I apologize in advance. This won’t be like my usual posts. The only thing about it that will come off as arrogant is the fact that I am 28 years old and already a two-time cancer survivor. Before I get started, let me put it plainly. I am nothing special. I got off easy. Both times.
The first time I was diagnosed with melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) came after a routine dermatology appointment my junior year at USC. I had a mole taken off and had totally forgotten about the results so it came as quite a shock on my balcony at the Medici when I got the call. There’s no real way to explain the feeling when someone tells you that you have cancer and if you don’t act immediately, deliberately and courageously, you will die. At 20, I almost thought someone was playing a trick on me. The night before I had recklessly traversed the campus grid with the complete assurance that as a 20 year old I was impervious to bullets, muggers, reality and consequences.
24 hours later, I am researching the sentinel node biopsy, a wide local excision and the survival percentages for people with my classification of malignant melanoma five years out. Luckily, my percentages were over 95%. Unfortunately, cancer is the scariest shit on the planet. It’s like a coked up bear with sharks for hands. Jokes aside, it’s serious. Serious as cancer.
Just before USC lost the triple overtime thriller to Cal in 2003, I had surgery where I had a large chunk of my back removed along with lymph nodes under both armpits. I was shot up with radioactive dye and circled by enormous scanners crawling like locusts on the ceilings of a sterile room. I was wheeled through oncology units among those suffering from leukemia, breast and brain cancer. I know the feeling to have people see you in a pathetic robe in pathetic socks and a pathetic hair net being wheeled around a hospital with strangers wondering what you have and marveling at how young you are to have it. Only you don’t feel young anymore at all. All you feel is that if someone asks you if you spent a lot of time in the sun one more time you are going to gnaw their fingers off and steal their Buick. Melanoma for me was a genetic fuck up of epic proportions, unpreventable and impossible to rationalize. My body just attacked itself. As arrogant as that sounds, it pretty much just sucks.
The psychology of cancer with a high survival rate is challenging. It is not challenging like terminal cancer, hell no. You always feel blessed that you have a clear path to succeed. The challenge is that percentages start to haunt you. Anytime you see something that is 95% unlikely to happen, you get a wave of nausea that abuses the memories of even your worst hangovers. A car accident on the freeway. Kirk Gibson’s home run against the A’s. Any Disney movie about any athletic team. When someone wins the lottery. Anytime you see something with a 5% or worse chance happen in the world, you relate it to your disease and freak out a little bit. That’s because you are playing with a loaded gun. The safety is off. If that 5% chance happens in your case, you get chemo. Your odds drop to 60%. Then to god knows what. It is a slippery slope and a mental maze. I don’t wish it on anyone, not even the people I respect the least in the world.
I beat it the first time around and spent years confused and wondering what happened. It left strange canyons in my mind. I don’t know how to explain it. It was life-threatening, but it was caught early, so it was defeatable. I wondered what if I had lived in the 1800s. I’d have died at 23 and rather painfully. I thought I lived on borrowed time. There were always questions that lead to doors with more questions behind them. What if I had skipped my dermo appointment, which, let’s be honest, until you have a scare with it you consider the least scary of all appointments. I could go to a spontaneous combustion specialist and be less nervous than I am when I go to the dermatologist.
I moved beyond it though and thought all was cool. I became a digital producer. I worked at some amazing agencies. I met a hot and smart and amazing girl in San Diego. I relived college with her friends. I started the most arrogant blog in the universe and got my dream job as a digital strategist. I heard my band on KROQ. I retired from my band and we all stayed friends. So many great things happened in the 7 years following cancer culminating with me marrying my wife on October 30, 2010.
Three weeks later I got cancer again. I joked to my new wife that when the judge said “in sickness or in health” that I bet she didn’t think that meant immediately.
Suddenly, I was back in a place I really, really thought I buried in the backyard along with all those dead bears. I had to go to work and tell dozens of people I had to be gone for a while and watch their reactions. Some were compassionate, some were probing for information to assess whether or not they had cancer themselves, some just asked my odds and assumed I’d make it. It can be a lonely place.
Cancer is just one of those things that we’ve been conditioned in society to fear. While it takes the lives of something like one American a minute, many also go on to defeat it and live their lives as they planned. It’s a head game because when you find out someone has died of cancer, your reaction is never “weird”. Cancer exists just to kill and quite often it does.
The difference was that now I was a bearfighter. Now, I knew what I had to do. The very next morning I was scheduling my surgery and getting my family and friends on board. I knew that while there was a chance this could go sour, there was a way better chance that with some fearless guerilla tactics I could be back to fullspeed in three to four weeks with no cancer and nothing but awful BCS matchups to watch.
I am the bearfighter and I vowed that this time, I’d put cancer down like the asshole it is.
