Last Friday, I traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, for an important appointment. I had waited five years for this day and the magnitude of the moment was not lost on me.
In 2016, I was diagnosed with cancer and was told that without immediate treatment, I would be dead in a year. That’s a sobering scenario to have tossed at you. However, given the destructive nature of cancer, I also knew that I was better off than most since my particular cancer had a high survival rate if treated correctly.
I remember one of my doctors telling me, “The good news is, you’re likely going to survive this. The bad news is, it’s one of the most painful cancer treatments to go through.”
That doctor wasn’t joking.
I moved to Florida for three months, where I had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. And I was, indeed, in immense pain once the therapy progressed a few weeks, so much that I was given fentanyl patches (the medication that is 100 times more potent than morphine and currently killing drug users in epidemic numbers).
I tried to write this column during that period but eventually gave up since the narcotics made it impossible to focus my attention for longer than a few seconds. Ultimately, I got to a point where I couldn’t discern between being awake and being asleep.
Once my treatments were over, I returned home to heal. Given that the cancer was located in my throat, I had to relearn how to swallow and eat. I had lost 35 pounds during treatments and had relied on a feeding tube for sustenance, so it was a long process to get back to a manageable weight.
I did a lot of healing that first year. I looked at it like training camp for the Olympics. I would push myself every day to walk a little farther, eat a little more, and up the reps of my exercises. I made minimal progress initially, but eventually I could see that I was getting better.
I also had to contend with a new normal.
You can’t have that level of toxicity introduced into your body without repercussions. Chemotherapy is an amazing way to kill cancer cells, but it also does some nerve damage in the process. I’ve got neuropathy (tingling sensation) in both feet and some tinnitus (ringing) in my ears, but as I’ve always said, “It’s better than dying.”
None of the remnants of my treatment have held me back. In fact, I might be in better shape now than I was before cancer. I suppose part of that is wanting to stay healthy in case another curveball comes my way.
After treatments, if you reach two years without a recurrence, the doctors label you “cancer free.” If you reach five years without a reoccurrence, they label you “cured.” Last Friday was my five-year checkup, so it was obviously a big milestone.
I went into my appointment with the usual level of anxiety. The nerves start heading south a few days before so by the time the actual day arrives, I’m usually pretty wound up.
My doctor came in and asked me the usual questions about my life and health and any issues I’ve been having. The moment of truth came after that when a tiny scope was inserted into my throat. That’s when they visually confirm that the tumor has not come back and the spot where it was eradicated is still clean.
This is the most difficult part of these checkups, not only because it’s uncomfortable to have a metal rod shoved down your nose into your throat, but also because I’m hyper-aware of the doctor’s reaction as they analyze my condition. I’m always trepidatious that their eyes will squint oddly or that they’ll make some concerning gesture.
When my exam was over, my doctor looked at me and said, “You passed.” I was then deemed officially cured of cancer.
As I was driving home, I experienced a strange set of emotions. On one hand, I was elated to have beaten cancer. But on the other hand, I had a sick feeling of survivor’s guilt, knowing that so many people are defeated by this ugly disease, or are left in a truly life-altering condition.
I am lucky and I know it, but my heart still breaks for those who lost their battles.
Throughout my cancer journey, one thing stood out as a beacon of education, hope, and inspiration: the Ken Burns documentary, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” This is the most comprehensive look at the history and future of the treatment of cancer.
I watched this 3-part film (based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book) right after I was diagnosed and it completely changed my mindset, giving me hope and confidence that the strides made against this disease would make me victorious in my fight. I watched it again this past weekend and it was even more poignant and moving five years later.
Check this one out even if cancer has never affected your life. It’s the definitive word and an epic assemblage of information.
A heroic “A” for “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” available to stream off most online platforms.
Got a question or comment for Dom? Email him at [email protected]