In May of 2017, at 26 years old I awoke from an emergency surgery with a cancer diagnosis, a colostomy, and the immediate knowledge that my life had just irreversibly changed. One year ago today, on December 7th 2017, after 12 rounds and 6 months of chemotherapy, I received the best news. After a clean scan I was declared officially in remission.
I’d heard the magic words! I was ready to put my mortality in the back seat where it belonged and take the steering wheel back on my life. I celebrated. I ate sushi, drank beer and did all the things I’d been denied on chemo. I received more hugs and words of congratulations than I could count. I spent weeks reveling in life without chemo. I couldn’t wait to put this cancer bullshit behind me and get busy getting back to living my life.
I was wrong. You don’t get to just put cancer behind you and move on. Remission isn’t the end of the cancer journey, but a transition. This disease will haunt me forever. For the rest of my life, with every scan and lab draw, I get to live with the crippling anxiety that my cancer might be back. That I might have to start this fight all over again.
During treatment I didn’t take much time to think about how I would feel when I was done – I was mostly focused on getting through the next round of chemo. But many of us are left with permanent side effects from our treatment. For me, it’s neuropathy – a numbness in my hands and feet that may or may not go away with time. Infertility is a common aftereffect of chemotherapy and with very short treatment timelines many patients simply don’t have time to preserve their fertility before beginning treatment. While I was able to put a few of my little swimmers on ice, it’s still too soon to test my current fertility status. My ostomy was reversed but many of my friends aren’t so lucky and will live with theirs for the rest of their lives. Cancer survivors deal with increased diagnoses of anxiety and depression. Many survivors will spend decades in debt from medical bills. Divorce rates are higher among cancer survivors than the general population. If dating in the age of tinder wasn’t already hard enough, good luck adding colon cancer to the mix.
Remission is not what I thought it would be. I thought I would hear the good words, reverse my ostomy and immediately get back to living. I was wrong. It hasn’t been a triumphant return to the old life I once lived, but a very slow reset. I spent most of the last year in limbo while I waded through the Navy’s medical review process. Not allowed to go back to work anywhere else, unfit to work for the Navy, and not allowed to travel I sat around for 9 months waiting for the official decision from the Navy to separate me. There was never a chance the Navy would keep me and I knew this as soon as I woke up from surgery with a cancer diagnosis. But it turns out people don’t like to listen to unhappy news, so through this time I had to almost daily explain my situation to friends and strangers and nod along as they tried to tell me to keep my hopes up because “Maybe the Navy would keep me!”
During my first 3 month follow up appointment at the cancer center, my social worker Terra talked to me about how I was adjusting to life after cancer. She spoke of the importance of survivors acknowledging what we’ve lost so we can move on because adjusting to life after cancer is more a grieving process than anything else. In what quickly turned into an overwhelming emotional experience, I began to acknowledge that I hadn’t adjusted at all. Cancer had taken so much from me and I hadn’t at all begun to work through any of what I had lost.
Cancer clipped my wings. It took 6 inches of my colon and shook my self-confidence. Cancer took my dream job, the house on the beach, and the life of adventure I’d been living. It took the feeling from my hands and feet. It left my body scarred and worn. In a 3-month period I went from the pinnacle of my life to rock bottom. My aviation and military careers are over. The ten-year plan I had meticulously laid out is gone. Everything I thought knew about myself, my future, my goals and my dreams was suddenly so uncertain.
After my diagnosis, and into remission my emotions were always boiling just below the surface. I put on a smile and pretended everything was fine because I was tired of everyone worrying about me. I blamed the mood swings and angry outbursts on the chemo, which might have had a hand, but I was really just so angry and frustrated and hadn’t even tried to work through any of my feelings. Confidence has always been a cornerstone of my identity but for the first time in my life, I’m unsure. About everything. But I’m trying to be ok with that.
I’ve come a long way since that conversation with Terra 9 months ago but I still have a lot of work to do in figuring out who I am now. I’m not sure what’s next for me but I’m trying not to stress about it. As I sat in the chemo chair, there were a lot of things I wished I’d done. I made a lot of promises to myself about things I would do when I was healthy, and I’m trying to make that my priority for now. I separated from the Navy at the end of October. 8 days later I was in Europe. I came back home for the holidays but I’m heading back for another 6 weeks just before New Years.
I’m not the same man who pinned a set of wings on my chest two years ago. To try to go back to that wouldn’t just be impossible, it would be an affront to all I’ve lived through since. Cancer took the life I knew and broke it into a thousand pieces. There is no way to put them back together and go back to who I was. But each day I’m going to try find the good bits and put them together into something stronger than I had before. I’m going to embrace my new life as a survivor and build something new and beautiful out of the pieces I have left.