I have a confession to make. I have been taking the shortcut on something for the past several years. See...I have trained for and ridden in Pelotonia several times over the past few years. Part of the experience of riding is fundraising, and we can all agree that funding cancer research is a great cause. However, I have found writing the fundraising letter portion so difficult. So here’s what happened - I sat down the first year and wrote this nice little letter about how cancer had impacted my best friend’s mother, as well as other people in my life. And then the next year I rode, I read the letter and was like “Huh, well this is all still true, I’ll just add a little update here or there.” And so that is the pattern I fell into. And if I am being honest, I would have absolutely repeated that step this year, except I can’t. See...something happened in August of 2018.
Some of you may know - but many of you do not know - something about me. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in August of 2018. Ironically, the diagnosis came exactly one week after Pelotonia 2018. Sadly, due to a different medical concern, I was unable to participate last year in my usual capacity. I stayed in as a virtual rider.
I had spent the entire summer riding and training for an event and organization whose goal is to raise money for cancer research, all while unknowingly having cancer. I can still remember nearly all the details of that day (as well as the moments after) being told the large lump I had found was cancer. At 11:57 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I found myself sitting on a bed in an emergency department exam room with my head hung low and sobbing. If I am being completely honest, I knew before the words came out of the doctor’s mouth. The quiet and kind look on his face told me he had something to share that he wished wasn’t true. My wife sat in a chair to my left and placed her hands on my feet and cried with me. This moment will forever be a part of my memory.
I worked as a paramedic before becoming a counselor. And that job taught me many different skills that have served me well throughout the years. It took about twenty minutes or so for the shock to wear off, and then it was time to get down to work. I needed a plan, and steps and a goal for which to strive. I also needed help and guidance from my family and friends. Not wanting to share this news with my family over the phone, Kimberly and I began calling all of them and telling them to come to the house immediately. I then called my brother Zach, who lives in New York to share the news. Zach was the first person I said the words aloud to...“I have cancer.” It still hurts to write that phrase to this day. My family came over and one by one the news was shared. The more I said it the more I began to understand that it was true and really happening. I want to be honest; the next several hours were difficult and somewhat of a blur. My emotions swung, and my behaviors seemed to follow suit. It was as if I had fallen out of the boat during a white water rafting trip. The world seemed to be rushing by, I couldn’t figure out which way was up, and occasionally I was given the relief of having my head break through the surface of the water just long enough to fill my exhausted body with enough air to keep me alive until my head popped back up again. I felt as though I was running on pure adrenaline, and much of the day is still a blur. I called close friends and shared the news, although I have a difficult time remembering what those conversations sounded like. Thankfully, that afternoon I was able to reach out to a good friend, and he was able to put me in touch with the right people at The James. Within hours of my conversation with Chad, I suddenly had people reaching out to me and a plan in place to set up an appointment for that week. Night fell and while the world slept, I laid in bed for hours listening to my wife sweetly breathing. This would soon become a routine I would understand and experience quite often.
As morning broke and a new day began I found myself confronted with the reality of my situation. I had cancer...I felt exhausted...and I wanted to close my eyes and wake up from the bad dream I never wanted. Except I couldn’t. That thought, as comforting as it would be, simply was not true. I had to go to work.
Walking through the hallways during the days leading up to school is usually busy and exciting. Navigating them that day felt awkward and burdensome, something was happening with me and no one knew. These people are my colleagues and friends. I spend an incredible amount of time with them, and I had a secret that no one knew. After that day, I decided I had to tell them about what had transpired a mere 48 hours prior once I knew what the next steps were. To be transparent, I was still hoping my appointment at The James would result in them telling me it had all been one incredible misunderstanding.
The morning of my appointment was spent volunteering for Meals on Wheels during our annual service day at work. As I rode around Columbus delivering meals to complete strangers, I found myself reflecting on the idea that service rarely comes at a time that is convenient and that it is important to find time to be in service to others - a sentiment that had been shared prior to embarking upon our delivery journey. My wife picked me up at lunch and drove us to the hospital.
