What Kicking Cancer’s Ass Taught Me

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I was invincible. I was living. I was more alive than anyone. I went to parties every night and knew everyone in town. I drank with the best of them, and would even venture to say that I outdrank the best of them. To say that my reputation as an avid partier preceded me would be an understatement. I was young and I had everything going for me. Life as an adult was taking off, and I couldn’t wait to see where this crazy world was taking me.

Before I got the news.
Before I got the news.

Writing this article is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard to explain my life before cancer without going into pages and pages of detail, but just know that I had a beautiful girlfriend, a great job, and huge career potential. I lived in South Florida where the beach yearned for our attendance, and the only thing hotter than the sun was the women. What more could I ask for?

As someone that has been healthy my entire life, I hated having to drag myself to the doctor. Before that day, I had never even had the flu. I would be lying if I told you that when I started having mini seizures, the first thing I said was “I’d better get to the doctor.” All I could think of was getting out of work on Friday so I could spend time with the girl who stole my heart. Nevertheless, mom knows best and mom wanted me to go get checked out. I went to the doctor and after countless CT scans, MRIs, spinal taps, bone marrow biopsies, and blood tests, other than a small lesion on the left side of my brain, I was in perfect health. The doctors literally could not find a single issue anywhere in my body.

During the whole ordeal.
During the whole ordeal.

This lack of cancer cell findings naturally left me pretty cocky going into a biopsy of my brain. I figured “I’ll get some pretty good Instagram pictures out of this whole experience.” That should tell you where my head was at during that point of my life. At no time did I ever think that cancer was even a possibility. The biopsy was flawless. My neurosurgeon attended Duke, then Columbia med school, a real rockstar, so I was in great hands, and I left the hospital after only one night. Now the waiting period began, which I spent working ten hours a day, and partying each night.

Now let me tell you something about finding out you have cancer. You are never prepared for it. You see, as a 27-year-old former collegiate basketball player, I was not ready for the gravity of the news I was about to receive. So when the doctor came into the room and said “Well we got the results back of your biopsy, and we found that it is in fact lymphoma.” At that very moment, life stopped for a minute. My mind went from first gear to fifth in a hurry. What about work? What about my girl? How will I make it through this? Am I going to die? I covered up my anxiety quickly, “Ok what’s next? I don’t have time for cancer!”. My doctor looked stunned and told me she had to pass me off to another doctor who specialized in that non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and that doctor would explain the road from here on out to me.

The first appointment, my new doc tells me “Hey if you have to get cancer, this is the one that you want to get. It has an eighty percent cure rate.” “Eighty percent?! That’s a B average! I should be good,” I responded. So again, I walk into my first chemo treatment pretty cocky. Pride was still high. I still hadn’t learned to be humble. God wasn’t done with the lessons. Then 30 minutes before my first chemo treatment ended, I began to have a funny feeling. My whole body started to tingle, and when I looked at my girl with a face she described as pure terror, she asked me if she should get the nurse. Again, I was a stubborn ass, managing to slur “no”. Luckily she ignored me. My arms locked up and raised uncontrollably over my head, and my face felt like it was being ripped in two, half going up and half going down, then black.

I woke up three hours later to a room full of people, wondering why the heck they were all there. I was without oxygen for 6 minutes. Apparently I turned all kinds of black and blue, foamed at the mouth, and even just about pissed myself. Basically when you’re having a seizure, your brain is shocking all of the muscles in your body. You’re electrocuting yourself. It was not fun. I don’t recommend it.

So that’s it right? I must be out of the woods now! What other terrible things could possibly happen? Through this whole thing I learned, never ask that question! We must never forget that in the movies, it starts raining right after the main character says, “At least it can’t get any worse.” There is always something more terrible that can happen. During my fifteen-day stay in the hospital, I had visitors from people I hadn’t talked to in years. My fraternity friends came in smelling of liquor, hangovers, and bad decisions from the night before at a rate that couldn’t stop me from grinning ear to ear.

Then again, lady luck struck. My kidneys had failed. Bring on the dialysis! Now if you can imagine the happiest place on earth, we’ll say Disney for argumentative purposes – rides, happy, healthy families, smiles, candy, butterflies, and roses – dialysis clinics are the exact opposite from that. You sit in a chair, for 4 hours, 3 days a week, hooked up to a machine that makes weird noises, as it filters all of the toxins out of your blood since your kidneys are too lame to do it on their own. This was by far the worst physical part of my experience. I’m a tough guy. I pride myself on being able to be pushed to the brink, but this was honestly almost too much. I don’t know how some people do this as part of their everyday life. You’re tired all the time, exhausted, drained, emotionally, physically, and mentally spent. You get these headaches that I can only compare to having a giant stomp on your head. Eating anything is a challenge because there is a long list of crap you can’t have, and guess what!? All of my favorite foods were on the list of stuff you could not have. The food that I did enjoy would often end up regurgitating back into the toilet because my stomach just couldn’t handle it. To this day, I wake up everyday and thank God that my kidneys decided to work again. A month of dialysis was enough for me.

