I stood at the finish line, waiting for my daughter to come flying through, covered in sweat and a dusty rainbow of colors. She was running a 5K in support of pediatric cancer, joyously pelted by volunteers with washable pastel paint.
As I watched the various runners stumble home with victorious chants cascading through the crowds, I stood back in awe. These were cancer survivors as well as friends and families perspiring and proud. Organized by a now cancer-free teenage girl and her mom, who saw something bigger than the disease, I reflected on the moment, and myself.
Why was I standing on the sideline instead of running for my life? Did it keep me safe and free from further harm? In my non-descript shorts and tennis shirt, did blending in with the other suburbanites help me blot out the past year?
Only one year earlier, a random blood test ordered by my internist set off the silent alarm that had begun to ring deep inside me. Elevated… and so off to the urologist for more tests and a biopsy. Off to this specialist who would put this false alarm out. All before the year was out.
“I want to go with you. Let me take the day off work. I don’t want you to go alone.”
“There’s no need. There’s only a 25 percent chance of anything. I’m fine. Totally fine. 2014 is going to be our best year yet. I guarantee it!”
And so off I went, alone. Two would be a crowd in my already crowded mind. Off I went. No fuss, no muss. No bad news for the new year.
“You have cancer.”
I looked behind me as if the doctor was talking to someone else. As if I really thought he was talking to someone else. Barely hearing his words on watchful watching… and cutting… and radiating, I made my next appointment and walked to my car. I set off the alarm.
And so the new year began not with a whimpering hangover, but the bang, bang, banging of an MRI machine. To rule additional things out. To get things straight. No muss, no fuss.
Just my luck. Not just prostate cancer but a tumor deep in my kidney. Both malignant. Two for the price of my one high-deductible medical plan. Luck of my drawers.
Two diagnoses when I expected none, asked for none. Two robotic surgeries by the man with the golden hands. Two recoveries bolstered by edible arrangements and a too-accommodating wife. Two early detections that meant no chemotherapy, no radiation. No outward signs. No one knowing more than I wanted them to know.
But how do you recover when you’re used to keeping things undercover? Though I believe myself to be an enlightened man, in touch with my feelings who may cry publicly and privately, I realized when it came to my cancer, I was scared and scarred. I kept it in even as the cancers came out.
Ask me to support a friend battling cancer or hard times, and I am there. Ask me to set up a charitable lemonade stand for my kids, and I am there. Ask me to be a bone marrow match, organ donor, fundraising chair, and I am there. Ask me about me… not going there.
I will hide my now-needed Depend® guards under a pile of other Wal*Mart goods. I will change the subject from my cancer to anything else, subjecting myself to mind games only I can master. I will bob and weave like a prizefighter, avoiding blow-by-blow accounts of my latest blood work and doctor appointments down in The Bronx.
Pink ribbons and runs for a cure encircle my town, but they are the signs of the times I avoid. I am not ready to shout from the rooftops all the fears that I can only whisper to my wife about at night. No longer an open book, I have devolved with a stereotypical caveman attitude about my cancer.
Do I want people to know I watch Cialis® commercials as if I am reading Ulysses? That every laugh, every guffaw makes me clench and tense up in an effort to control the flow? That I no longer feel whole, and feel like a total ass for thinking that way?
Women seem so capable, so intrinsically able to wear their scars and years proudly. Pink ribbons and red hats. Power walks and empowered advocates. Ya-Ya sisterhoods of fortitude and faith.
Female friends who have survived mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries construct new lives for themselves. One friend is a mah jongg queen. Another runs marathons. They work day and night, and make it work for themselves and their loved ones.
While I can juggle work, life and health like a seasoned circus performer, nary missing a beat or responsibility, I cannot belly up the bar and discuss this honestly and openly with friends, especially the guys. Joking and joviality are fine but talking about anything south of my waist is off limits. And it’s not them… it’s me.
Logical, it’s not. Inspirational, it’s not. But maybe this is a first step on the path to recovery. Not with a ribbon, parade or multicolored run, but with five simple words that now describe me. That now define me more than those XY chromosomes.
“I am a cancer survivor.”