by Max Jennings
These days when I’m driving and a song from the past few years comes on the radio, I hastily change the station, my fingers scrambling with the flimsy plastic presets. Even if I’m quick, the familiar words or melodies trigger what I’ve come to call bad thoughts. No matter how positive recent tests have been, some things still trigger memories of the first nights after my diagnosis.
I found the first tumor on my testicle on the night of the 2013 Super Bowl. I was in the middle of my junior year at the University of Southern California. Earlier in the day, I’d finished a long training run, so initially I chalked the discomfort up to a pull in my groin. The pain certainly wasn’t acute.
I went outside to the concrete slab my roommates and I called a backyard, and frantically felt at the hard spot on my right testicle. A quick Internet search found page after page assuring me there were other things it could be. But something just felt so wrong, I knew it was none of those things.
Two days later, the diagnosis was final.
The days between diagnosis and the start of treatment are the worst, at least for me. I would lie in bed at night, knowing there was something inside me that would kill me if left unchecked, and it was unchecked.
Two surgeries and a few months of recovery later, I was back in Los Angeles for school. At the time, I remember telling people that three months of interruption wasn’t a lot in what would presumably be a long life. I’m sure that would have held true, but last fall, the cancer came back.
I got the call from my doctor a few minutes before I had intended to leave for the grocery store. I always shopped on Wednesday nights, because the store wasn’t busy. Instead of calling my parents, I went to the store anyway.
Getting into the car, I turned the radio up as loud as the built-in speakers of a 2003 Toyota Matrix would go. The music rattled the windows. It felt good. For a moment, the music enveloped everything, and I didn’t feel scared or tired.
Under the harsh fluorescent lights of the beer aisle, I studied the selection and picked an expensive brand from San Francisco. The cashier bent my flimsy Minnesota ID between his fingers and paged the manager. “You can just walk away, buddy,” he said, sneering like he enjoyed accusing students of using fake IDs. “It’s not fake. Why would I use a fake that made me look younger?” “We’ll see, buddy.” “My cancer came back today, so maybe we could just skip this part?”
Improbably, the line worked. I had three strong beers and watched music videos with a roommate I hadn’t told yet.
“Blood tests will catch a return of the disease before you feel it,” I had been told.
So I ignored the building sense of wrong for a few weeks and not gone in to see the doctor, until one of the tumors was visibly bulging out of my neck.
Chemo started the day after my twenty-second birthday. The night before chemo is the worst birthday party theme ever, if anyone is wondering.
A lot of things have been said about the contradictions of a process which injects chemicals so toxic the nurses sometimes wear hazmat suits, but it kept me alive, so I have to be grateful, however tough the process was.
Once chemo was over, I was right back to waiting. Waiting for tests that would confirm if the chemo had worked, waiting to get a regular life back.
My trust in my body has come to depend on how recently I’ve had tests. It grows progressively weaker the further I get from the reassurance of an encouraging test result.
The physical part of fighting cancer is hard, but the mental fight is much harder. Well, maybe not harder, but far less straightforward. I try to focus on a future when I’m healthy and treatment has been effective. Most of the time this works, until suddenly it doesn’t, and I’m in bed trying to sleep and all I can think about is the ache in my neck.
There is always a chance the disease will return, that the next round of treatment won’t work. In these moments, I feel like I’m living with a clock that is accelerating toward the end. I can practically hear the ghostly ticks in my quiet bedroom.
But there’s a clock on everyone’s life. I just have a specific place to focus my worries. I’ve realized I need to enjoy the world to the best of my ability. Especially with the people who have made my life so rich that the thought of it ending prematurely is so gut-wrenching. These are the people who’ve cooked meals, sent gifts, made mix tapes, or just sat and been sad with me for a moment.
They have offered words of fear, struggle, and bittersweet memory. Yet these are almost always matched by expressions of hope, love, and pure curiosity about the world, and ways we can make it a better place. Many stories of family and friends come and gone have been offered. These people may be out of sight at the moment, but they are etched deeply into our collective hearts.
I often fantasize about running away and starting over without all this baggage, but then I remember the scars the disease has left on my body and mind. They will not just disappear with a new place and new people.
But they will fade with time.
I love so much around me with all of the pieces of my shattered heart. Some things cannot be put back together, but I’m not one of them.
This is meant to tell of the trauma of surgeries, multiple diagnoses, and chemo. I want people who have to go through something similar to know that it is hell, that by the time it is over you will be different. There will be wear on your body and mind, but that doesn’t mean that you will be sadder. There will be struggles with anxiety and maybe even depression, but there are people who can help. If anything, after two years of constant struggle to stay alive, I’m probably happier than I was before. I have friends, family, and communities who have supported me through so much. People here and there have remarked that a period of struggle can make you wiser. At this point, I often feel like it just makes clear how much I don’t know. I am just hopeful I get a full life to try to figure a tiny fraction of it out.
The process has been longer and harder than I thought it would be, but I think I will make it.
Just maybe, a little worse for some wear.
I’m glad I had …
1. A golden retriever. Or two, as it happened.
2. Favorite foods. I have heard people say not to eat your favorite foods during chemo, but I did, and I still like them, and it made me happy.
3. Lots of hats. I asked for hats on Facebook and was sent about seventy from all over the world. Do specify that they not all be knitted because scratchy wool was hard on my scalp after the hair fell out.
4. Blankets and warm clothing, if you live in a cold climate. I did chemo from December to February in Minnesota.
5. TV. I had delusions that I would be productive during chemo. Nope. Just watch TV, enjoy what you can, and get through it.
A version of this essay was published as College Interrupted in Reimagine.me, May 9, 2014
Max Jennings, a graduate of the University of Southern California and a Minnesota native, currently works at Holden Village in the Cascades of North Central Washington State. He is a writer and a train enthusiast.