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A Year Since I Met Cancer

Last night, a friend of mine said, “It’s almost winter again. Seem like it was just last week.”

Most years I agree with that sentiment. This one has been much different. This time last year, I found out I had cancer. At various times, time has slowed to a crawl and (most recently) sped to a dizzying pace.

It had stalked me for seven months. But, like most stalkers, it wouldn’t be able to keep its identity a secret. I never associated the on again off again pain in my back with the anything serious, let alone cancer

The chemotherapy loomed in front of me for nearly four weeks. There were the combined emotions of dread and anxiety to get it over with.

Then I was in the thick of it, having to be hospitalized when my body had a worse than typical reaction to the toxic drugs that fought the grapefruit-sized tumor near my lower spine. A few days later, my beard and most of the hair on my head fell out—just in time for one of the coldest winters on record. The cancer provided the perfect excuse to stay inside.

The last chemo treatment was in late January. February was a blur of mouth sores that kept me from eating or speaking and fatigue that kept me from walking more than a few feet. I dropped 25 pounds and looked like a stick figure, but was reacquainted with my abs.

In March, I was able to be on my own again, after several weeks of being cared for by my parents at their home over an hour away. After being frailer than at any other time in my life, being on my own again scared the hell out of me, but I knew it was the only way I would fully regain my strength.

Appetite, weight, strength—they all came back gradually, in lock step with each other. This was unlike an organ transplant, when the medications caused my appetite and weight to increase faster than any other time in my life. Maybe that’s why this time all the weight came back lean. By mid-July, I had regained all that I lost, but my pants have been loose since then.

I don’t recommend the cancer diet plan, so don’t envy me. But it’s ironic that I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. After a couple or organ transplants and cancer. At 47. I have to laugh every time I think about it.

This was more brief but more intense than anything else I’ve had to face. All that other stuff helped prepare me for this. Just before I got out on my own again, my dad told me, “As determined as you are, I know it won’t be long before you get your strength back. You’ll do what you have to do to make sure of that.”

It meant going to the gym again, something I’ve liked to do for 25 years. It meant not being self-conscious about how thin and weak I was when I first went back. It meant getting to watch the man in the mirror become less pitiful and more familiar.

This summer, I got to meet the latest version of myself. He’s much more confident than the previous one. The chemo left the hair thinner over his ears (of all the weird places for that to happen) so he wears a slightly shorter haircut to keep it from standing out. He has to wear a belt more often. He has a more intense side that he allows to come out and play (and write) once in a while. Most things just seem easier for him now. He’s much more driven to succeed. And he looks older, too. But, he’s quite comfortable in his skin, even if it has a few more wrinkles.

Most important, he has a better sense of what he’s capable of.

In many ways, the cancer was a gift. Even though I lost valuable time moving the writing career ball down the field, I just wouldn’t be the same man today without the experience.

This is my latest dance with “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” I know it by heart, but I wish the band would learn a new song.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m flying to Philadelphia this weekend to visit my friend, Alan, a fellow cancer survivor. It’s the first time I’ve flown alone in almost ten years—since before my vision worsened. I remember an old Elton John song from the 70s, Philadelphia Freedom. The lab numbers from a few weeks confirmed that I am free of cancer. Flying doesn’t make me nervous. Once I’m past airport security and high above the clouds, I might feel even freer than I do on the ground these days.

Hard to imagine, but possible. After the past year, I don’t put limits on my imagination or the possibilities.