From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. A simple yet profound quote by astronaut Jim Lovell after Neil Armstrong’s famed first steps on the lunar surface. Lovell understood the world had fundamentally changed, as had the path of humankind. I’d like to say I know the quote because I have extensive knowledge of the US space program but the fact is Tom Hanks repeated the line in Apollo 13; movie quotes are easier than real life.
I was in high school when that film came out, but the line stuck with me and I found it particularly appropriate after my February 2013 RPLND, though slightly paraphrased: From now on, I live in a world where I had cancer. This is what I was thinking when I returned home after 8 days in the hospital. My world had fundamentally changed, my path altered to a new paradigm I’m still trying to figure out.
See, this is what they don’t tell you. Doctors are great talking about statistics and treatment options and referrals. They will explain in detail how they are going to slice you open, move your organs, cut through layers of muscle and fascia tissue (while you’re in there, can you deflate some of those love handles? No? Seems like a reasonable request...), and cut out parts of your lymphatic system. They are great at telling you that you should consider freezing sperm and that you may be more susceptible to catching colds and you may have side effects like retrograde ejaculation and pain. Lots of pain. But they don’t tell you that your life will never be the same. In other words, “you’re not the same, you’ve changed” (am I the only one who saw Mallrats?)
I was so very naïve about the impact this disease would have on my world. I was an Air Force aircrew member when I was diagnosed; I figured 6-12 months and I’d be back flying missions. That’s one main reason I opted for surgery instead of chemotherapy: fewer barriers to getting back on flying status (something to do with potential pulmonary complications from the Bleomycin, I think). Because I never for a minute thought I was done flying. And it wasn’t as if the doctor was saying, “hey man, you should know you may never fly again, and you may have trouble sleeping for the next, well, lots of years...you know, life's going to change. A lot." They don't tell you that. But of course, that’s what happens
Doctors are great about getting you through treatment, and your friends are great about bringing you fried ravioli and Golden Girls on DVD (the complete set!). But what about the rest? Here is an abridged list of my experiences:
#1 - explaining this 18-inch skin zipper every time I take my shirt off (hot tubs, saunas, the DMV...). Being naturally hairless in the abdominal region ensures the scar remains conspicuous and glaring.
#2 - asking a bewildered hotel desk clerk if they have a sharps container because I'm about to make it rain syringes of testosterone!
#3 - inability to perfect a golf swing because my abdominal muscles have been severed three times. This is, perhaps, the hardest thing to deal with.
#4 - a conversation with a surgeon following a post-RPLND operation in which I was told, "it was harder than we expected because none of your organs are where they are supposed to be (RPLNDs displace your internal junk, to the apparent consternation of non-cancer surgeons).
#5 - assuring friends that one testicle does not make me more aerodynamic. It is, oddly, easier to accidentally sit on your junk when you're a single and not a duo, though.
#6 - a slight annoyance that breast cancer is talked about openly but some people think my testicles aren't appropriate for polite dinner conversation.
#7 - awkward exchanges with acquaintances. Them: "hey, I heard you had some health stuff..." Me: " I had a touch of the cancer in my right testicle. Want to see the ultrasound?"
The point is this: cancer changes your life. It can be hard to admit that. It was tough to admit my flying career was over, and it was tough to admit my body wasn't producing testosterone and I would have to get over my fear of needles because guess who gets to inject himself every week!?!?
But cancer did not stop me. Cancer took my career. I’ve accepted that fact and am moving on. I'm starting a new job soon that I'm pretty excited about. Cancer took my testosterone. Ok. But I have syringes and alcohol pads and every week it gets a little easier to shove a needle in my leg. Cancer took my sense of immortality. In return, I gained a stronger love of experiences and, ironically, a desire to live a fuller and sometimes riskier life. And cancer saddled me with a 36-golf handicap. At least, I tell my friends it's cancer's fault
Naïveté wasn’t my only sin. Hubris, ego, and an inflated sense of immortality (even at the ripe old age of 34) kept me from seeing the most basic truth: cancer is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Rather than being a detour, cancer can be a "road closed" sign. That's the reality of it. The paths you are on personally, emotionally, financially, professionally...they are about to get very, very bumpy. And some may fall apart altogether. Do you try to recover a lost path? Or do you forge ahead and blaze a trail you hadn't seen before?
I have a scar. Admittedly it looks kind of cool. More importantly, it's a great segue to start a conversation about TC with someone and remind them to always check their junk.