This is one of them “all about my personal life” posts. If you’d rather not read, that’s fine (I usually don’t read them either), but if you still do me a favor, and take a look at the bottom? There’s something there I want everyone to see.
Five years ago this week, I spent a few days in the hospital.
I was undergoing lung surgery, which on the scale of “major abdominal surgeries” is a lot simpler than heart, and way, way more intrusive and dangerous than appendix or gall bladder. Since I’m writing this, you know that the surgery went just fine, and I could have even gotten out a day earlier than I did, but I was totally a baby about all the breathing exercises they’d given me – when you have your lung worked on, they deflate your lung complete, which is something that never, ever happens in the natural course of being alive, and it thus takes a lot more work than your body is accustomed to in order to get back up to capacity – so I hung around one extra night (it is great to have great insurance).
But the point isn’t the surgery. All things considered, that was a cakewalk, and it came at exactly the right time, because I moved shortly thereafter, and I was legitimately, physically unable to do anything whatsoever. “Oh, that box of DVDs? Can’t move it, sorry. The couch? Shucks, I’d love to, but I could do something horrible to my side. The cat? Play with her, won’t you, I have to lie down watching movies constantly. On the subject of which, be a dear and change out the discs for me.”
Five years later, I’d probably not give half a shit about any of this: there’s a little trace of two scars on my left side, mostly hidden by my arm, and since I never bothered to re-train myself how to breath and run at the same time, to this day I can’t do much in the way of running, but that’s all due to laziness. Those two things are the extent of my surgery legacy. What matters, the reason I am yammering at you like this, is the reason that I had surgery: it was cancer – not lung cancer, indeed not technically cancer in my lung at all, but testicular cancer that had metastasised. It was a little spot of something on the lymph node that rests right on the lung, and they had to cut out a bit of extra material “just to make sure”, hence the lung deflation, hence the two-night stay, et cetera, and so on.
I do not have the date readily to hand any longer; but it was either June 17 or June 18, 2005, that I got the news back from my oncologist: there was not a hint of cancer left anywhere in my body. Nine weeks of chemotherapy and surgery had done their work, and I was healthy.
This isn’t the story about my illness and how it was cured. I’ve told that story, in real time. This is a story of how, years later, I’ve come to be healed.
The business of being a cancer survivor ended up being far more difficult for me to deal with than the disease itself. For a long time, in fact, I couldn’t bring myself to use that phrase, “cancer survivor”. It seemed melodramatic; overly sentimental; self-aggrandizing, to a degree, although aggrandisement wasn’t something I was having a problem with in the months after I was cured. Having faced death and won, I became – not confident, not arrogant – monstrously self-centered. “I could have died”, ran the thought, “and it is only the intervention of modern medicine that kept me from doing so. Thus, you could say that in the grand scheme of a species that hasn’t at all begun adapting to the scientific advances of the last 1000 years, I ought to have died, which means that I am, in a certain philosophical and ethical sense, dead. Having thus died according to the rules of the universe, I no longer owe much of anything to anyone but myself.”
I have been an unfathomably selfish man, at times.
Once, while I was being treated for chemo, when I saw one of those cardboard “give a quarter to leukemia studies” placards. It angered me as much as I think I’ve ever been angry. Seeing the face of a child with cancer – and unlike me, a cancer they would very likely die from – filled me with resentment: towards the sickness, towards the child for reminding me of the sickness, for myself for the vacuum of empathy I had in that moment. I do not care to remember that, but it was one of the most important things that happened to me in the whole time that I was being treated. In those days, anger and disgust were the only things I ever felt – curiously, never fear (at times, with my body ravaged by chemicals, dying didn’t seem like a bad alternative at all), but never patience or peace. To this day, thinking back to 2005 makes me angry, powerfully angry.
Though nothing as angry as I felt back in the months after I was cured: I was a bitter, bitter man at times – other times I was profoundly grateful to be alive. Though my gratitude and my bitterness, being aimed at nothing outside in the universe, were forced back inwards. Excellent in the case of the gratitude, not so great in the case of the bitterness, which started to gnaw at me like an ulcer. It’s one thing to be angry and confused at whatever your name for whatever spiritual force you believe in; I was angry and confused at myself, and I could be quite cruel when I set my mind to it.
