On Life and Its Huge Contrasts

The crazy March weather in the Washington, D.C. area has reminded me that sometimes life is about the contrasts. A foot of snow blanketed the area a few weeks back, followed by nearly spring like warmth just days later. And then, more snow came on the first official day of Spring! Just as with nature, in life and especially with cancer, we see great contrasts as well.

Most people know what it’s like to be terribly sick with a nasty strain of the flu for a few days and think that's pretty bad, but I know what it’s like to feel that way for months, and how physically and mentally draining it is. When my wife and I vowed to love and care for each other “in sickness and in health” at our wedding, I remember thinking, what could possibly happen? Now I know just how important and serious that vow truly is. I knew nothing of surgeries or pain, but know exactly they mean when they talk about a “highly invasive” surgery now and what it takes to get through one. As the world had been coming back to life again a few years ago with its vibrant and beautiful colors just as it is now, I was in the midst of learning what it felt like when your body is on the verge of dying, and barely able to sustain itself anymore. This glimpse would cause me many nightmares and nights of lost sleep.  

The only thing I knew about cancer before was that only other people got it. But now I know that anybody can get it, and what it’s like to have lived with a cancer so aggressive that it required follow-ups on average of every 6 weeks for the first two years. Most people don't think twice after they leave their doctors' offices for trivial or routine things, but I know what it's like to leave an appointment so relieved that you find yourself sitting and weeping in your car for 20 minutes afterwards just letting all of the tension and anxiety drain away, having been so spooked and afraid that something was going to show up on your latest scans. I know the feeling of relief and joy that you’re still a free man when your lease on life gets renewed for another few months, but also know what it feels like to have your heart and soul ripped out at the same time when the news broke that a friend had reached the end, and was living his last days in hospice care. I remember the time when I didn't have a care in the world and my mind was free, so deeply contrasted today with the memories of having been so distressed that I was curled up in corners and in tears every single day for a month at one point. I had a clean slate and a clear mind before, but now I know what it's like to have had demons inside.

Sometimes, I just want to give all of these memories away and go back to the time before cancer had invaded my life, and before chemotherapy, before brutal surgeries, rigorous surveillance protocols and tons of scans and testing, recurrence scares, watching friends die slow and painful deaths, and before having to deal with the post-traumatic stress and depression that all of these experiences caused. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving even long after it's gone. Who wouldn’t want to give all of this away? The memories of such experiences have haunted me, and even today still find ways to come to the surface occasionally to hurt me. At 4 years out, I've been around the block a few times and understand very well how to handle this, but wouldn’t it be nice to be freed of this burden entirely, and to not have to deal with it at all? What I would give at times to be carefree again, and to have that false sense of security about life and health back. But I know, this is impossible. The memories within me of such painful and traumatic times are mine and mine alone to grow with, and to learn from. And so I ask myself, what have I learned, and what can I still learn?

I’ve learned that you can go to bed one night thinking all is well, but wake up in the morning and realize that you have cancer. I've learned that in an instant life can change and will never be the same again, and that all of the confidence and rock solid certainty you had about your life and your future will be gone in that instant, too. I’ve learned that as easily as a health crisis like this happened to me, another could happen just as easily to anybody else, including to those I love. I’ve learned that on any given day, someone you love and care about can just be gone, sometimes in the blink of an eye, and that you’ll never have those people in your life again. I’ve learned that the only certainty in this life and this world is that nothing is for certain, and that nothing is forever, either. 

Fortunately, not all of these contrasting moments in life while dealing with cancer have been so negative. It's from our darkest moments that the most wonderful things can emerge. Had I not finally experienced such a terrible mental and emotional collapse after cancer, I wouldn’t have forced myself into a full reset of my life, and wouldn’t have experienced the joy of rebirth when I finally found my way. I'll never forget the time towards the end of 2013 when I realized that I had made it, I was 2 years out and then some, and that I had learned exactly how to overcome my demons and my fears. For the first time in years, I was just brimming with confidence and optimism like never before, and felt like a Phoenix rising up out of its own ashes knowing with clarity that I was going to come back better and stronger than ever. 

I finally learned how to be true to myself, to no longer neglect my needs, and was no longer going to make excuses for or apologize for anybody. I realized how short and fragile life really was, and that I didn't have time to be anybody except myself. A number of people in my life had disappointed and hurt me right when I was in the most need of their love, their friendships, and their understanding and support. But this made finding the right people that could truly connect with me in such soulful and personal ways so much sweeter in the end, and helped me to appreciate their presence in my life even more. I've seen time and time again how so many people take their spouses and their families for granted. Nothing has inspired me more than my wife, and how hard she fought for me and our family. Cancer puts everything to the test, and to see our family and our love come out the other end not just surviving but thriving, has melted my heart dozens of times. We both feel like we've rescued the other in various ways. 

What a shame that before cancer, so many great moments came and went without really registering like they should have with me. Graduating from high school and then from college just didn't seem to be a cause for a huge celebration, because at that point everything in life was still a given to me, and I would have plenty more moments in life. How wrong I was. When you realize how limited and finite those moments can be, you cherish and enjoy each moment that you have with those that you love and care about so much more. Life and its moments become so sweet. Love becomes so much deeper, friendships have become so much more meaningful and important, and there’s no such thing as just another day. I now see the beauty in each, and appreciate so much about each one that comes. It starts with the air that fills my lungs in the morning, the beautiful woman by my side that I know would go to the ends of the earth for me if that's what it took, because she loves me so much, and then the precious pitter-pattering of little feet in the house. I took so many things for granted before, but now nothing is. Life is such a joy to me. Every. Single. Day.

Just as Stuart Scott wrote in his memoir, my fondest memories of my life at this point are all of times after cancer, and not before, and often in the midst of some of these incredibly difficult times. It’s from the times when we’re the most uncertain and the least confident about life, that we enjoy it the most, and from which we end up having the fondest memories. The painful memories of my cancer fight and the years after have hurt, but they’ve also taught me important lessons about the essence of life. Somewhere along the line in this journey, I finally managed to accept that just as we see huge contrasts in nature and the world around us, that we'll also see huge contrasts and changes in our own lives, and that this is normal. It's humbling to realize just how little control we have in our lives or over our futures, but this is just how life is. I feared change and uncertainty, and the lack of control. It tore me apart inside, but learned to let go and to live without that, and to not be afraid of it anymore.  

Angelina Jolie Pitt wrote an op-ed this week of her decision to have her ovaries removed in order to further reduce her risk of developing cancer, after having already had a preventive double mastectomy two years ago. Writing that she's now in menopause despite the hormone replacements she'd be taking to compensate, she said, "I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared."

This is Life.

Don't be afraid of it. Learn, accept, adjust, and be free. 

I've come to appreciate how such deeply contrasting experiences as a young adult cancer survivor have given me the opportunity to see life for how it really is at a far younger age than most, and the opportunity to change course and live a far better and more fulfilling life than I ever would have otherwise. I can say without a doubt that I've enjoyed each year since cancer by itself more than all of my years prior to cancer combined. However many years I'm going to be around for, I know that every one of them are going to be great, and that there's not a single moment I'm going to miss or take for granted. Despite the considerable pain that these experiences have caused me, I've learned such important lessons from them, and wouldn't trade this new life perspective for anything. I have no regrets, and wouldn't change a thing. 

"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. 
A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." 

Mark Twain