I’m not a particularly big sports fan. I don’t watch ESPN, and heck we don’t even get cable TV in our household, replaced a few years ago by an online streaming service or two. But I know who Stuart Scott is. Word travels fast in the cancer community when celebrities or public figures are diagnosed with cancer, or reveal their personal fights with cancer to the world. I’ve followed Stuart’s journey over the years through various reports in the news here, here, and here, and had admired his attitude and courage. One man fighting cancer as hard as he can in order to be around for his children certainly rings a bell with me.
Last week on July 16th, Stuart was awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPY Awards, ESPN’s annual awards show. I can’t even tell you much about any of these awards or their meanings or histories, but I can tell you all about Stuart’s acceptance speech because it blew this cancer survivor away. For those of you not familiar with Stuart Scott’s story, please do watch the first background story video first, and then his acceptance speech for the award (also on YouTube). It's definitely something that shouldn't be missed.
Just days out of the hospital where Stuart said he had been operated on four times in the span of a week, he stood completely upright and seemingly at ease to deliver a speech as if nothing had been happening at all. He described his seven year long fight against cancer as being far more difficult than he ever realized it would be. “This journey thing”, he said, hasn’t been a solo adventure and is something that’s required support. He went on to describe the times he’s needed to call his big sister or other family members or loved ones because he just needed to cry, and how he’s just needed people around him to talk, to listen, and to just be with him and love him. It was a truly beautiful speech, about fighting and living with cancer, but it’s fifty-four words near the beginning of Stuart’s speech that stopped me and friends of mine in our tracks. It’s fifty-four powerful words that so eloquently describe not just how to face cancer, but how to live and how to survive as well.
"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live. So Live. Live! Fight like hell, and when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you." - Stuart Scott
It is the darkest moment of the human experience when you feel as though you just cannot go on anymore and have lost all hope. You've expended every last bit of physical and mental energy that you have and have nothing left to give, but cancer keeps asking for more. You’re completely finished and broken, feel like you're about to be taken, and terrified of what’s next. Death instincts kick in, and you think of how to say goodbye to family and friends, and your children. You have the sudden desire to clean up any unfinished business, and to say things to people that might have been left unsaid. You feel yourself standing at the edge of and about to fall into a dark abyss that you cannot see the bottom of, but are powerless to stop it. You’re done, you’ve reached the end, you feel yourself helplessly teetering for a moment, and then you fall.
I was falling and I was terrified, flailing around helplessly like a nightmare that you can't wake up from, but then suddenly I was caught. It wasn’t the end. It wasn’t over. It was a surreal moment to suddenly have the feeling of safety and solid ground under my feet. When I had reached this point it was my wife, my soulmate and guardian angel, that was able to reach through and stop this fall. I just couldn’t hold on anymore and she reached out to me in a way that only she could, right into my heart and my soul, to let me know that she would love me until the very end, that it wasn’t my time to go yet and that everything was going to be okay, and that she would go to the ends of the Earth for me if that’s what it took to pull me through. I finally felt safe, but had fallen such a long ways, and it was still up to me to find and climb my way back up again.
The mental and emotional challenge of cancer is so ridiculously underestimated by so many, and has the very real and full potential to fling you right off of the mental cliff like this. Cancer isn’t something that’s just going to push you to your limits and then kindly stop. Cancer will push you straight past your limits mercilessly, no matter how badly it hurts. The fact that I reached this point in my own cancer journey not during diagnosis, nor during the cancer fight or even a cancer recurrence, but rather a recurrence scare, just goes to show how challenging cancer survivorship can be. My life was never actually in danger, but my mind was tricked into believing that it was, and that I was about to be sucked into a cancer black hole from which I might not ever emerge. I felt like I had just lived my last good healthy days. This underscores how important strong support is for cancer fighters and survivors, both during your cancer fight and even long after. You need the very best people for you, in your corner and on your side. Just like Stuart Scott, there have been times in my own cancer journey when I simply haven’t been able to go on, and have needed every bit of support that I’ve received in order to make it. I've needed people to fight for me when I was no longer able to.
