On November 2nd, 2015, I went to the emergency room for a stomach ache.
On November 3rd, 2015, I was told that I might have cancer.
On November 10th, 2015, I officially diagnosed with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma.
On November 12th, 2015, I started my first of six planned rounds of chemo therapy.
On November 29th , 2015, I lost my hair for the first time.
On March 30th, 2016, I found out that the cancer remaining in my body was resistant to the drugs that I was taking, and that I would require additional treatment.
On April 22nd, 2016, I started on my second treatment path, including three rounds of stronger chemotherapy that required a 3-day hospital stay with every round.
On June 1, 2016, I had a PET scan to determine if my disease was responding to my new treatment. It was, and I was was in “partial remission.”
On July 11th, 2016, I was admitted to the hospital to receive an autologous stem cell transplant, and I began my tenth overall round of chemotherapy to prepare my body for the transplant. These drugs were strongest yet.
On July 18th, 2016 I received my stem cell infusion.
On August 1st, 2016 I was released from the hospital and returned home.
On September 14, 2016, at 10:30am I arrived at the hospital for a followup PET scan, my first since June, with the purpose of determining if the most recent combination of chemotherapy drugs were successful in killing off the remaining cancer in my body. I was eerily calm, far removed from bundle of nerves that I was in March. That time, I was so excited and convinced that I would get good news, that I sent out an invitation to a happy hour to tell my friends the news days ahead of the scan. This time, I hadn’t spoken publicly about my health in weeks and nobody but my closest friends even knew what was happening. While not a conscious decision, I wanted to avoid taking everyone through another huge letdown with me. I knew that bad news this time probably meant that I was pretty much out of options and would call for conversations that I couldn’t have at a happy hour.
The scan itself was over just as quickly as it started – one shot and some waiting around, then 15 minutes lying in a big tube and you’re done. I had about an hour to wait before I could actually see my doctor and discuss the results, so I treated myself to a delicious hospital hamburger and fries. I listened to some Chance The Rapper and did some reading. I browsed Facebook and thought about what points I wanted to hit in a speech I was giving the next morning. I waited for my nerves to kick in, but they never did. Even as I sat in my doctor’s office waiting for her to finally twist the knob, I was at peace. I had spent many months coming to grips with the fact that all of this was out of my control. I had done my part and my doctors had done theirs – whatever came next was always going to happen.
Eventually, she did come in and I learned that I’d have to be patient just a little longer. She was able to assure me that things were better, but she needed to get the opinion of an actual radiologist before making any official diagnosis. She sent me home, and told me that someone from the office would give me a call in a few hours.
On September 14, 2016 at 3:06pm I sat in a local bar and ordered beer.
On September 14, 2016 at 3:52pm I got a call from the nurse coordinator at my doctor’s office.
“Are you ready to do your happy dance?” she said.
Because I had put the idea completely out of my head, finding out that I had finally achieved complete remission almost knocked me over. In that moment, I found myself feeling what felt like a million completely different feelings. I was overwhelmed with joy. I was shocked to the point of speechlessness. I was thankful that I had found myself in such capable hands. I was grateful for more time with my son. I was amazed by how much time my wife spent crying after I told her the news. I was excited to tell my grandmother some good news after a year in which she lost one grandson, watched another battle cancer, and suffered a stroke of her own. I was relieved to tell everyone that had held me up through this entire experience that, at least for now, we could finally exhale again.
But I was also uncertain. In the blink of an eye, the world had gotten so much bigger. For nearly a year, having cancer was the center of my universe. I tried hard to make sure that being sick never became the only thing in my life, but it was the one thing that every other part of my life had to adapt to. My friendships had to become malleable in order to accommodate my varying ability to be an active participant in them. My friends had to adjust to the fact that some days I just didn’t have anything to give. The professional goals that I had at the time of my diagnosis were either put on hold, or have changed completely. For almost a year, my relationship with my physical health had been reduced to completing a checklist of tasks with the goal of not dying. Even the way that I thought about time and life in general had changed. In my mind, I didn’t have the luxury of concerning myself with anything that wasn’t right in front of me, so I didn’t. I spent almost a year living in a very small bubble, and in and instant it had burst – exposing this new version of me to a world that it had never lived in.
I’m okay with that.
I know that you don’t spend a year battling stage 4b Lymphoma and just go back to the life you had before when it’s over. There will still be steps that I need to take to increase my chances of staying in remission. There will still be constant scans and tests to see if the cancer has come back. There will still be support groups and therapy sessions. Every day I’ll be learning a little more about life as a cancer survivor. I’m not the man that I was before my diagnosis, and I’ll never be him again. Instead of putting my old life back together, I’ll have to figure out how to use those pieces to build a new one.
On September 15, 2016, I realized that I didn’t need to count the days anymore.