Cancer Survivorship Encouragement

At 27 years old, life was great. I was married, had one little girl, my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I was greatly enjoying my career as a military aviator.

Then, strange ailments began to overcome me, and a strange back pain soon became debilitating. Then came a fateful day in August of 2005, when the indescribable shock hit that I might have an advanced stage III testicular cancer. Immediate surgery confirmed this, and a few weeks later a port was installed in my chest and chemotherapy began.

The mental and physical numbness, along with the shock of the entire situation - and the idea of facing my own mortality - is still difficult to think about. There were no survivors my age to talk to. The chemo, the side effects and Neulasta shots quickly took a heavy toll. But support for my very pregnant wife, little girl and myself was gratefully overwhelming.

There are too many stories to share in this post and too many doctors and nurses to sing praises for, but I'd like to share two specific points that can hopefully provide ideas to those friends or family members who don't know how to really help a loved one going through these kinds of battles.

First, I'd like to note the importanc of visits. To just sit with someone who is "plugged into the machine," even if they are too tired to talk, means more to us than can ever be repaid.

Second, don't underestimate "meaningful acts". Food, visits, cards and emails are wonderful signs of support, but on the day I finally had to cut off what little hair I had left, all male members of my Navy squadron cut their hair as a sign of support. They had to walk around for days with this visible sign of support for a shipmate. I feel woefully inadequate in describing how important these acts were to me.

But as my chemo battle raged, my wife gave birth to our son as my doctors managed to give me a reprieve in chemo. I will forever have pictures and mental images of me holding this new little life as medical staffs were trying to keep mine going. About a month later, chemo was done, but a major retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) was still needed to bring me through this battle. While this third major surgery of my cancer battle could be its own separate story, I must continue by saying it was a trial, as significant as the months of chemo were. But finally, I was pronounced cancer free after months of battles, challenges, emotions running the gamut of trying to survive cancer to welcoming a new little life into the world.

Afterward, there were many more emotional battles as cancer survivors all know: anxiety, chemo brain and long term recovery are issues that are rarely covered. But this is not the end of my story. While I could remain in the Navy, I had to change jobs since I could not fly again due to the medical treatments. This was fine for me as I love the Navy, and I easily transitioned to another line of work within the active duty Navy. However, while going through routine follow-up cancer care and having reached that "magic 5 year marker," it was discovered that a new type of cancer had developed.

And while we caught it early, this new kidney cancer was nothing to simply monitor. I had to have an emergency partial nephrectomy. So here I was, 32 years old, now a two-time cancer survivor, with two separate cancer types.

Then one week post-surgery, while we had been on the adoption waiting list for almost two years (partially due to my cancer treatments five years prior), a birth mother called us and stated that she wanted us to adopt her unborn son! Once again, emotions from the lowest point of cancer to another new life in mere hours overwhelmed us.

But again, this is not the end of the story. Two years later, kidney cancer struck me again. And once again, I had to have an emergency surgery on a kidney.

As a young, three-time cancer survivor, I have seen my fair share of hospitals, and have received many well-intentioned but awful comments like, "We haven't seen your age and cancer types before!" I've seen my wife's and parents' faces when my survival was in doubt. I've watched the nurses anxiously glare at me as I held my newborn because I was so weak during chemo. I've watched friends and family act odd around me because they don't know what to say or do. And I've watched friends and co-workers complain about small life events, when I'm just ecstatic to be alive!

As cancer patients and survivors, we all have one thing in common, we've all been through the shock, and looked out the windows at the world still going around and thought, "Why isn't the world stopping with me? Why do they go on as if everything is normal?" Going through medical treatments is tough, but equally so is survivorship. My story is unique, and that is difficult. But there is a lot of good from it all, and if you ask me now about all the trials I've been through, I can say that I have three cancer survivorship dates, two children born in very difficult times, and more wonderful stories of care afforded to my wife and I than we have time to share. And I hope this is all an encouragement to you.