Finally, a good 18 months after I was cured, I began to grow tired of anger. It didn’t seem to serve a point. That’s when I finally decided to forgive myself.
It took a very long time.
The flipside to being certain that you’re gifted and wonderful, and that nothing can touch you, is that when you get touched, there’s nobody to blame but yourself, and I had grown quite exquisite at that. So for every time I mouthed the words, “I didn’t do anything to deserve that,” a sick feeling would well up, and the words never took hold.
The fact is, even five years later, I can’t think back on having cancer without feeling incredibly traumatised. Aye, and fairly; it was a traumatising event. But where some people find a renewed sense of vitality, perhaps even a feeling of personal strength, I only felt, for many years, pain. Proud was I that I’d lived through it, yes; but I felt like a man who was shell-shocked, a man who could fight on despite being broken. I certainly didn’t feel revitalised; I felt like I’d almost died once. I didn’t feel like a strong person, a survivor: I felt like a shell of a human, for if I truly were strong, I’d never have been sick in the first place, n’est-ce pas? It doesn’t help to tell an irrational person that he’s being irrational, and thus it became very easy to internalise all of that thinking over the years.
But for a long time, it was dormant: I made sure to keep myself busy as hell, and after a time, other things started to crowd out those feelings, and I took that as a sign that they were resolved. No, not at all; I wonder sometimes if this sort of thing ever really gets resolved, or if it just keeps changing over time, until eventually you get old and die.
I had cancer at 23, and that leaves too much time for post-traumatic angst. Which is why I had done with trauma: I wanted to be able to hear of someone having cancer, and not immediately feeling a cold knife in my spine; I wanted to be able to look back on my experiences and feel empowered by my survival, and not wounded and frustrated by the sickness itself; and I really, really wanted to be able to stand as an example and not a cautionary tale about the place where pride and self-loathing intersect, how a single bad experience can make someone grim and upset for their whole life.
About six weeks ago, I met with my oncologist. With my five years done (if testicular cancer doesn’t come back in five years, it’s almost a dead certainty that it won’t), I had finally graduated away from the biannual check-ups that have structured so much of my life for so long. It was sort of like waking up from a dream. “No more CT scans? No more bruises from giving blood samples?” (I have terrible veins, it’s quite an ordeal to get a needle in me) “No more reminders constantly, about everything that happened to me years ago?” No more, no more, no more. Okay, once a year, but you don’t even need to schedule an appointment for that, just come in next May.
I had the overwhelming feeling of regaining something that I’d lost so long before that I could barely remember having it. For so long, I’d been casually lying whenever someone asked what it was like to have cancer, that I didn’t even realise I was still doing it. But on a sunny Wednesday in May, I found that I was actually at peace.
In five years, I have never spoken a word of this. Pride is my great sin. But I do love anniversaries, and this seemed like the best possible time to say what needs to be said.
My name is Timothy Michael Brayton, and I am a cancer survivor.
If you’ve read all of that, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and if not, don’t worry. You made it here, and this is the important part.
This past March, I first heard of a young musician only a couple months older than I am, named Matt Wessel. Matt has never had cancer, though it has haunted his life: in 1997, his father passed away from a brain tumor; his mother, whom I’ve met and is the reason I first heard about Matt’s work, is herself a survivor.
In 2001, he was approached by students from his alma mater, Warren High in Gurnee, Illinois – all of ten minutes from where I grew up, incidentally – about a benefit concert in honor of a Warrent student named Kate Pedersen, then fighting cancer. He followed through with the first Concert for Life, raising over $6000 for the ACS. Ms. Pedersen lost her battle, and this served only to cement the Concert for Life as an annual fundraising event dedicated to her memory. Beginning with the most recent show, Matt put out a challenge for anyone willing to raise $100 to donate to the ACS; he’s issued the same challenge for next year’s concert, to be held in late March, 2011. I’ve decided to take up that challenge, and have officially joined the Carry On Campaign.
So in nine months, I have to raise $100. There’s one rule: I can’t contribute a drop of money myself. But, here’s the thing, I have a blog. A fairly popular blog, at that. And if between all of my wonderful regular readers, I can’t raise a teeny-tiny $100 in nine months… well, I don’t even know what, then.
UPDATE We raised the hell out of it: $1180 in nine months! Thanks to everyone who contributed, from the bottom of my heart.