Cancer was so long ago for me that it seems like it was part of a different lifetime. I was standing in front of the mirror in my little bathroom at home. I was 17 and preparing for another day of my senior year of high school. As I stretched, I noticed a golf ball sized lump on the left side of my neck, as if it had been hiding underneath my collar bone. I turned my head to look at the other side. Nothing. This couldn’t be good.
I went to show my mom. She remained calm telling me it was probably just a cyst. The ultrasound showed it was more than a cyst. It was a tumor. My mom continued to be optimistic, saying it could always be benign. By this point, I sort of just knew. I began preparing myself.
I had surgery at Whidbey General Hospital in Washington state. The tumor needed to be removed, and they could do a biopsy to determine its danger. I remember barely waking up and being in a haze from the anesthesia. I said a couple things to my mom, friends, and grandparents. The doctor came in and gave it to us straight: it’s cancer.
I saw the worry and disappointment on my mom’s face. It was hard for her to express any optimism when her only child was just diagnosed with cancer. My mother is the strongest, faith-driven woman I know. I could see every bit of her character being challenged in that moment.
After a couple days of recuperating, I returned to school. My teachers had all been made aware of my situation and were empathetic. The basic rule for my classes: show up and the do the work while I’m there. It’s funny how classmates would try to relate to the situation. People in general don’t understand how to respond to such news, let alone teenagers with little life experience. “Oh yeah, my aunt had cancer,” they’d say. “She passed away last month.” Great. Thanks for that.
Having Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a 17-year-old male may be the best cancer scenario one could ask for. My oncologist gave me a 95% chance of survival. I received three cycles of chemotherapy equaling six visits total. After chemo was a month of radiation.
One thing I remember most fondly was the cherry red steroid they gave me before dripping the chemotherapy drugs into my veins. This steroid supposedly made my body stronger so it could handle the brute of the drugs. My favorite thing about this steroid was the effect it had on my urine. I always got excited the first time I had to use the bathroom after chemo started, because it meant I got to see my body produce fluorescent orange pee. It’s the little things.
I was still an active teenager during my treatments. I went to the movies with my friends on the weekends, I would breakdance with my buddies, and I was actively involved with my family and girlfriend. Life wasn’t too much different, I just had these pesky appointments to go to.
I battled cancer at the perfect time in my life. I was young and had the support. I was just shy of being an adult, which meant being taken care of under my parent’s insurance. Not to mention I had a body strong enough to take it on.
Outside of the biology of the patient – strong body, effective drugs – I think the most important thing for a cancer patient to have is a loyal support system. My parent’s church made us food, my friends came along for trips to my radiation treatments, those that barely knew me would send small gifts and cards; it was all an effort to make the situation easier. It worked.
After my bout with cancer, I told myself that cancer would not be the most significant thing in my life. I would wear my victory as a badge of honor, but other achievements would be worn with it.
I went on to serve five years in the United States Marine Corps, graduate from American University, get engaged to my best friend, and pursue many personal endeavors that made me a household name in their sectors.
“I used to dream about living, now I’m living my dreams” is a quote from New York rapper Joell Ortiz. It resonates with me each time I hear it. My life has become an amazing journey, and my appreciation for it starts with my victory over cancer. I pray I’ll never have to endure that again, but I’m thankful for experience.