Five Realizations Cancer has Given me.

In September 2013 I was diagnosed with large B Cell non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, or “fucking cancer” as I affectionately call it. Cancer is bullshit no matter what age you are, but it definitely hits you hard when you’re a 23 year old who just graduated university, and are about to move in with your girlfriend for the first time. My life wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders when I was hit with the news, as I was still in the midst of the post-grad “what the hell am I going to do now?” stage, but I at least felt like there was a road for me to travel and I’d figure things out along the way. Of course, a gigantic sadistic crater in the form of cancer enveloped my life-mobile as it was puttering down the life highway (that’s a terrible string of life metaphors) and I’m now lying in a ditch off to the side, trying to recover. Overall, my prognosis looks really good, as my cancer is apparently very treatable; curable even…but that hasn’t stopped me from obsessively re-evaluating every aspect of my life at every moment of every day while I fight this disease. Here are five things that having cancer made me realize:

5. Our problems are incredibly petty

I think we are all aware of this on some level, but boy that doesn’t stop us from bitching about every little thing in our lives. We’re all guilty of doing this to some degree, but getting cancer made me even more aware of how fucking annoying and petty most people are. Someone posts a status on their Facebook along the lines of, “Waaah, I don’t want to work today. FML,” and I just want to reply with, “Guess what? I don’t want to have fucking cancer today! Get your ass to work and appreciate your ability to do so.” Obviously, proper etiquette prevents me from stating such remarks, but I still think along these lines much more than I used to. However, much of this hatred for people’s petty problems extends from jealousy; I wish things were going well enough in my life that having to go to work and make money (which is a topic I will address shortly) was the worst problem I had. Now though, I have petty problems that are compounded by the fact that my body is fighting off a potentially life-threatening disease. I still have to go the grocery store like normal people and I hate it as much as you do, but I also have to worry about being in a public place where I could potentially contract an illness that would destroy my weakened immune system.

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“If you touch me I might die. If you value your life, you’ll take your disease somewhere else. Thank you, and come again!”

Of course, even my cancer problems seem petty compared to others’. Chemotherapy treatment is not only magically eliminating my cancer, but it also destroyed the debilitating pain issues I was having prior to treatment. Now, I am able to function and live a relatively normal life while I get treatment. Unfortunately, many cancer patients are absolutely demolished by treatment and their disease. I luckily only lost my hair and developed some wicked heartburn thanks to chemo, but other people get severely sick in multiple ways. Basically what I’m trying to say is that there is an incredibly wide spectrum of life problems and we should really learn to take consideration of where our problems lie on this spectrum. If your only real issue is to bitch about some guy who turned you down at the bar, or that that Starbucks barista fucked your order up and gave you a mochacino frapadapalopo instead of a mochacino brapadapadoo (I bet you didn’t know I made those drinks up), you should probably keep it to yourself because nobody, especially people with legitimate life problems, gives a shit.

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“I made this for you! It has an extra shot of hatred because I can tell you’re a shitty person.”

4. Money is essential for everything

Cancer has taken a lot of things from me, including my ability to earn a living. While I am now in a position where I’m well enough to be able to work again, I’m still functioning with a severely compromised immune system, and I’d rather forgo having money if it means preventing a threat to my health. Still, having no money is an awful feeling, and don’t let any hippie tell you different. I realize now that having money is a pretty key component to being happy. Right now, I am living in my first apartment with the love of my life; we are independent and it makes me very happy to have an amazing woman by my side supporting me. However, the fact remains that my happiness would increase dramatically if I was earning enough to make a comfortable living. The issue is not only that I can’t buy things that I want, or even need, but that I stress and think about money constantly. Christmas was an awful time this year because I had little money to buy gifts, and yet I was still expected to buy gifts. I like giving gifts to people, but not when a $50 Secret Santa gift represents literally 1/10th of all of my remaining money.

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“Merry Christmas! I have no money left for food or shelter, but your temporary happiness is what is important.”

I know we all stress about money to some degree, but you really don’t appreciate how ridiculously important it is in every aspect of our lives until you have none coming in. I’ve basically had to put every major life plan on hold because they all require money: I wanted to get engaged by the end of this year, but now I might have to postpone that because engagements, and especially weddings, are expensive shit. I also would like to do some travelling, but that will have to wait too because of the buttload of money needed to do that. It’s like cancer held a gun to my head and demanded all the money I had, plus what I would have made in the past six months. I’ve been robbed, and it’s not a great feeling.

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“Put your hopes and dreams in the bag too! Make it snappy, bitch, I’ve got other lives to destroy.”

3. Free Time Sucks without Work to Balance it

When I first became aware of the fact that I wouldn’t be working for a number of months and would have every day of the week free, I was excited by the possibilities. I wanted to use this time to better myself; I would write more, read more, and essentially do all the things I couldn’t do when I was working or in school. As you may have guessed, this didn’t really happen. While my own laziness and frequent apathy towards life in general did a lot to curb my creative impulses, a lot of it simply came down to the fact that I had too much unearned free time on my hands. I came to realize that leisure time needs to be balanced with work in order to be properly enjoyed. It’s a strange phenomenon, but I discovered that I actually miss working, which is honestly something I never thought I would experience. Leisure time lost its meaning for me because I couldn’t contextualize it without feeling like it was earned. Working for a living earns us our downtime. It also gives our lives structure and meaning, even if our jobs are soul-numbingly boring.

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“All play and no work make Jack something, something….I guess go crazy? Crazy bored.” I haven’t watched The Shining in a while. Maybe that will help pass the time.

