On May 11th, 2022 a nurse woke me up from my anesthesia-induced sleep, waited as I scrambled to regain my wits, and then told me that the colonoscopy had found a tumor. I started to cry. She assured me it could be benign. I knew the chances of that were slim. Five days later, on May 16th, my gastroenterologist called me to tell me that my biopsy results were what we had feared. I had cancer. I cried some more.
What had brought me to that point was months of consistent blood in my stool. It started in late December of 2021 and, at first, I didn’t think much of it. Rectal bleeding is common and often clears up on its own. Wasn’t the first time in my life it had happened. Except, this time, the bleeding only got worse with time. In March, 2022, I was finally able to see my primary care doctor. The initial thought was hemorrhoids. However, my doctor recommended a colonoscopy just in case. After another month, I had a consultation with the gastroenterologist and was given a choice: a 30-day prescription for suppositories or a colonoscopy. I figured if I had to shove something up my ass, I’d prefer for it to be for one day and know exactly what was going on rather than 30 and still being unsure. It was the right choice.
There’s a strange type of liminal space after receiving a diagnosis, but before getting a prognosis. I had no idea what stage the cancer was, what my chances of survival were, or anything else. In a situation like that, how can you not expect the worst? I thought about my ambitions. I had just finished the first draft of a novel I was excited about and now knew the chances of my finishing and publishing it were slim. I had the entire year planned out with projects to further my writing and filmmaking ambitions. I never thought 35 would be too old to pursue your passions. I wasn’t filled with regret, my life is truly too good for that, but there was a disappointment and frustration that I might not be able to accomplish my goals. That said, as my feelings evolved, I realized that there were plenty of other things I had accomplished.
I thought of my then 15-month old son, Elijah, and my wife, Hanh, and how I might take care of them after I was gone. I wrote letters to Elijah and documented my favorite poems and songs in a notebook. I made Hanh the beneficiary on everything I own. I did what I could to continue providing.
And that’s when I started to realize that, if we have any purpose at all in such a cold and random Universe, they were it. I’ve come to believe that there are two types of people in this world: 1) doers and 2) facilitators. Doers are those people that make tangible change in the world. They accomplish great things and affect lives positively. But, they can’t do it alone. They need facilitators. Those people that support them while they’re in school, or do the chores while they’re running events or working, or myriad other things that keep our lives together even when time is tight.
Hanh is a doer. She’s out there in the world getting degrees, changing lives, and being a leader. My purpose, if I ever had one, was to help her get to that point. I did that. We also had Elijah, who I know is going to accomplish great things. He’s already shown so much potential, is so smart and has so much love in his heart, that it’s inevitable. If my purpose was to support Hanh as she finished school and started her career and to bring Elijah into the world, then mission accomplished. My life was worthwhile. That change in thinking helped me cope a bit easier while I lived in that liminal space.
Once we knew I had cancer things moved more quickly. I consulted with multiple oncologists, radiologists, and surgeons from Crozer-Keystone and Fox Chase. I wasn’t eligible for any experimental or novel procedures, so the process for fighting the cancer was the same between both institutions. I chose Crozer-Keystone because their facilities were much closer to where I lived. In this time, we learned that I had Stage III and that my prognosis was good. I was young, relatively healthy, and the cancer hadn’t spread. All reasons for optimism.
I continued to work. My employer has been extremely supportive throughout this process. They’ve given me time off as needed, helped me to navigate our fucked up healthcare and insurance system, and my coworkers have sent me gifts and professed their support. I’m extremely grateful to have that. Many people don’t.
I went down to part-time work in July, when I started radiation treatments. Every day I stripped naked from the waist down, put on a gown, then lay facedown on a giant machine that shot lasers at my bare ass. After each session I would feel nauseous and tired. I would go home, try to eat, and rest. It was all I could do in the latter half of the day, until I had to pick Elijah up from daycare. I got used to the routine, but it was also exhausting. By the end of the process, I had permanently lost most of my pubic hair but was assured the radiation missed my testes, so I hadn’t lost the possibility of having another child in the future. Unfortunately, surgery may have taken that choice from us.
Radiation ended on August 15th, my wife’s birthday. When we looked at the latest scans, it looked as if the tumor had shrunk by about 2/3rds. That part of the treatment was successful.
I met with my oncologist and told him I wanted at least two weeks off before we started chemo. He agreed, and in hindsight I should have done three. Two wasn’t enough. In that time I went in for my first surgery–port placement. The port is how the chemo is delivered to your body. It’s a small, circular plastic piece that is implanted just under your collarbone. A catheter connected to the port is attached to a vein near your heart. I’m still not used to it. Every time my hand brushes by it when I scratch my chest or wash myself in the shower I shiver a bit.
Chemotherapy began on August 30th. I should have had the port installed earlier, as I was still bruised and healing during that first treatment, which led to a lot of pain as my port was accessed. Little did I know, the pain felt on that day was nothing compared to what I’d be in for a few months later.
For three out of every 14 days (in other words, three days on and 11 days off), I would be poisoned with the hope that the chemo would kill the cancer before it killed me. There were days, particularly the days following the chemo treatment, where I wasn’t sure we would win that race. The fatigue was all-consuming. I often felt sick. This was a difficult time. I did my best to carry on normally, unable to face the fact that things were no longer normal. I wanted so badly to be better already, to just return to the way life was before the cancer, but the journey was so long. As we neared the end of my six treatments, my white blood cell counts kept dropping. I was given a shot to stimulate their production. Part of me hoped that my body wouldn’t be able to keep up and we would end this part of treatment early. It’s a weird compulsion, I know, but by this point I was so tired of treatments and needles and drugs. I wanted it to be over.
Chemo finally ended on November 10th, nearly five months to the day from when we initially found the tumor. By the end, I was glad to be past chemo and sincerely thought that would be the most difficult part of the process. Through chemo I had developed two blood clots, one in my leg and one in my lung, that put me on blood thinners. Otherwise, to steal a phrase from every mid-2000s pop punk band, I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired.
There were more tests and imaging to do, but I had a brief respite before going to surgery. I increased my hours at work, spent time with my family, and did my best to relax. In my head, I figured surgery would be the easiest part of this whole process. My understanding was that after surgery I’d be in the hospital for three to five days, on a lifting restriction for two weeks, and then from there I would be in the clear. What I didn’t expect was the sort of complications that would keep me in great pain and discomfort for nearly a month.