I Am Strong Because I Have Overcome What I Thought I Couldn't

We recently listed Blake on our list of "10 Men Who Embody The Meaning of Strength" Blog. Below he has written about what it means to be recognized as strong.

I have had more than a couple friends that have passed since I had my retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) on December 9, 2015 from the same surgery. Most of them died from blood loss or shock to the invasive nature of the surgery. I've always found out about it through other people. It hurt me every time. I never understand why it's me who survived and not my friends.

Every once in a while, somebody will come along and tell me that God kept me alive for a reason. Many of these people who've read my work tell me that the specific reason is to write. "I’m praying for you" is a phrase that everyone uses. This bothers me because I don't believe in God. I don't understand why God and having cancer must be synonymous. I wish that I was strong enough to have a spiritual belief of that magnitude. It would make things more tolerable. I don't. There was a time during my cancer journey that I contemplated God, but when I woke up from my RPLND and discovered that I had no visions of a white light, I gave up my faith.

Between 2014 and September of 2017, I pushed myself as fast and as hard as I possibly could. I had to. If I didn't, I probably would have died, or the love of my life would have passed from kidney failure. I had times where I was afraid to go to sleep so I would stay up all night and not drift off until the sun rose. I had times that I was scared about cancer returning. I was scared that something I couldn't even see was going to come after me.

I kept myself going by working at an often frantic pace. The thought of lying in a hospital bed all night awake, the area past the bed, a place and a world of pure darkness, the kind of blackness that makes even God scratch his eyes, waiting for my oncologist to come and tell me how many holes I had in my lungs… it was never far behind. I always tell people to avoid mistaking courage for desperation. Staying alive is not synonymous with not being afraid.

When I was sick, I kept a straight focus on the mundane aspects of life: waking, sleeping, and words. When all else has failed, words have always kept me alive. During my second full week of chemotherapy, there was a stage 4 liver cancer patient who got stuck in the same room as me. The man kept talking. Idle, busy chat. Looking back, I know he was lonely and he wanted company. At the time, I couldn't handle talking to other people about what I was going through. The thought of articulating things to others scared me. I had other people reach out to me, too, and I had to flee from those conversations because it felt like once we give form to our fears, they'd become larger. I really upset some people that way. And the funny thing is, once I recovered and knew I was going to live, I couldn't stop talking about it. It flipped the other way.

The surgeries and the cancer marks scared me a lot. I have one testicle, a long scar running down my chest, and a marker from where my port was. I had body identification issues for a long time that turned my mind upside down about issues of self-image and sexuality. Everything felt out of place. I began to look at my body in the way that a doctor feels when he looks at a patient: sort of mechanical, not seeing the real person, just a series of banged up parts. I was compassionate towards Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

My appearance was compounded with loss of fertility and the inability to have children. I always wanted to have a wife and kids. I’m not sure either are on the table for me now. Someone will always say adoption and that's a wonderful choice, but it's a choice I wanted the ability to make. Sometimes, in the early days, I'd catch myself staring at young couples who were still okay, the "civilians," as I call them, the people who will never know what it's like to come back from the land of the dead that early and wake up in a world where you've lost almost all of the things that you wanted. And the thing is, I sat on those feelings for so long that I began to realize this is it. This is my life now. Don't tell me that it's fair because it's not, but I realized there's still life to be had here.

About six months after I had fully recovered from testicular cancer, my girlfriend went into the second kidney failure of her life. I tried to donate to her even though I'd had cancer. I thought that if I was in remission that I'd be fine. I wasn't. I'll never be able to donate an organ, even to the people I love. And after nine months of being a full time caregiver and sitting through pointless rounds of dialysis and banging my head, I had to send my girlfriend home to recover because I was simply exhausted of the life. I broke my heart carrying the person that I loved and was ultimately unable to save her.

I've lived past all those things and many others that I haven't mentioned here. I went for a run this morning. The trees in Pittsburgh are beginning to shed their leaves and the whole city is being wrapped up in the warm arms of autumn. I date a woman that I love and I've stayed with her through things that I do not know another couple our age has encountered.

Despite the hits I take, I always get back up. So, strength? If I'm to be thought of as strong, it's not because I never felt fear or negative emotions on my journey past cancer, it's because I felt those and kept fighting.

Where have you stumbled upon your own strength? Share what you're proud of being able to do in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of the author