My Life After Cancer Would Be So Different If I Didn't Have Survivors Like My Dad To Look To

I have now been in remission from advanced stage Hodgkin's Lymphoma - to be more specific, stage 2-3 "B"- standing for "bulky" - as the site of my main tumor spanned greater than 10 centimeters across my chest (17cm to be exact, but who's counting?!). My tumor, "George", as I lovingly named it, grew silently in me for what most likely could have been years as I went about my teenage years. High school sport games, family dinners, sleepovers, parties, freshman year away from home, workouts, and the following summer that I worked two jobs all came and went while it grew - and grew, and grew.

For as slow as the tumor came on, it was quickly demolished. A few scans, tests, surgeries, followed by 6 months of chemo and bada bing, bada boom, I got my first NED ("No Evidence of Disease") report from my oncologist and went on my way. Okay, I'm really playing all of that off. It wasn't easy, I didn't feel well, and I was thoroughly scared the entire time, But those few months of fear in hindsight (which yes is 20-20, hardy har har), pale in comparison to what brings it all back home.

It could be a twinge in my upper-back, or the ache in my chest after an asthma attack (or two). It could be a hearty laugh at a coworker that turns into a deep, kinda-embarrassing cough, or losing my breath during a long run. It could be a scab from a blister that takes longer than I would like to heal, or my body telling me it needs a nap in the middle of a Saturday that seems undeserved. Any of these things can happen and set me into a mental tail spin where instantly I am 19 year-old-me, trying to follow my mom around the house as she is on the phone with the doctor saying they found "something" on a routine X-ray. I am in the car heading to the hospital watching my home town pass by as my life literally flashes before my eyes. I am back in my super-trendy Ralph Lauren boots and oxford shirt waiting for the oncologist to walk in for the first time, thinking that if I look healthy enough, they'll think twice about solidifying my pending diagnosis. And then I'm back, with tears in my eyes telling my dad "I really don't want to die. Do you think I will?" hoping that whatever he could say would make it all go away. 

Recently, I was listening to a podcast on my long drive home on the Zodiac Killer - yes, a far cry from cancer survivor tales, but stick with me. The narrator was describing one of the notorious killer's attacks where one of his intended victims didn't actually die, while the young woman that he was with, did. He was shot 5 times and deemed "plain lucky" that none of the bullets hit a vital organ. Most people would imagine this "lucky" guy must have gone on to live a "normal" life and may be even married with kids. None of that could be further from the truth. Every day this man lives reliving the attack, watching someone else die, his own excruciating pain, and the memory of what it is like to actually ALMOST die. He lives with survivors guilt - asking himself why her? Why not me? His second chance at life wasn't peachy and while he survived his injuries, his scars both external and internal left him to live a life of mental anguish.

To directly quote the podcast, "not everyone walks away from a tragedy intact."

I've never been shot, or treated for such life-threatening wounds. I'm not comparing the situations, I'm comparing the similar way which the human brain handles trauma. No matter the cause, the PTSD to follow is interpreted similarly by our minds. And although this may be a stretch, I bet the Zodiac survivor would always take the second chance when push comes to shove. I feel the same.

So when I go to the doctor and come home with my incessant cough labeled asthma-induced bronchitis for the third time this year, inhaler, steroids, and a script for an antibiotic (just in case, ya know?) for a few minutes, I'm defeated. I've survived the trauma but can't get past the rest of it. I look at my dad - a fellow cancer survivor - who is left with similar lung issues (his is worse because of radiation therapy in the 80's), weakened vessels around his heart, and cancer a second time and think - is this what I'm in for? He's gone through the gauntlet (a few times now) and I have happily been one of his caregivers who watches him push on. And as inspiring as he is, I'm sure he'd rather be healthy than inspiring.

Who knows if the big "C" will ever come back for me. I like to think realistically with a hint of optimism that it may return, but when I'm like 80 and my hair is already thinning anyway. I think I can live with the side effects, mental stressors and even be inspiring to others in-between. I don't want to ever complain about surviving, but bringing awareness to what it is like to actually live through something most don't is what my life is devoted to now.

Even in the moments I cry and feel overwhelmed, I know that being open about the everyday life of a young cancer survivor will help someone else - just like watching my dad helped me. I'll take hanging out in his hot tub to soak my sore coughed-out back while talking about going to Sicily as a family in 2020 - because we will both be healthy enough then - over drinking at a bar with the other 26-year-olds any night. And that's what brings it all back home.

And if you're as interested in the Zodiac Killer Podcast as I am that I mentioned in this blog, you can listen to season 2 of "Atlanta Monster - The Zodiac Killer" - specifically, episode 2. 

Image courtesy of author.