to serious medical concerns. In hindsight, it was the type of anomaly that should have gotten my attention. At the time though, I figured it to be the result of a spill playing basketball, an overzealous attempt at making a catch playing frisbee, or maybe I just needed some extra sleep. A condition like cancer was a universe away from me, one of those terrifying buzzwords a politician uses to get a crowd’s attention, closer to a worst-case-scenario thought experiment than a possible reality.

It took months for me to take my complaints to an optometrist. They found no issue at first, but the ensuing chain of appointments eventually landed me in a specialist’s office that September day, begrudgingly accepting a dye injection and allowing a technician to photograph my now illuminated inner eye. Even at this point, I had no meaningful concerns. I was led into an examination room, and a doctor walked in without much fanfare. We exchanged greetings and promptly agreed to look through the images taken by the technician.

Of all the many unique moments in my cancer experience, the no more than 15 minutes I spent with that woefully unprepared doctor are some of the most difficult to put into words. So many little things stand out. The doctor’s clear surprise at seeing an unidentified mass in my eye. The way he stammered through words he clearly hadn’t entered the room expecting to say. His reluctance to look me in the eye. My own stunned disbelief. The volley of questions I quickly fired, as though I thought I might ask a question so insightful that the mass would just vanish. The way my heart dropped steadily as our conversation wore on. The chasm of doubt and fear that seemed to open at my feet. Time stood still. In those moments, a profound sense of security I wasn’t even aware I had enjoyed my whole life was suddenly, unceremoniously ripped out of my hands.

That is how my cancer experience began. About six weeks later, after a whirlwind of appointments, scans, anxiety, consultations, tears, and second opinions, my right eye was removed, taking the offending tumor with it. Within a few months, a prosthetic eye sat in its place.

Today, with several years of recovery and reflection to benefit from, I am happy to say that many of my worst fears were just that—fears. The dark fog, which in my case was more than just a metaphor, has now lifted. None of the prophetic doomsday visions I saw for myself at my lowest points came to pass. But one solemn truth did become clear: the security I lost that day, the kind that can only be felt by someone who has never truly grappled with existential dread, will never return.

For a while, I desperately mourned the loss of that blanket of security. The presence of that comforting sense of safety can convince a young person brimming with confidence that they can do anything, that the world is theirs for the taking. I am sure it has motivated many people to do many great and risky things, unafraid of the potential consequences. It’s so easy to romanticize the fearlessness that sense of invulnerability imbues someone with. It speaks directly to many of our most treasured tropes and archetypal characters, bold leaders who take decisive action in adverse circumstances. This attitude of invincibility is reminiscent of classical heroes and historical figures old and new—Hercules, Rocky Balboa, Joan of Arc, Homer, Alexander the Great, Harry Potter, Napoleon, King Arthur, and so many others. My mourning seemed to be a response to losing something I perceived as setting these characters apart from normal people. I no longer felt indestructible, ready to take on the world. I felt small, a hapless victim of a biological fluke that robbed me of my potential. I yearned to feel capable. I instead felt inept as I failed to reproduce my once-smooth jump shot without the depth perception that requires two eyes to maintain. Instead of bold heroism, I routinely burned myself pouring hot water on my hand instead of into my mug trying to simply make tea. I felt diminished.

It took a long time for me to realize that perhaps the fearlessness we romanticize is not the boon it seems to be in films and stories. Instead of running headlong into a challenge as a younger me would have done, today I take careful, measured steps forward. My youthful reckless confidence has given way to a realism that is in itself a subtle joy. While my jump shot may be doomed and my tea-making has had to adapt to my visual limitations, my appreciation for my life and relatively good health has blossomed in their place.

Cancer has a way of bringing the lunacy of modern life into sharp focus. We all spend so much time driving tirelessly toward our goals, we forget to appreciate the conditions that allow us to pursue them, to admire the beautiful views we encounter on our steady marches toward our aspirations, or to just treat the people who help us get there the way they deserve to be treated. Appreciating life’s little things isn’t glamorous. In a world saturated with praise and honor for grand actions, there seems to be little room to admire anything else. The world would have us believe that unless we have made a hero, a leader of nations, or a wealthy tycoon out of ourselves, we have failed. It took a brush with an untimely end for me to realize how untrue that notion is. In those darkest moments of my cancer experience, it wasn’t a hero or a leader who brought me comfort or gave me strength. It was dear friends who came with me to critical scans and appointments, just so I didn’t have to go alone. It was my mom flying in from two states away just to help me cope, even though that meant spending three months on a daybed in a spare room. It was doctors and nurses who didn’t know me, but still responded to my despair with empathy and hope I couldn’t muster for myself. It was the altruism of people who spend their careers and free time creating support services for cancer patients, giving me an opportunity to heal and grow as I recovered from treatment. These people likely won’t be discussed in any future history courses. Yet when I think about people who have made a difference in my life, they are the first who come to mind. It’s a shame that I needed a traumatic near-death experience to force me to realize that, because it’s been true all along, I just couldn’t see it. My experience flirting with my mortality taught me a new, less awe-inspiring, but equally potent way for a person to be great: by being present and appreciating everything around us, by being kind to the folks we encounter, and by liberating ourselves and everyone else from having to be anything other than who we really are in our short time on this earth.

I am sure it’s no coincidence that where I once held Aragorn, a classic heroic protagonist from one of my all-time favorite stories, The Lord of the Rings, in unimpeachably high esteem, it is his older, wiser companion Gandalf the Gray who still captures my imagination today. The wise old wizard provides one of my favorite quotes, one that espouses a beautiful truth:

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

My cancer experience has shaped my life in many ways, but this insight has helped me the most. We could all benefit from taking a moment to remind ourselves that while we may not have the power to spark a revolution or overcome impossible odds, we do have the power to bring joy to the people we love. We always have the power to be a shoulder to a friend in need, to lend a hand to someone who could really use some help, and to just be kind to ourselves as we go about completing life’s many less than glamorous tasks. It’s a reminder that for most of us, simple acts of kindness and patience have a greater impact on our lives than anyone’s heroic deeds. Most of us don’t get to be the Aragorn’s of our world’s story, but we can all be the kind of person that Gandalf asks us to admire: the ordinary folks, whose small acts of kindness and love hold the whole world together.

This article was featured in the 2022 Mental Health issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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One Comment

  • Jennifer Henley says:

    beautiful story! new to “survivorship” and appreciate you posting

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