It also doesn’t help that not working makes you feel rather useless and pathetic. My life partner and all around superstar woman Casey works incredibly hard to provide for us, and I get to sit around our apartment all day doing whatever I want. Even with the excuse I have, I don’t feel particularly good about myself, and so I quickly lost the ability to enjoy my free time because I felt so guilty.  I also think that loneliness has something to do with my lack of motivation. I try to avoid public places as much as possible so that I don’t pick up an unwanted illness, which means I don’t leave my apartment most days. That in itself creates a feeling of loneliness, but I’m also dealing with something that those closest to me can’t relate to. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that my friends and family haven’t done their best to try and understand my situation, which helped me realize that…

2. Friends and Family are Pretty Damn Important

There’s a lot of literature written about cancer that identifies the loneliness brought on by the disease and the need for a support system to help limit this. I’ve always been wary of sentimental things; while I’ve been offered various support resources like counselling to help me deal with my diagnosis, I never felt the need to seek out this sort of help. I consider myself somewhat insular with my thoughts and feelings, and I didn’t really see what benefit I could glean from support groups and their ilk. Of course, I couldn’t have prepared myself for the complexity of psychologically coming to terms with something as life-altering as cancer, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t think I could have handled it without my friends and family.

My move-in with Casey coincided with my diagnosis, so we both knew we had some very tough times ahead of us. While many may think that moving in with your girlfriend is probably not the best thing to do when you’re dealing with something like cancer, I don’t regret my decision in the least. She has been my caregiver and most prominent emotional support, and our relationship has actually been strengthened by this terrible disease.

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“Uh, thanks cancer? You’re still an asshole.”

My parents have also been incredibly important in the support department, despite being a bit too overbearing at times. If you’ve seen the film 50/50, you’ll sort of understand what I’m talking about. I don’t say any of this to be mean or discredit my parents, as I can’t even fathom the shock they must have felt and continue to feel in regards to their son being diagnosed with cancer. I’m sure I’d be a wreck too. Mom, Dad: I love you.

The support group I’ve been most surprised, and let down by, are my friends. If you’re looking for a litmus test to see how much your friends actually care about you, try getting cancer and see how they react (note: I don’t advise this. Stay healthy and don’t get cancer). Some of my friends have been simply amazing, and have gone beyond the call of duty in their support. We held a party in the Fall to get together and shave my head, and four of my male friends shaved their heads along with me. Having to give up my hair was a pretty difficult experience, and I was damn well touched by the fact that other people willingly got rid of their hair just to support me. That’s pretty awesome.

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Gentlemen and scholars. Take a bow, good sirs.

Then there are the friends that have let me down. I only have a few close friends in my life, but there are still a good number of people I talk to sometimes and hang out with on occasion. I don’t know if it’s just that people don’t really care, or don’t know what to say or do, but a good number of my “friends” on Facebook have never said one word to me since my diagnosis. Not one word of encouragement or anything. I don’t expect much from people I’m not close to, but this strikes me as a little cold. Even worse, some friends who I’ve hung out with in the previous year have not contacted me once to do anything. I get it; some people just don’t know what to say to people who are dealing with health issues. I know I struggle with it. However, I have had nothing but free time for almost six months now, and I’ve been surprised by the lack of social interaction I’ve had since that time. At any rate, this experience has shown me that I should reach out more to people, especially if they are having problems. If my own experience is any indication, they are probably looking for some kind words of support from anyone.

Although, if you do want to support those who are having health problems, try not to ask them how they’re feeling. This is honestly the worst thing you can do, even if it comes from genuine concern. Just think: everyone is asking this same damn question, so they’re likely tired of answering it. I know I am.

1. A Post-Cancer Life is not Going to be Easy

As it stands right now, I have one month of treatment left, after which I should know definitively if I’m cancer-free or not. Of course, the problem with having cancer is that you’re never truly free from it. Even if by some miracle I remain free of cancer for the rest of my life, I will still have to have regular check-ups. Effectively, the rest of my life is going to be in some way defined by cancer, and that sucks. I want nothing more than to move on from this hellish period in my life, but I never will fully.

The upside of all of this is I’ve learned to re-evaluate my life on a constant basis, and to take stock of everything I have. I’ll never really know if I could have done something to avoid getting cancer, but at least having a life-threatening disease has dispelled any misplaced faith I had in the nigh-invincibility of youth. I’m only 24 years old but I am acutely aware of my own mortality, and realize that I need to take steps to help ensure that I continue to live on long after this cancer is gone. For starts, I need to improve my physical health. There’s no excuse beyond laziness for being this out of shape at an age where I should be at my physical peak.

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“Ok, which machine targets everything and gets me ripped with minimal effort? None of them? Hmm, does cocaine make you thin?”

Cancer has also given me something of a spiritual awakening. No, not in the way you’re thinking. In fact, I think I’m ready to throw away the whole concept of God at this point. I never once felt the pull of religious enlightenment while battling cancer; in fact, I got pulled away. Ultimately science, not faith, is what is getting me through this crap. I just can’t get behind the idea of a human-centric God anymore. There very well may be some being that created the universe; in fact, I find that highly plausible. I don’t for a minute, however, believe that there is a God that cares about us at all, and I’m fine with that. The love and support of others is enough for me, and I find comfort in the decency of people.

Hi, my name is Nick. I’m 24 years old and I’m winning the fight against cancer. It’s a terrible, terrible disease that’s put me on a roller coaster of emotions for the past six months. Yet somehow, despite it being such an asshole (if cancer could take physical form, I would murder it repeatedly and take a dump on its corpse. Is that statement too obscene? Get cancer and see if you feel the same way), it’s taught me some pretty valuable life lessons.

Still, fuck cancer.

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