Monday, May 23, 2011

Write it Out

It's been almost two years since I finished writing the stories of my cancer experience. I wrote them all down in an effort to make sense of all the physical and emotional pain I experienced from the time I was diagnosed until I finished treatment, or at least I thought that was what I was doing.

When I originally started writing, I began with about ten blank Word documents, each titled some thing like, "The One When..." or "The One Where..." they were modeled after the ten seasons of Friends episodes I watched when I was first diagnosed and anything but sitcoms made me cry.

The documents were meant to be individual narratives that told the stories of the pivotal moments in my experience with cancer. But as I wrote one, I would think of two more experiences I needed to write about, and so I would create more blank documents, all with titles adhering to the same format. The more I wrote, the more stories I found I wanted- and needed- to tell. Some of the stories were emotional, others were funny, and there were others that I left blank for a long time because I knew that writing them would force me to relive experiences so painful I didn't know if I could put to words what had actually happened.

But eventually I did. In August, 2009, I wrote a final document, titled "The Last One." I then pieced the documents in order, and wrote a preface explaining them. I have only printed any of it once. I gave it to a friend to read, and have since emailed it to one other person. I recently began reading it again, and though I haven't yet reached the halfway point, I'm thinking when I get to the end, I'm going to feel like I have a lot more story to tell. I only told stories up to the point I finished treatment, and as it turns out, that wasn't really the end of the fight.

At the time, I felt I couldn't go too much further, because it was all too close to write about; it was my present life, not a memory. But now things are different, and I think maybe it's time to tell the rest of the story, the part that comes after treatment ends, but before I figured out who I really was after cancer.

I thought since I've been discussing it, I at least owe you a piece of the story. So here's "The Last One" which it turns out, isn't actually the last one, after all. It may still come at the end when I finish telling the stories that I haven't written yet, but it's a much shakier version of the person I have become, there is an uncertainty in it that I don't feel anymore, so I think I'll have to revise it, but a lot of it still rings true.

The Last One

It’s been three years now since I went to see Dr. Cassetty for the first time. Just yesterday I was driving through town and while at a stoplight, I happened to glance in my rear-view mirror where the people in the car behind me were waving furiously. They continued to do this while I tried to figure out just who was in that car. When I finally turned around to get a better look, I saw that it was Dr. Cassetty and his wife. I waved back and then the light turned green.

I have met many wonderful people who I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gotten sick. I am thankful everyday that I went to see him when I did. I am well aware that if I hadn’t, my story would have looked very different; I might not be sitting here writing this. Another doctor might have brushed me off at my expense; after all, it happened once to me.

The scars on my body have begun to fade, slowly but surely. And the anger I once felt toward the boy who broke my heart, the friends who abandoned me, and for the invincibility I was robbed of, have become blurred around the edges. Yet it still only takes a blink of an eye for those things to come back into clear focus; an irregular CT scan that threatens to destroy everything I have worked so hard to earn back, running into that boy’s father, or a party where one of those friends shows up- all these things send me back to that place where the future was uncertain.

I am proud of the person I have become, and while I never thought I would believe it, life might actually be better after cancer than it was before. While my value of life is greater, I do feel that it is at times a curse. For every thunderstorm I am grateful to be a witness to-they make me feel alive- there is a girls’ night out at work that I feel guilty about turning down because I don’t feel completely at ease with these young women, because I have not shared my story with them.

While I have to live with these frustrations, I am more than happy to do so. I view life differently and have embraced my new found love of exercise and, dare I say, sports. I savor the moments I can play tennis, ski, take pilates, step classes, and dance classes, I run races, swim laps, and lift weights, and of course I fly across the country to get back in that kayak each summer. These things have become my therapy, for both my broken body and as a means of fostering a winning spirit. I have come to view life as a competition. I don’t compete against others, but with myself; how much weight can I lift? How far can I run? How much can I live? When I run further, when I lift more, when I push myself further than I thought I could the day before, I build my confidence in the fact that I can win the medical battles as well.

I suppose this is where I should share the moral of my story. It doesn’t end with a ‘happily ever after’ and I suppose that’s a good thing because it means my story, my life, is still a work in progress. Thankfully, it isn’t over yet.

I don’t have any grand epiphany to share now that I’ve written this whole thing, but if I were to tell you what I have learned from all the things that happened, it is this: You can’t win if you don’t fight. Life is an uphill battle whether you have cancer or not. Things will always happen. Bad things will happen, no matter how good you are. But success is not about dodging the bad things. Success is taking the worst and turning it into something better.

Bad things will happen, and that sucks. But you have to keep going, because that is what you are supposed to do when life goes terribly wrong; pick up the pieces of your broken self and keep moving, because as long as you can hold yourself together and push yourself onward, you’re bound to get to a better place. Whether it’s health or heaven, eventually things will get better, and I am living, breathing proof of that.


  1. A friend just passed along your blog address. Our 15 year old son, Josiah, is battling Melanoma and has so far completed 6 months of Interferon. He has remained a straight A student at a rigorous prep school and continues to exercise, although he has cut back on team sports. He plans to ride 500+ miles over three weeks this summer. He is my hero!
    I was glad to hear of your continued health and I plan to read this blog soon, when I have a bit more free time.
    Send me an E-mail if you would like the info on Josiah's caringbridge blog that I write for him.

  2. I am a Stage III melanoma survivor, patient and avid runner too! When I was going through treatment for my second recurrence in 2008, my wife and I co-founded a marathon and half marathon training team whose goal was to raise money for melanoma research. We team up with the Melanoma Research Foundation and call it TEAM M4M (Miles for Melanoma). We are just staring our fourth season and to date have raised $350,000 for melanoma research. If you are interested, you can check it out at

    Your story and spirit are truly inspiring. And since I like your tag line so much, I thought I would sign off with our TEAM's tag line that is inspired by our vision to end this terrible disease we call the beast. I think it is really appropo because you practice it everyday and will certainly accomplish it on race day this weekend!


    Kevin Stenstrom
    Head Coach
    TEAM M4M

  3. Kevin, I actually raised $2,470 and ran the Morristown, NJ M4M 5K in 2009, and I have a 'fight the beast' magnet on my car that I got that day!

    It's a pleasure to hear from you, and thank you for your impressive fundraising to support research to better understand and fight melanoma.

    I'm currently fund-raising for First Descents, a cancer charity that supports young adults, but I had a great experience with M4M and will run with you guys again :)

    Let me know if a New Jersey team gets started, and I'll be there!

  4. Elizabeth, your son sounds like a determined fighter :) I wish him lots of luck with his ride this summer, and would love to check out your caringbridge page, unfortunately, I don't see how to email you through your blogger profile. feel free to email me directly, at, so we can connect.

  5. Amazing post. I am currently battling stage four ovarian and have experienced the loss of friends and support while I have been sick the past year. This post really spoke to me. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I will definitely let you know if we get a New Jersey TEAM going. We have had a few people from NJ run on our TEAM by training virtually. I am actually going to run in a 5k in Pt. Pleasant on June 18 in honor of a TEAMmate who passed away a year ago. It is called the Kevin Brue Memorial 5K. Will stay in touch!