Every single one of us looks for those “life-changing” moments. Those instances where you immediately recognize that everything is about to go in a different direction. We all hope that it’s for the positive. But, the harsh reality is that those moments can come when you least expect it, and can also be quite negative. When you hear the word “cancer” it’s up to you to decide which way it’s going to affect you. I’m doing just fine now, more than two and half years in remission, but when asked to look back on my journey and what I learned, it’s even more apparent that this was my biggest life-changing experience to date.
Life Changes In Three Words: “You Have Cancer”
This past Saturday was the three-year mark of my initial diagnosis. On December 9, 2014, I went to the doctor for what I thought was a stubborn sore throat. Truthfully, I figured it was strep and nothing more. However, he took one look in the back of my throat and said, point blank, “You have cancer.” I’d be lying if I said I remembered much of what happened the rest of the day.
We scheduled an emergency tonsillectomy because there was a tumor growing there. I called my father, who spent 30 years in Army medicine, and attempted to figure out how and when to tell people; mainly my mother. As we ended the call, I heard him get a little choked up, and it was apparent that everything was going to be different. The next person to tell was my girlfriend, my first face-to-face. Though we had only been together a couple of months at that point, just saying I had cancer was beyond difficult. I told two or three others because they could tell something was wrong but kept it to myself for the most part.
After that, the attempt to remain normal began immediately. I can remember going to Madison Square Garden and getting a chance to watch Indiana vs. Louisville college basketball later that night. I got to go because a friend of mine has his own basketball blog and, although he didn’t know it, it was a quick lesson in how I was going to tackle this disease. By living my life as I normally would.
A Cancer Life is Anything But Normal
We found out later the official diagnosis of Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL). A type of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is a blood cancer, that eventually we found was in Stage 3. Mike Tyson used to say “everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face”. That becomes even truer when you go from being a normal person to a cancer patient. At that time, I was the radio voice of the Manhattan Jaspers basketball team. We were supposed to play at Pittsburgh on December 17th and I was going to travel and broadcast. However, with the tumor growing on my tonsils we needed to have surgery and the earliest date was the 17th. Cancer was already taking something from me: the job I love.
I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t upset. If this was how my treatment was going to go, it was going to be a depressing time for me. Fortunately, this was one of only a couple games I would miss. Most importantly, this taught me another lesson I would have to accept: treatment > desires. My health became the most important thing. Although it was going to bother me that I couldn’t always be normal, if I followed the treatment, my normal life would return quicker.
Though my treatment was only going to last about four months, from January to April 2015, there were days that made it feel so much longer. Each treatment included a six-day stay in the hospital, constant chemotherapy infusions, and multiple spinal taps. It forced me away from work, both my day job and Manhattan. It prevented me from doing things with friends and family. But, it also forced me to learn a couple of other lessons.
No One Does Anything Alone
As a kid who left home for school and was living on his own in New York City, it was easy to say I was going to take this on by myself. However, if I even tried it, I guarantee it would have been a tougher process. Maybe even with a worse outcome. Fortunately for me, it became apparent very early that my support system wasn’t going to let me.
My mother decided she was going to move from El Paso, Texas to New York to live with me and help around the apartment. My girlfriend became an immense help at home, work, and with my morale. Work gave me the freedom and flexibility to take days off if needed, but also kept me working so I could keep my mind busy during treatment. All of my friends gave me the emotional and mental support I needed to keep fighting, even at the lowest points. Even people I didn’t know yet were helping me.
There is a tremendous organization I knew of from college called HEADstrong. It was founded by a Hofstra University student and lacrosse player, Nick Collelouri, who was diagnosed with DLBCL in 2006. Unfortunately, Nick passed away in November 2007, my freshman year at Hofstra. His family continued his mission by having HEADstrong become a foundation that supports those fighting cancer and their families. They reached out to me almost immediately, helped organize multiple events to raise funds, and even presented me with a grant that helped pay rent and other bills I fell behind on after missing work.
All of these people, those I had known and were about to know, came to my aid. They were there for me, and I never had to ask. I always said during treatment that I had an army behind me. I’m not trying to make unnecessary comparisons with cancer, but no matter what obstacles you overcome, or goals you reach, nobody does it alone.
A Private Battle Is Unwinnable
Very early in the process, before my treatment began, I got an interesting piece of advice from my father. Being someone who wants to be a play-by-play broadcaster and have that publicly known voice; and somewhat having that at Manhattan, he told me that I had a choice in this battle. I could either go through my treatment and recovery quietly, just mind my business and get back to full health, or I could make it an inclusive fight and keep everyone I knew and loved updated while also being a voice for those who couldn’t speak out.
It wasn’t a “monumental” undertaking. I didn’t do it for fame or fanfare. I did it because my dad was right. Shortly after my treatment, I opened a fortune cookie that said: “It’s not live and let live, but live and HELP live.” Part of this journey opened my eyes to all of those who can’t, or won’t, make their struggles public. I’m not saying anything is wrong with fighting alone, whether it be illness, addiction, or anything else. But those who are in a position to make a difference and do nothing are only doing more harm.
Blogging about my journey is what I knew would work best for me. I asked for prayers and positive thoughts, not for me, but for the children I met during treatment. I tried, and still try, to spread the word of those continuing to fight and the organizations who help them. It’s something I take great pride in and can only hope to keep doing, and it’s all I ask from you.
Continuing the Fight by Finding Inspiration in Others
So now what? It’s been two years, eight months, and a couple of days since I last walked out of the hospital after my final treatment. All of my PET Scans, a total of five, have come back clean. Remission is a word, and a moment, that is just as life-changing as cancer. But the fight doesn’t end. Maybe for me, but not for millions of others.
Since my diagnosis, the world lost two of my biggest idols in the sports world. We watched as both Stuart Scott and Craig Sager made emotional speeches at the ESPYs, and mourned as the news of their passing broke. It’s the same with countless others. We must continue the fight for them. For those who don’t have the means to fight, we must support. If you can’t with money, give your time, your positive energy, your love. Find a cause and own it.
The most important task of a human being is being human. I love you all, and I thank you all. #BootStompCancer