In the aftermath of Senator John Mccain’s cancer diagnosis another cancer survivor named Xeni Jardin wrote an opinion piece that gained a lot of traction and attention. I saw this article shared by friends on social media. I saw it gain traction on sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed. On online cancer forums, I saw it posted again and again. And it irritated me, again and again.
Four months ago, I was on top of the world. At 26, I was living my dream flying helicopters for the Navy. I had recently moved to Jacksonville Florida, a beautiful new city full of new adventures where I shared a house at the beach with three other Naval Aviators. My fall from grace came hard, and fast.
After months of increasing ailments followed by numerous emergency department visits and hospital stays, on May 11th I had what was supposed to be an exploratory laparoscopic surgery to finally determine the nature of my illness. I awoke to find my surgeon standing over me, explaining that my exploratory surgery had become an emergency colectomy. The surgical team found and removed a “lemon-sized” tumor from my sigmoid colon, and approximately 15 cm of my intestines had come out with it. When the pathology reports came back and staging was complete, I would be diagnosed with Stage IIIB Colon Cancer.
In a 3-month period I went from living out my dream to living with my parents, leaving my career and beach home 3000 miles behind. My intestines poke out of my abdomen and I poop uncontrollably into a bag that hangs off my body. Every other week for three days straight, I pump copious amounts of poison into myself in the hopes of killing the worse poison that my own body has created.
Looking up from the bottom of the pit I’ve been thrown into, it would be easy to curl up in a ball of my own self-pity and wait for this storm to pass, knowing that no one would fault me for it. But this is not the route I have chosen. My fall from the top has left me battered and bent, but not broken. So, each day I look for the silver linings amongst my many storm clouds and use them to start pulling myself out of this pit.
The attitude Jardin outlines forces too simplistic a view of the fight against cancer. The medicine will either stop the cancer or it won’t. To call it a battle is offensive because it implies that if we survive we’re winners, but if we die we’re losers.
In one aspect, Jardin is absolutely right; I can’t control how my body reacts to my treatment. My chemo may fail. My cancer may well still metastasize. I may be declared cancer-free, only to have it return a few years down the road. This disease may kill me, and that is entirely out of my hands. Most of this war against cancer is out of my control. I must place my faith in my doctors and modern medicine to do the heavy lifting. But there is one place in which I am still in control: my attitude. So this is where my fight lies.
My battle begins each morning when I wake up, committed to staying me through all of this. To do as much of what I love, while I can. To keep my chemo induced mood swings under control. To laugh often and embrace the dark humor and poop jokes I’m now entitled to. To continue to plan for what comes after. To make bucket lists for my post chemo life and to fill my chemo off-weeks with as many adventures as I can manage. To finish every day as Ben, not sick cancer-ridden Ben, but the Ben I have always been.
Some days I climb mountains, (ok hills, the mountains will have to wait until after my chemo) and some days I hardly climb out of bed. But I fight to fill each day with purpose. On infusion days, I walk into the cancer center with a smile on my face and a laugh ready at my lips, ignoring the inevitable looks of pity sent my way from patients two or three times my age. On chemo days, I throw my portable 5-FU pump over my shoulder to take my dog Izzy for short walks around the block. Sometimes they leave me utterly spent, but sometimes they re-ignite me. Either way, I’ll continue to take them because they make us both happy.
I’m taking time for me, to better myself. I’m working through the books I’ve always wanted to read but never could find time for. I’m cooking new things, using fresh vegetables from my parents’ garden, and when the hops growing in the back yard are ready, I’ll brew a beer with my dad. I’m spending quality time with family, strengthening the relationships with my sisters and my parents, truly appreciative of all they have done for me, especially now. Despite the miles and years that may have gotten between us, I’m reconnecting with old friends from my past, and finding that the heart has no limit to the love it can hold. Cancer aside, our days are all numbered, so I am choosing to fill what remain of mine with as much happiness as I can muster.
Cancer offers us a unique opportunity to sit across the table from Death for a long and candid conversation about our future together. This difference in attitudes is the difference between sitting down to look Death in the eyes and speak as equals, and being dragged to the table as an unwilling participant. This cancer may yet have my final breath, but if it does it will be on my terms, fighting to the end.
I am not an unwilling participant being swept along by the uncontrollable tide of this disease. I am a warrior. Not because of my military background, but for the inextinguishable fire in my soul, and I will wake up to fight every day until my days are spent. If I survive, I will be a winner, not for the mere act of surviving, but for how I composed myself through this battle. If my cancer has the final say, I will still be a winner because I took my invincible foe, battled to my last, and walked out the door hand in hand with Death, my head held high.
By the time my war is over, this cancer will have stolen a lot from me: Years of my youth, a generous portion of my colon, most likely my career, and possibly my life.
But until then, each day I wake up and endeavor to take something back.