As she parked the car and we nervously walked to Dr. Pohar’s office, I felt as though the air had yet again been sucked from my lungs. Entering the waiting room was an odd experience. I was the youngest person by far. I remember wondering how I got there. How did I, a 32 year old, relatively healthy man, end up in the waiting room of one of the top cancer research hospitals in the U.S. as a patient, not a visitor? After what felt like hours, though I am certain it was only minutes, I was called back. Dr. Pohar was not at all who I assumed him to be. He was soft with his voice, calm with his presence, and when we shook hands, he clasped both hands over mine as if to say it will be okay. My wish had not come true; it was not a bad dream or a misunderstanding. I had cancer; and I needed surgery to remove the mass. The particulars of surgery were discussed, and I was told he was going to work to fit me into his operating room schedule as soon as possible. As encouraging as it was to hear it would soon be removed, this also meant I had to wait. I had to wait to receive a phone call giving me my surgery date. I was approached by a researcher while in Dr. Pohar’s office. She asked me if I would be willing to participate in a study to help further understand my cancer, and hopefully help others. As I signed the consent papers, I asked her where the funding for the research came from. Her response?...”mostly from Pelotonia.” This was my full-circle moment. I had now become the patient benefiting from money raised from this wonderful organization and event.
Armed with a confirmation and a plan, I set off to share with my colleagues and friends. The next several days were spent sitting down with all of my colleagues in small groups and sharing with them everything I knew. As painful as this was at first, it slowly eased and the words and routine of it all set in. Parts that caused tears initially, eventually yielded a more muted response. Words that were difficult to find seemed to eventually flow out as if I were reading from a script. The whole thing really seemed to come together like a choreographed and rehearsed dance. By the end of the week, everyone knew and I was exhausted.
School started and I spent every day waiting for my call. My colleagues asked daily if I had heard anything. I finally received the news that I was going to have surgery on August 27th, the day before my 32nd birthday. I now had a diagnosis, a plan, and perhaps most importantly, a date.
The morning of the 27th arrived and I was ready. I had decided the day was to be spent laughing and dancing and enjoying the experience of being alive. This was not a day to mourn; this was a day to celebrate. In that spirit I had provided a playlist for my pre-op time. My room was absolutely bumping at 6:30 a.m. Nurses and doctors danced and people smiled when they entered. It was just what I needed. My ultimate goal was to dance with my surgery team in the OR prior to being put under anesthsia. I had spent hours searching for the perfect song to celebrate the moment. After much deliberation and thought, I found myself dancing with the surgical staff on my bed to “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. Not only did they allow my request for the song, but they joined me in a celebratory dance. That moment will also always stick with me.
The weeks that followed showed me how wonderful and large my village is. I had visitors that flew in from across the country just to hang out while I laid on the couch. My wife spent countless hours caring for me as I grumpily struggled to manage my emotions and climb stairs. My colleagues sent snacks and activities for me to do while recovering. My wife collected dozens of birthday cards that she shared with me from all of my family and friends. Slowly but surely I regained strength and began to recover.
As of today I am NED (No Evidence of Disease), my scans are clean, and my prognosis remains optomisitic. It would be easy to be cynical about this experience...to stay focused on how much it sucked, the grueling experience of recovering from surgery or the length of time it took to have the pain of my incision site to go away. But I choose to tell a different story.
I choose to think of the many wonderful people that helped me along the way. I share this honest recap with you for no other reason than to share what my experience was like. I want my story to be one of the last stories to ever be told. My story is lucky - it ends well. For many, that is not the case. Prior to surgery and during my recovery I focused on one thing...I want to ride in 2019 Pelotonia as a survivor. The day has come and my registration is in. It’s time to get to work, my friends, we have a lot to do. Please help me reach my goal of raising $3,000 so I can ride 200 miles in an effort to fund research that will help us meet our ONE GOAL...END CANCER.