I'll never forget the story of one of my cancer warrior brothers, Michael Atkins, whom I had met on a support group along with many others back in early 2011, when we were diagnosed with testicular cancer. Of all the people I had met during this time, I really identified with Michael, because he was a family man like me. I had two young children at home, but Michael and his wife, Kirsten, had four. I wanted to believe that all of us would survive and get through our cancer fights together, but I really needed Michael to survive, because Michael was me, and I was Michael.
There is no easy cancer, but my Stage 2 testicular cancer was relatively easy pickings. My fight was done and over with in five months, but Michael was diagnosed with Stage 3 pure choriocarcinoma, and had a long and tough fight in front of him. It's true that testicular cancer is considered to be the most curable cancer, but not the pure choriocarcinoma form of it, which is so aggressive that only about 1 in 10 survive this form of the disease.
Michael's fight was brutal. He went through primary and high-dose chemotherapies, the two very best chances for a cure, both of which failed to cure him. Then, there were numerous clinical trials that he went through over the next year and a half, while criss-crossing the country, and seeing the very best doctors possible. Many of these treatments gave a response, but only bought him time, and not a cure. Michael put on a strong front throughout, and there was always another plan or another option on the horizon, until he just couldn’t go on anymore.
After nearly two years of fighting, the news came in January of 2013 that their fight was winding down, and two months later on February 28th, 2013, the white flag was officially raised. Michael’s body had been battered by so much continuous chemotherapy and radiation over the past two years, that he no longer had the strength to make it to appointments; his body gave out before their options did. In-home hospice had to be started, at which point I fell to absolute pieces, because I could no longer hide from the fact that my friend was going to die.
From the time Michael entered hospice care on the 28th and through his passing on March 7th, 2013, I was overcome with grief and sadness unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I cried everyday for hours, numerous times per day, and was simply inconsolable during this time. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't think, and I couldn't do anything besides mourn for my friend and his family. I prayed constantly for Michael to have a peaceful passing, for him to be free of pain, for his wife to find the strength that she needed, and for his four children to find peace and comfort through all of this.
It wasn't just the loss of a cancer warrior brother that had me huddled in a corner in tears - I also had terrible and gut-wrenching feelings of guilt, as though a knife were tearing through my soul. I mourned Michael's passing as though he really were a brother, but also felt terrible about the fact that I was getting to live and enjoy life with my family and my two children, but here was a guy with four children that wasn't going to make it. It didn't seem right. It didn't seem fair. I was Michael, and Michael was me. Why was I getting to live with my two children, yet he was being taken from his four?
Experiencing survivor's guilt is a very normal part of life as a cancer survivor. This wasn’t the first time that I had experienced it, but Michael’s passing was, by far, the most powerful case of it I’d experience in my years after cancer. Watching people that I had cared so much about die while their families watched helplessly, is what finally made this whole cancer thing real to me. It's okay to mourn, but don't forget to remind yourself that it's okay to live, as well. Your families and your friends all need you to. Live the best possible lives that you can, on behalf of those that couldn't. Honor them and keep their memories alive by doing things that you think would make them proud, and put smiles on their faces.
As it turns out, experiencing survivor's guilt is also a huge opportunity for growth. I definitely gained some new appreciation for my life immediately after my cancer fight, but that was merely a warm-up. Not being able to make any sense of the death of friends in the years after, is how I really came to appreciate my opportunity for life so much more. The beautiful woman by my side, the laughter of my children, the joy that friends had brought into my life, and all that the world had to offer all became so much more real and vivid to me, knowing that friends were no longer here to experience any of these joys of our physical world. Terrible survivor's guilt helped me to evolve as a person, and truly take nothing for granted anymore. It's out of the ashes of the deaths of friends like Michael, that I became so much more aware, and gained the full appreciation for life that I have today.
Special thanks to Michael's widow, Kirsten Ingebretsen, for allowing me to share a part of their story with the world.