Quick as a Wink: The Long (or Short) Road to Recovery After Cancer


After going through grueling cancer treatments, I thought I’d never be back to my old self again. But thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

cartoon drawing of blogger and lymphoma survivor, John Smelcer

For six months, chemotherapy tore my body down. Every part of my body was reduced to ruin, from loss of hair and loss of weight to the mind-numbing fog of chemo brain. Things you wouldn’t think would be affected were affected, like my urinary system, my joints, my mouth, and even my vision — all proof of what the oncologists said every time they saw me: “We’re killing you to save you.”

By the fifth and sixth cycles, I looked like a skeleton. I sometimes frightened myself when I looked in the mirror.

As a poet, I wrote about my experiences. The poems are now available in my book, “Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor.” One of the poems is about the horror I saw reflected in the mirror:


I was brushing my teeth this morning

when I looked up after spitting.

There in the mirror was a bald man

holding a toothbrush, his eyes

full of bewilderment and incredulity,


his face pallid and gaunt,

his eyes deeply sunken, lips chapped,

his beard and hair gone.


I leaned closer to the glass to better glimpse

the stranger holding my toothbrush.


I was so skeletal that at Halloween that I could have been an emaciated zombie. I wouldn’t have needed any make-up or anything to play the part. At times, I worried that I’d never return to the old me. I worried that even if I survived, I’d be this ruin of a man, weak and pathetic, shuffling around like the undead for the rest of my life. There were times when I was so distraught that I thought about giving up, just calling it quits.

Photo of lymphoma survivor, John Smelcer, who has a goatee, smiling at the camera

After cancer treatment ended, my hair started growing back and I began to feel like myself again.

But I was surprised at the resilience of the human body. My body began to repair itself almost immediately once the chemo cycles ended and the chemicals were out of my system. As I sit here writing this today, it’s only been three months since my last cycle and my last infusion. And yet, almost like magic or a miracle, my body has mostly recovered. I’ve gained back three-fourths of the weight I lost. I think I’ll be back to my pre-cancer weight by summer. My hair, including my facial hair returned as good as ever (see photo).

The brain fog I suffered is gone, as if a warm wind blew away the obscuring clouds that confounded my thinking. I’m keeping a Recovery Journal in which I chart my growth with graphs (how much I weigh, circumference of my biceps, how much I can bench press or leg press, etc.) My strength is returning. I’ve been playing racquetball for almost the entire time since the chemo cycles ended.

Yesterday, I played four games without breaking a sweat or being short-winded. I win most of the time. I’m getting stronger every day. Even my libido has returned (thank goodness).

Friends who haven’t seen me in a while remark how much better I look. “Your face is fuller, and your skin color looks healthier,” they tell me. One friend, who recently saw me walking down the hall at the university, said he could tell that I was stronger by my determined and self-assured gait. “That’s the old John I’ve always known,” he said as we passed.

If I have any advice to impart to others going through cancer it is this: Who you are at the lowest point, when your body is most wrecked, is not who you will remain. Don’t despair. Have hope. When the cancer treatment ends, your body will begin to rebuild itself. It will heal. It may not happen as quickly as it did for me, but it will happen. One day, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror and see only the post-cancer you.

For me, even though it’s only been three months since my treatment ended and I was pronounced “cured,” there have been days when I almost forget that I ever had cancer at all.

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