The maze is tricky. Cancer kind of acts like the ring in Lord of the Rings, or the necklace thing in the most recent Harry Potter film (which I saw in IMAX the day after finding out that I had cancer again and it was such an out of body experience that for ten minutes, I gave a shit about Hogwarts, fucking magic, fucking Dumbledore and even convinced myself that the chick that plays Hermione reads this blog religiously). Cancer throws everyone into a headfuck. Your friends don’t always know how to be and neither do you. Sometimes the answer is to get worried. Sometimes the answer is just to say fuck it and laugh. Sometimes the answer is do nothing at all. You have to forgive the world around you for their reactions and remember that this is YOUR fight. No one will ever care as much as you, which is not to say that the people who love you won’t care more than anything else. It’s just that you are on the table. You face the odds. Last time that was a lonely feeling. This time, it motivated me. The idea of being a two-time cancer survivor was a good goal. That’s some real deal shit right there.
Besides an 8 hour delay before the surgery which was mostly just a headgame, the surgery went well. I’ll never forget a man in the pre-op room near me. If we have a beer, I’ll re-enact the scene. Somewhere my mother is reading this and laughing. My wife is rolling her eyes. The guy started to crack after surgery was delayed. I sat there calm as a buddha. He griped, he complained and basically lost it, berating nurses and night workers. I just waited. The nurse told us that 75% of patients react as he did. I fell into the better quarter, a result of having been through this before and keeping perspective. How could I be mad that the surgery before me delayed us? That guy’s life is just as important to his family as mine is to mine. How could I berate a nurse who takes care of people fighting cancer all day? Just seemed messed up. I wouldn’t even treat a Bruin that way.
The result was 35 stitches in my back and another maybe ten under my armpit where I am again, three lymph nodes lighter. In case some of you are confused, melanoma is different than other forms of skin cancer. Here’s a little background just to put it in perspective:
- Basal cell carcinoma develops from abnormal growth of the cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis and is the most common type of skin cancer.
- Squamous cell carcinoma involves changes in the squamous cells, found in the middle layer of the epidermis.
- Melanoma occurs in the melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) and is less common than squamous or basal cell carcinoma, but more dangerous. It is the leading cause of death from skin disease.
So naturally, getting melanoma gives you the exciting news that you have the least common and most dangerous form of skin cancer. That said, mine was caught very early. Due to my regular check ups, the mole removed was less than four months old. While that is scary, I now trust that this is preventable cancer.
The one week wait to find results was the worst part of the experience. Hard to make the time pass. I was so glad to watch USC beat UCLA and I took a ton of solace in writing these posts. I love Arrogant Nation and seeing thousands of people read the posts made me happy and excited to get healthy. Just so you all know, I read every email, comment and message I get. I do my best to add you as friends on Facebook. This blog is not my career. Arrogantly, I like writing because I am hell with a pen, not because I want to get paid for it. I love to write, I love to talk with you all. I always say if you are reading this, we’re friends whether we know it yet or not. I want you to know how much I appreciate it. You really helped, even the person who stumbled onto this page and read it for five minutes before vowing to never read it again and vomiting profusely.
All my pathology came back negative, which arrogantly, is a positive thing. I am good to go. I am clear. I’m moving a little slow, but that will go away soon enough and I will be out running, training, working and fighting bears again soon. I am more likely than the rest of you to get this again, but I’ll do my best to catch it early again and I will fight it again. Hopefully I don’t have to.
I am planning on doing some advocacy and awareness posts over the next year (and they will be arrogant) and find fun ways to motivate you all to take care of yourselves. You gotta live your life, which for me means scotch, bear blood and the occasional Cuban cigar, but you also gotta pay attention to your body and your genetics. Just like a bear, the way to defeat cancer is to catch it early and basically go apeshit on it.
I apologize for the the arrogantly-un-arrogant post today, but I had been meaning to fill you all in. Some of you out there are fighting cancer or something else, I am sure. Some of you have family battling it. I am here for you. If you ever need advice, email me. Hell, do whatever you need, just know you aren’t close to alone and you can feel whatever you want. No two experiences are the same, but no two experiences can’t be related to.
Anyway. I feel really good. I feel great, even. All the people who prayed for me, thank you. To my family and friends, thank you.
Now, I am going back to arrogant posts immediately, so if you liked this thing better, probably best you join a book club. I love killing bears and I am just getting started with Arrogant Nation. I am still going to fight for 2011 Heisman Winner Matt Barkley. Hell, like I tweeted and posted the other night, I want to go to a college party again. It’s been a couple years and I better do it now while I’m still in my 20s. Hell, I’ll promote it, let’s give money to cancer research. My point is, I am back. Let’s do this. And by this I mean me getting a sideline pass and intimidating the shit out of the other team. Next year, our enemies will be forced to read this blog. We’ll all have a lot of arrogant fun and go to jail. It will be amazing. Space jail. OK. Let’s end this…
If you take one thing away from reading this post, I want it to be this: A day where you aren’t fighting a larger battle is a good day. That perspective is a game changer. I’ll still hate traffic and losing to Notre Dame, but it isn’t cancer. Take it from me. I’ve beat it twice.