I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer at age 25 in 2011. This is my testimony that, with the right attitude and a tiny sliver of hope, we can do anything we set our minds to.
Prior to diagnosis, I played a mental guessing game about what was going on in my intestines. I Googled terms like “bloody stool,” “Mucus in stool,” “frequent urge to poop,” etc. I self-diagnosed myself based on the results that told me I ate the wrong things and had digestive issues, Crohn’s, and IBS. I ignored the mentions of colon cancer because I was 25 and invincible.
I was embarrassed to talk about poop. My best friend, Brian was my confidant. We were typical 25 year old boys that joked about farts, poop, and girls daily. As my bowel habits got stranger and worsened, I increasingly felt isolated and scared. My digestive problems followed me through three different moves and multiple job changes in a span of two years and during this time, it was easy to blame body stress and/or life-changes on what was going on in my guts. Little did I know I was carrying a gene called HNPCC – better known as Lynch Syndrome – that if not properly monitored, grows tumors in one’s digestive system.
Finally, I scheduled a doctor appointment. I felt embarrassed to say anything during the exam, but my symptoms were so uncomfortable that I ultimately didn’t care. I opened up to my doctor and immediately felt relief because I was able to vent to someone about my symptoms and receive educated answers. My doctor put in touch with a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist.
Tests provided by my GI doctor included a sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy; basically, a lot of poking and prodding up my butt. I learned that a colonoscopy wasn’t just an old-person’s procedure, and it allowed my medical team to figure out the problems that I was complaining about. Through it, I felt nervous, but I was eager to know the results of the test. The morning after my colonoscopy, I was scheduled for a follow-up visit with my GI doctor. I walked in to the visit, positive and playful. Nurses checked my BP, weight, and temperature.
The doctor summoned me to his office and closed the door. I sat down and he muttered the words “mass” and “cancer.” My life stopped.
My ears were ringing with the word “cancer.” I thought about the things that I wanted to accomplish and the 25 years of life that I’d ignored. I thought about the children that I wanted to father, the things that I never took the time to focus on. I thought about the people that I didn’t take the time to connect with. This was an unfamiliar situation. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I felt alone and scared. I was too young to die.
As I walked out of that hospital, I thought about the things I love in the world: my parents, my friends, basketball sneakers, and my horse, Bucky. I figured that I was going to die pretty soon, so I thought about what I would do with the time I had left. I didn’t know how to act or what to do. One thing that clouded my thoughts was how I would announce my diagnosis to my parents. I called my mom and asked her how her day was going. I just listened. I listened to the tone in her voice, and I tried to picture myself in my mom’s arms while she was telling me that everything would be fine. I managed to break the results of my colonoscopy.
“Mom, I have cancer.”
I cried harder than ever.
Shortly after diagnosis, I met my medical team who detailed a plan of attack to remove the cancer and restore my health. I underwent 25 rounds of radiation and took chemotherapy pills daily for eight weeks. The initial treatment slowly broke my body down. I felt like I was 80 years old, arthritic and grumpy. My body ached. Life hurt.
I grew up watching martial arts and “Rocky” movies with my older brother. Cancer was my new opponent. I took on a “Rocky” mentality and prepared for the physical beat down from treatment. I kept a positive, mental outlook. I fantasized about my life after treatment. Through the ups and downs, I weighed the options of life and death. When death seemed like a better alternative, I thought about my comeback story.
I had chemotherapy and radiation, a few surgeries, and more chemo over the span of two years. Life as a cancer patient is a daily hell. The first surgery removed my colon completely and provided a temporary ileostomy. When my body healed, I had 12 more rounds of intense chemotherapy to eliminate any free-roaming cancer cells. Following my chemo treatments, my final surgery reconnected my intestines.
Somehow, I made it to the therapy level, and it changed me, body and mind. During every treatment, I wrote about what I was going through to keep my family in touch. My sister shared my journal entries through her blog, and the responses that came with my transparency gave me hope. I fantasized about what I was going to do when my treatment was finished. Cancer reminded me what it was like to dream; desire helped me finish treatments; hope got me through the needle pricks; faith encouraged me to get out of the hospital; my dreams and love got me through the cancer journey. As you can see, the hospital became an extremely motivating place for me. I saw people in the hospital that were nearing the end of their life, but if you listen close enough, you can hear the walls talking to you about people who had dreams that they never pursued.
I am lucky to be alive today and am ecstatic to have the opportunity to achieve my dreams. I am blessed every day to get out of bed and have the strength to pursue the things that I love. Cancer showed me how precious life is; one day you can be dunking a basketball or relaxing on a beautiful beach in Hawaii, and the next day you could find out that your days are numbered.
Cancer taught me to use my own logic and create my own timeline. Before I got sick, life seemed like it would be a linear passage of important benchmark events: girlfriend, marriage, kids, career, vacation, retirement, and death. Through healing, my survival became my own personal, unique timeline. Before: Every timeline, for me, had an ending. Now: Life is my purpose.
Today, I feel connected to cancer patients and survivors everywhere. They are, in a sense, my teammates, and I want to them to know first: Colon cancer is beatable, and secondly: You can do amazing things after and during the bout. A large portion of my 20s have been spent fighting cancer and I have much more to accomplish before my last breath. I am an aspiring actor, and when I win my first academy award, my acceptance speech will be geared to empowering young adults and cancer survivors.
Our time will expire someday, so take the time to live because life can be over before it starts.