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Tomorrow Begins Today: My Life After Cancer Treatment

Article

I finally finished cancer treatment, and for the first time in a while, tomorrow feels more certain.

In my last blog I talked about the trepidation I felt as I approached the end of my chemotherapy. The sixth and last cycle was looming. Every cycle had hit me harder and harder, knocking me down further and further. So much so, in fact, that a week after my fifth cycle I recorded a video saying farewell to my family and telling them how much I loved them and how sorry I was to leave sooner than I ever expected (at 59). I was worried that I was going to die that day before they came home from work and school. I wanted to leave something for them. I watched the video today. I really did look like the living dead (only with a snazzy British driver’s cap).

I really didn’t want to go to the hospital for the sixth cycle. Really! I was convinced the chemo, not the tumor, would be my undoing. The doctor’s constant refrain, “We’re killing you to save you” was never far from my thoughts as I sat in my lonely room watching the Tang-colored chemo dripping into my veins.

I tried to convince my wife and friends that five cycles were good enough, that the cure rate was only a small difference. I even tried to talk my oncologists out of some treatments as a compromise (one less spinal tap or one less bag of chemo). But in the end, no compromise was made. I endured the full sixth cycle as I had endured all the others, begrudgingly.

My only consolation was in counting down the last of everything: the last-ever chemo bag hung on my rolling IV pole, the last intrathecal injection (into my lower spinal disk), the last night tossing and turning on the uncomfortable bed, the last crappy, institutional hospital meal, the last immunotherapy treatment in ambulatory infusion, the last nightly shot in my belly, the last time my wife had to drive 200 miles roundtrip to drop me off or pick me up from the hospital. Every “last” that fell gave me strength to finish.

“Hang in there, body. Almost done,” I told myself over and over.

I’m not a quitter. I’ve been a fighter all my life. Why was I considering running away from my cancer treatment and calling it quits?

I’m not the only person to have such feelings. I have come to learn that it is common to consider throwing in the towel at some point. Cancer treatment is brutal. I’m reminded of something a wise man once said: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” I would amend it to: “Being a cancer patient ain’t for sissies.” It takes strength and courage to keep returning cycle after cycle. It’s hard to go back when your body is finally on the mend and you’re feeling better, only to have the chemo knock you back down again. I’ve heard other cancer survivors report that they have also questioned whether they should continue with their treatment. It’s a personal thing and it’s totally understandable.

During my half year of treatments and hospitalizations and countless blood draws, I never once felt like a fighter. I wrestled with my emotions. I wrote the following poem after completing my second cycle:

THE FIGHTER

Folks always say that people diagnosed with cancer are “fighters.”

“He’s fighting cancer,” they say.

But I’m not so sure.

I just finished my second cycle of chemo—

a week in the hospital both times.

I’m no fighter. I’m a surrenderer.

I just lie in bed giving in to the cure

letting the doctors and nurses put whatever they want into me:

Hang another bag of chemo,

swallow a heap of pills,

roll over for a spinal infusion.

“We’re killing you to save you,” they remind me every day.

And they’re not lying. I’ve lost ten pounds already. All muscle.

I’m no fighter. I’m just a little, frail, balding, and frightened old man

lying in my sick bed waving a little white flag torn from my pillow.

John Smelcer ringing a bell, surrounded by family members and clinicians.

John ringing the bell to signify the end of his chemotherapy treatment.

So, the good news is I’m done with my cancer treatment. I rang the bell (see the photo of me ringing the bell as my wife, daughter and staff look on). I’m cancer-free. No more hospital rooms, no more nurses and techs waking me up all night to take vitals and draw blood, no more bi-weekly transports to radiology for spinal taps, no more being knocked down only to struggle to stand back up in order to be knocked down again, like some kind of crazed yo-yo man.

The road before me now is the road of recovery. It’s a long road, for sure — of that I have no doubt. But I welcome what is to come, the challenge of rebuilding what the cancer took from me. I can’t wait to get into the gym. My anthem while working out will be Sia’s mega hit “Unstoppable.” I plan to share my progress with you.

For the first time in a long time, tomorrow seems more certain, as if I may actually have a place in it. Isn’t that all anyone really wants: to see a future with themselves in it, happy, loved, and healthy?


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