Cancer at 34 – Part 2: Hope and Anger

Once again, I didn’t have to wait very long for the results from the biopsy. I thought it would take several days but the doctor called 24 hours later on December 28, 2016, to tell me I have lung cancer. Everything was moving so quickly that it was hard to process what it all meant. In less than a week, I had gone from being a healthy guy with “laryngitis” to becoming a cancer patient. It was still difficult to understand that this was really happening to me. It felt like I was getting kicked in the stomach every other day with some other piece of bad news. In a way though, it’s good that the diagnosis came quickly. When my aunt was diagnosed with cancer she had to wait weeks for the results, and it was hard enough for me to wait just a couple nights.

However, the diagnosis on December 28 wasn’t the end – I knew I had cancer, I just didn’t know how bad it was. I still had to do an MRI to see if there any more brain tumors and a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else. I also had to wait on a genetic analysis, which the doctor said would be very important for determining my treatment. The doctor said it appeared to be an aggressive genetic mutation that had already spread to my brain and neck. In other words, it was already stage four. I tried to remain positive but it felt like the situation was pretty grim because words such as “aggressive” and “stage four” don’t exactly inspire optimism.

On New Year’s Day 2017, my family and I went to go see Star Wars: Rogue 1. I almost broke down and cried in the theater because the hopelessness of the situation really resonated with me at the time. The characters went on suicide mission with a very grim ending. Jyn and Cassian saw the end coming and faced it without flinching. Although everybody dies, it was successful at the end because the message got through. I tried to hold on to that glimmer of hope.

I did the other scans and by now I was very good at lying still and waiting for bad things to happen. My friend Amanda said those skills qualified me to become a professional opossum. In the interim, I finally had an outpatient procedure to restore my voice, which was a great relief. Now, I could rejoin the real world and escape from my silent prison.

I had to wait another week for all the results to come back and meet with the oncologist on January 4. 2017. I went into the meeting with the notion that I probably didn’t have much time. I thought the only good news I would get that day was that the cancer hadn’t already killed me. However, my parents were much more optimistic and my dad especially was eager to fight. I had another surreal experience the day before my meeting with the oncologist when I googled what kind of questions I should ask at my first appointment. In what universe was this my reality at age 34? I took a notepad with me to the appointment so that I could write down what the oncologist said.

The results were better than I could have imagined. The MRI revealed that I had two brain lesions, although they were both relatively small – one was 1cm x 1cm and the other was less than 3mm. The list of lymph nodes unaffected by the cancer was a lot shorter than those that had been. However, the PET scan revealed that the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else. In fact, it was actually a good thing that I had an aggressive mutated cancer, known as ALK, because there was a specific drug, Xalkori, that is supposed to be very effective at treating the cancer. The ALK mutation is present in only 3 to 4 percent of lung cancer cases, so it’s extremely rare. Xalkori might cause some bad side effects, in particular liver damage. The oncologist said the treatments would not cure the cancer but would control it and prevent it from getting any worse. Radiation would be used to destroy the tumors in my brain, without damaging other tissue. I also have to take a steroid to reduce the swelling caused by my brain tumors. Overall though, the main message was that I could live a relatively normal life for at least the next few years, if not much longer.

It felt like a last-minute pardon for a death row inmate. As my ex-girlfriend, Leah Jakaitis, said, this was a delimiting event. My life will be forever divided into the era before cancer and the era after it. In the weeks and months leading up this ordeal, I had been trying to determine what was important to me and what I really wanted to do with my life. I had revived some interests that had been dormant for a while, such my interest in scale models and French graphic novels. I had also been trying to expand my personal interests in terms of music and food.

Now it all became much more urgent. I had a second chance to accomplish all the things that I had been putting off, especially travel. I had been to France and I had always wanted to go back. I’d never been to New Orleans and I almost picked a fight with my dad right there in the oncologist’s office about how I wouldn’t let anything get in the way of that trip. Probably not the best idea, but I felt like I didn’t have a moment to waste.

I also went to the New Year’s Day service at St. Johns Unitarian Church. We had a special ceremony where we wrote down our regrets from 2016 and burned them. One of mine was not living life to the fullest. It was very cathartic, and I never want to have another New Year when I have that regret again.

In the coming days, it also became apparent that I was angry about my diagnosis as well, especially after the oncologist said I couldn’t drive. Since I did have brain tumors, he was concerned I might have a seizure and cause an accident if I was behind the wheel. I would never want to take a risk like that, but it was infuriating to descend even further into dependency. I love my parents, and friends, for driving me around while waiting for my radiation treatments to begin, but it was also very frustrating. First, I couldn’t talk, and now I couldn’t even drive myself.

I had planned to take a short trip to Cleveland as the first step in checking off items my Life List (I prefer that label instead of Bucket List). It may seem trivial, but Great Lakes Brewing Company was one of the first craft breweries that really captured my attention. Everything they do is pretty solid, although it may not be the most innovative. Before I was banned from driving, I had planned to start off my new life by going up to Cleveland and getting a drink right from the source at GLBC. Since I couldn’t drive, I briefly considered taking a bus up to Cleveland to make sure I kept my resolution. However, I got in an argument with my parents who begged me to stay at home. Cleveland in itself was not a particularly important destination, but it was symbolic of my new priorities and the urgency I felt. Reluctantly, I gave in.

My mom said I was very angry. I hadn’t really been conscious of it before, but after the argument about Cleveland I realized I was angry. I felt bad that my parents bore the brunt of my frustration when they were only trying to help. Despite my “laryngitis,” in December 2016 I had managed to secure a job offer as an E-learning specialist at a transportation company in downtown Cincinnati. It would have been my first professional job since leaving the Frankfort State Journal in 2011. It would have been a respectable salary, and I had even negotiated a 5 percent increase! However, I had to go in for the bronchoscopy on December 27, 2016, which was supposed to be my first day at the new job. They had already delayed the start date once to accommodate my persistent “laryngitis,” so I wasn’t surprised when they withdrew the offer.

I had also found an affordable apartment in Hyde Park that I really liked and was planning to move in after I got settled in at work. With the job gone, the apartment disappeared as well. It was very disappointing and frustrating. I had been working for months to re-establish myself as an independent adult and it had been within my grasp. Now I couldn’t even drive down to the grocery store by myself. I snapped at my mom when she offered to mash up my banana at breakfast because my throat was the sore the morning after my bronchoscopy. I had a short fuse for overbearing behavior before, and my tolerance now was even lower. Instead of rejoining the adult world, I was spiraling further into dependency.

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