Six more chemo treatments went by without incident. I took that poison like a champ! I would spend my off weeks in the Florida Keys for my fraternity brother’s bachelor party, his wedding, another brother’s wedding, and yes I partied at both weddings, or I spent as much time with my girl as possible. She constantly nagged me about being more active, exercising, blah, blah, blah. One time I let her sucker me into a race, which wasn’t the best idea. I almost passed out on the side of the road and she beat me – neither ideal. So not only did I lose, which if you know me, you know I can’t stand losing, especially to a girl, but I looked like a moron huddled over on the side of the road, turning red, trying to keep myself from falling over.

They say that when things get tough, you find out who your real friends are. I can honestly count on one hand the number of friends that came to see me more than just the first time I was in the hospital. Otherwise, I was expected to make the trip to them, or text them. “Ya bro, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m the one with the potentially life threatening disease,” I thought to myself. I won’t throw anyone under the bus here, but to those of you that read this, look at your team, when the world comes crashing down on you, most of them will bail on you. Period. Ultimately the fight is yours. You must get you through it. Whatever goals, or thoughts, or desires you have that push you through it, you have to do it, alone. No one will fight for you. They can’t fight for you, and very few will even try to hold your hand while you do. You will lay in bed every night feeling abandoned by the people you love, not everyone, but people that you felt mattered enough that they would be there. It is the most frustrating mental aspect of the whole experience. All of these other assholes are just going on with their lives and you’re stuck at home most of the time, watching Cesar Milan, and any other show to take your mind off of your hopeless situation.

So enough bitching about how bad people suck. Back to the fight. After those treatments, there was a tiny bit of tumor left. The best course of action is a stem cell transplant. For those of you unfamiliar with a stem cell transplant, to dumb it down for you, basically they draw baby cells from your blood, another process that sucks to go through, give you insanely high doses of chemotherapy, then shove your baby cells back into your bone marrow to start making new healthy cells. It is way more complicated than that, but for time purposes I’ll spare you the extra details. The regiment of chemo I was on for this transplant, I was told was the strongest chemo treatment regiment known to man. The FDA wouldn’t even approve this drug being made in America. My doctors got this stuff from Italy. Talk about sketchy.

The whole process left me in the hospital for a month. I urinated blood for a week, had uncontrollable diarrhea for 3 weeks, puked anytime I tried to eat, and also puked when I couldn’t eat. You’re basically one of the zombies from the Walking Dead, but luckily they don’t let Rick and his machete into your hospital wing to hack you to pieces. When you get a fever at this stage, the chances of you dying are like 80 percent or something stupid like that. You’ll never guess who got a fever?! This guy! Most of you are probably thinking at this point, damn, I just want him to die so I don’t have to read anymore, but that’s not my style. I survived and got out of the hospital, then spent 3 months laying on the couch being bald and miserable, watching, you guessed it, more Cesar Milan. I’m an expert dog trainer now, by the way. I spent my days of boredom babysitting one of my best friend’s dogs, Stella, and watching HBO for a change of scenery. After my three months of quarantine, I made my way back to the doctor to get the results of my MRI. The cancer was gone! Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! What do you think most people would do in this moment? The first question out of my mouth, “Can I go back to work now?”. Yes, work held my position for me through all of this. What a spectacular company. I’m alive, I have a job, and life is going back in the right direction for me.

Now after a major life event like this, it is also amazing to see how people react once you’re healthy. Your team changes significantly from start to finish. Some people left in the beginning and have yet to resurface, some resurfaced immediately following the trauma, and some disappeared as soon as the trauma ended. Even family was largely non-supportive throughout. Understanding this is the hardest part. Not everyone is down for the fight. Not everyone was a total flake, though. I can’t say enough wonderful things about my mother through the whole situation. She handled the emotional roller coaster like a champ! My dad was always there and did anything I needed from him. My now-ex girlfriend, and her family provided an amazing escape from my mom when she was driving me crazy. Some close friends and their families’ prayers got me through more tough times than they will ever know. It is not totally hopeless with people. There are many people that will be the light in the dark.

I leave you with this, what would you do if you were told you had cancer? How would you react? When the doctor gives you the news that shakes your entire existence so many questions immediately go through your head. Am I going to die? What will happen to my job? What will happen with my relationships? You will fight, you must fight, your life depends on it. You know what awesome news I have for you? God loves you and he will not fail you. You can do and accomplish all things through Christ. When the world has abandoned you, because it will, He is there. All you need to do is ask for the strength and He will give it to you! So when life spits in your face you have two choices, you can lay down and quit, or you can stand up and spit right back in that bully’s face. Just be prepared to fight. In the words of the late great Jim Valvano, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities, it cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, it cannot touch my soul, and those three things are going to carry on forever!” When the light at the end of the tunnel is staring at you, you can tell it you just aren’t ready. I did.