As perfect of a caregiver and partner for life as my wife has been in supporting me, it's far too big of a task for one person alone to handle. It takes an entire village to keep cancer fighters and survivors feeling whole. I realized that I had been on the wrong path and approach to life in my cancer survivorship to have fallen the way I did, but which was the right path? Which way do I climb? It’s not something that my wife would ever have known, but my cancer survivor mentor did, and they opened my mind to other possibilities and helped me to find that path. A friend at work had such a sharp and spiritual mind, and she just had a way in which she could reassure me and talk me down when I was hurting, and helped to bring me much closer to God and the spiritual side of life. Like Stuart, I have the most incredible boss who just understands what this can be like, and said to take whatever time off that I needed while I was trying to sort my life out, and to not even worry about it. I got back in touch with so many of my cancer community friends, correcting the huge and critical mistake it was to drift away from them for a time. They knew my pain and my fears because they've been there, and were there to support and inspire and encourage me at every step of the way. A dear old friend introduced me to hiking which I very much enjoyed, another invited me out to a basketball game, and others kept me engaged on topics of interest and various hobbies. My favorite oncology nurse became not just an oncology nurse to me, but a trusted personal friend as well. Some other friends always helped me to laugh and smile, and occasionally even laugh my ass off to tears, which is some of the best medicine that you can get. Sometimes you just need to shoot the shit! And I can’t say enough good things about new friends of ours right down the street that I somehow had only just managed to meet during this very dark time. Such a wonderful source of support and encouragement, so many fun times and outings together, and such great chemistry and camaraderie between all of us. They’ve become truly wonderful friends in such a short period of time, and in many ways like a second family to me. Much like Stuart, I've needed to live my life as if I never had cancer, but I still think about it twenty times per day. These are the friends that I could spend an entire day with, and realize that I never thought about stupid cancer even once at all. You can't put a price on therapy like that!
As Stuart said at the beginning of his speech, “our life’s journey is about the people that touch us”. If the feeling of being at life’s end and falling into that dark abyss is the lowest and darkest point of the human experience, then the feeling of so much love and support surrounding me through the most challenging year of my life is the finest and brightest point of the human experience. It's a blessing to wake up every morning feeling all of this love and support, and it was such a surreal feeling for me last year when I was hurting so badly, and trying to find my way, to have this relay team of angels helping to guide me back to the top at every step. Every single last person who was there for me in my time of need has won a friend for life with me, and I really do feel as though I’ve been given a second chance in life. The experience has given me a new sense of urgency to not waste a day, to enjoy every moment that I can, and to love and enjoy my family and friends as much as possible. And most importantly of all, to pay these blessings forward to others in need, and to be that same blessing for them as others have been and continue to be for me.
It’s been a wonderful feeling these past six months finally feeling as though my own cancer journey has come full circle, but I still worry about my uncertain future. I’m well out of the danger zone for my cancer recurring, but do you ever really stop worrying? My body took the beating of its life fighting cancer once. Despite being in my mid-30’s, I have to nurse this post-cancer body of mine around as if it's 20 or 30 years older at times. What about when I really am 20 or 30 years older? What will my quality of life be like then? What if, God forbid, knock on wood, please let me not ever have to deal with this again for the rest of my life, I have to face another type of cancer someday? Will my body even be able to handle treatments at all? There’s never really been any sort of guarantee for anybody, but especially for young adult cancer survivors all bets are off. I’ve won for today, but what about tomorrow? I’ve felt like I’ve been in some sort of race to live and enjoy life as much as I can, while I can. It didn’t just take everything that I had to beat cancer once - it took more than everything I had.
What if I have to face cancer again? And what if I lose?
It's a question that's been stuck in my mind for quite awhile, and has been a puzzle to me that I just haven't been able to solve. But thanks to the brilliant words of Stuart Scott, I finally have the answer to that question and the missing puzzle piece.
“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.”
Repeat after me, “I Will Never Lose To Cancer”
Not ever! Amen. Thank you Stuart Scott!
It’s been quite a ride, but I’ve learned how exactly I need to live, what my priorities should be, and I know that my heart is in the right place. I’m living my life exactly the way I need to in order to feel this way, and am doing what I feel that I need to do in this world. I just needed the right mental framework and mindset to lock that in for life. We as a whole need to stop framing things in terms of loss, but rather in terms of the difference a person made, whose lives they touched, and how one lived and faced cancer while they were alive, just as Stuart suggests. People fighting with or trying to survive cancer need all of the support, encouragement, and inspiration as they can get. People with cancer in their lives don't need to hear about how someone lost, we need to hear about how they won!
God bless you Stuart Scott, and your family and friends and all those that love and support you. Thank you for sharing your cancer journey with the world, and for offering such profound and inspiring words of wisdom on your approach to life and how you face cancer. I'm in awe and my hat is off! All of us here at TCAF are praying for you and wishing you well.
RIP Stuart Scott, January 4th, 2015
Cross-posted at StevePake.com