I was in New York City in January 2016, for the first time in I can't remember, for a work-related trade show. I'm certainly not a stranger to NYC. Some of the top testicular cancer doctors in the country had consulted on my cancer fight at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I was up in NYC at MSKCC a total of 5 or 6 times between 2011-2012, including an 11 day in-patient stay in the hospital there after undergoing a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection surgery (RPLND), when I failed to get a complete response from chemotherapy alone. There were some complications after that surgery that nearly caused one of my kidneys to fail, which required a procedure or two and some monitoring. Needless to say, I haven't had the fondest memories of NYC.
My last trip to NYC was in the summer of 2012, after I had reached the one year cancer free milestone. My Sloan oncologist told me that he didn't need to see me anymore, and to just follow-up with my local DC area oncologist. The complications from my RPLND surgery had either resolved or stabilized, so there was no need to see my "team" of urologists anymore either. Most people have no idea how demoralizing it is to have so many doctors at such a young age, but then how wonderful it feels to be fired by most of them. I left NYC after the last trip, whenever it was in 2012, and have never wanted to set foot in the city since. Just the thought of going to New York again made me cringe, and the thought of being on that loop one more time heading towards the Lincoln Tunnel would instantly trigger my post-traumatic stress. I literally couldn't go there, yet here I was after so many years, heading into NYC for work-related business.
I almost didn't make it. My PTS was kicking in hard in the days leading up to this trip. I was going to a place that I didn't feel safe in, was going to be away from my family and friends, and away from my coping routines and other sources of comfort. I knew that everything floating around in my head about going to NYC again was complete BS, but that's exactly what post-traumatic stress is. These are our instincts. They're very primitive, but also very powerful, trying to protect us from places where we've had traumatic experiences. Mine were like a five-year old stuck in my mind, having a tantrum and throwing a fit, begging and pleading with me not to go, because it was afraid. The morning I was set to leave, it was bad. Really bad. I was in full meltdown mode and shaking, and it took a half bottle of Malbec just to get me out the door in the morning when it was finally time to leave. I wasn't driving thankfully, but rather taking the neighborhood shuttle bus to the metro station, and then all by rail from there. As soon as I forced myself out the door, it's as though that tantruming inner five year-old finally gave up, realized we were going and there was no turning back, and just shut the F* up after that. It's almost as though the world knew I needed some extra support that day. A few random text messages from some positive energy friends helped to put a smile on my face, and it was all uphill from there. Thank God.
I set my expectations low. Just getting out the door to leave for New York was a huge hurdle by itself. As soon as I arrived and set foot outside of Penn Station and wasn't a complete wreck, I declared victory. The work trade show that I was in town for was exhausting and went extremely well, but could have been a complete disaster and I wouldn't have cared (hopes my colleagues don't read this, lol). It just felt good to be back in the city for something other than cancer for a change. I needn't have set my expectations so low. I ended up having a wonderful time in New York.
A highlight of my trip was getting to meet my virtual twin, Jason, for the first time in person after we had met online a few years ago through a mutual cancer survivor friend of ours. Jason and I are both 38, both Scorpios, were both diagnosed with testicular cancer on February 14th (although different years), are both Libertarian and have practically the same exact political views, can complete each other's sentences on more than just politics, and even our moms share the same birthdays of June 30th! How crazy is that?! There's people that you can meet in this world that you'll just feel some sort of connection to, and like you've known each other for a long time even if you've only just met. It's a very short list of people that I've ever felt this way about, and Jason is one of those people. Part of this is the power of social media, but believe me, there's more to it than that, and it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. Jason is an amazing guy, and we had a great time chatting over dinner one night at Bocca di Bacco on 9th Ave in Hell's Kitchen. It was an incredible dinner, even better than the more touristy places, and Jason's positive energy and enthusiasm was key to helping me to break through the negative associations that I've had with such an amazing city.
I also caught up with another friend, Justin, from my hometown, and whom I probably hadn't seen since high school or college. It was great to reconnect with familiar faces, and just talk about life and all that its put us through. I just missed being able to catch up with my chemo brother Ben P, and couldn't quite connect with another old friend and colleague, Eric List, from way back when, but still had loads of fun Yelping my way across the city and enjoying more of what New York City has to offer with current colleagues after putting in such long days on our feet.
One of the biggest surprises for me in New York City wasn't that I calmed down as soon as I got there, and hadn't even the slightest shred of nervous energy in me anymore, but rather that my hotel ended up being not even two blocks away from the famous Soup Nazi. Yes, that "Soup Nazi", from the Seinfeld episode nearly twenty years ago. I saw it and thought, naw, couldn't be! But I looked it up online and on Yelp, and yes, it was that Soup Nazi! I tried it. Damn! Yes!!!! It was that good!!!!! I almost wanted to get some to go and bring it home to my wife and another foodie friend, but they choose to wait until they could sample it fresh. I don't blame them! Best soup I've ever had.
The biggest surprise of them all, however, and the biggest near-miss of my first non-cancer related trip to NYC since 2010 was the fact that another 5 year testicular cancer survivor brother of mine was right at the same trade show the whole week! We both work for very large companies who had huge booths just a minute or two from each other, but had no idea the other was there due to social media blackouts from our spouses while on travel. When I finally "checked-in" with a bag of Laudree's macaroons in hand for my wife on the way out, I got a message from my friend's wife, Heidi, that she was in New York too. When we realized that we were all in NYC at the same time and for the same reason, we about fell out of our chairs! What a small world. I don't always go to these trade shows, but if I end up going next year, we'll definitely all be meeting up for a nice dinner and a few bottles of wine!
Part of the healing process for me has long been to make new and far more positive memories in place of old and painful ones around painful times. Or in the case of a city, find far more enjoyable things to do than have your innards ripped out while fighting for your life. That's a low bar in New York City. So many new places to go now, and old and new friends that I very much look forward to catching up with again soon. This trip blew all of my expectations right out of the water, and I can't wait to go back.
A few photos from our last trip to New York that wasn't for cancer or health related reasons. In October of 2010, just my wife and I went to NYC over a long weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, sans kiddos, and it was a wonderful trip. But it was immediately after this trip that life started going downhill very quickly for us. I lost my job the next month, and my cancer diagnosis came a few months after that. I haven't been able to look at these photos for years now, as the mere thought of New York would bring back so many painful memories from all of the trips in the following years about cancer. Thanks to this wonderful trip, I can now remember the good and the positive, start to forget the pain of the past, and look back on these old photos with a smile.