So, 2016 wasn't exactly the best year for my family and I, but you know what? My cancer didn't come back, so that sort of put things in perspective. While we weren't dealing with cancer, we were in the midst of handling not one but three different terrible crises within our own family or with near and dear friends, all of which were tremendously painful to experience and sort out. While we still had a great year, it really put a damper on things and our spirits.
Sometime during 2016, I managed to discover Nalie Agustin, a breast cancer survivor with an unbelievable spirit, vibe, and energy about her. I quickly became addicted to her bubbly excitement and enthusiasm for life, and loved seeing all of her Insta Story updates living the good life, enjoying times with friends and family, celebrating birthdays, and getting the inside scoop on all of her big plans and dreams that she was working so hard to make happen. Nalie's energy was simply infectious - you just couldn't watch any of her updates and not smile. I've never met Nalie personally, but during a time when my own family was hurting so badly, Nalie was one of a few people who managed to keep me going by constantly reminding me of how life was meant to be lived after cancer.
As the New Year of 2017 rang in, I was just as excited about getting back on track to make some of my own dreams happen as I was for Nalie's. She was working so hard on launching her own YouTube show, lining up tons of guests, and was finally on the verge of launching it, when...
Nalie found out that her cancer returned on Friday, January 6th, just days before she was to launch her show.
Full Stop. Everything on hold again, and devastation.
Nalie published a 10 minute video a few days after she found out, about everything she had been feeling. If you want to know what cancer survivors fear and what we go through when a recurrence happens, this is the video that you need to watch. The message is driven home even more for those of us that know Nalie, even if just through social media. To see this beautiful young soul, and shining star for young adult cancer survivors everywhere, go from being all pumped up and excited about everything she was hoping to finally make happen in 2017, to being ground to a halt and dampened by a recurrence of her cancer, was simply heartbreaking.
Give her video a watch.
Every single thing Nalie speaks of in her video, I myself have felt and feared. I'm very fortunate in that my cancer has never returned, and I pray that it never does, but I've very much been "here" before, spiritually and emotionally. In my years after cancer, I experienced several recurrence scares that were so bad and so real, that I thought for certain that my cancer had returned, that I had just lived my last good day, and that I was going to die. One scare I had was so bad that it triggered six solid weeks of PTSD, and it opened the floodgates to every unprocessed fear and emotion about cancer that I'd unknowingly repressed at the time. It took me an entire year to recover from that.
Here are all of the things that we feel when there's a recurrence, real, imagined, or otherwise.
- Shock and Disbelief. How could this be happening to us again? Young adult cancers are rare. We're unlucky enough to have cancer the first time, but how could we be so unlucky to have a recurrence of it and have to fight again? We have the worst possible thoughts, of possibly not emerging out the other end alive, and that we might have just lived our last good days. As a parent, the times I've had recurrence scares, I've always thought of my children, and of making video messages for them for later in their lives so that I could still be there for them in some way, even if I didn't make it. Death instincts. I could never even think of what to say, as the mere thought was just so distressing that I collapsed in tears.
- Frustration. When we know there are others out there that are abusing themselves, and smoking and doing all sorts of drugs, but our cancer is the one that comes back? Why us??? I never smoked or drank or did anything prior to my original cancer diagnosis, so how the hell am I the one that even got cancer in the first place? That's a question that I had for a number of years, and the only answer is simply bad luck. This is life. There's never been any guarantees for any of us, and things like this can happen. It's a tough and bitter pill for young and invincible adults to swallow.
- Fear and Sadness. When there's a recurrence of our cancer, we've been through all of this before. We know just how brutal a cancer fight is and can be, and the naivety is gone. We know what can happen and we're so afraid, and so sad at the same time. We're sad for ourselves, but sad for our families and loved ones as well. When I've had recurrence scares, I felt so ashamed and worthless. I didn't want to drag my family through a terrible cancer fight again, didn't want to be a burden, and especially didn't want my children to have to see me. They were too young to know what cancer was before. All they knew was that their daddy was very sick for awhile. They're older now and they know what cancer is, and that people can die from this.
When I thought for sure that my cancer had returned a few years ago, I just wanted to run away from the world and hide. I wanted to be driven out to the countryside somewhere and left to die. If I was going to die from cancer, I just wanted to die alone, and didn't want anyone that I loved or cared about to have to witness me dying a slow and painful death from cancer. Hey cancer, if you're going to take me, just take ME, and don't put my family through this. That's what I wanted, and I had never been more depressed in my entire life. I felt so worthless that I didn't want to be around anyone at all, not even my own family.
- Resolve, and the Return of the Warrior Mindset. What I loved seeing at the end of Nalie's video, though, was the return of that warrior mindset and fighting spirit that we all have inside. This is something that we gain when we're fighting cancer without realizing it. You think you can't do something, but I'm telling you that there's a warrior deep within all of us, and it's what allows us to get through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and it's what allows us to jump right into highly invasive surgeries with weeks long recovery times without so much as batting an eye, because there's no way in hell cancer is going to rob us of our lives.
Two weeks after my orchiectomy for testicular cancer, we had pathology results and scans done, we knew what we were dealing with, had consulted with the very best doctors, and had a plan to move forward. I didn't have time to be afraid anymore. I just had to fight, and win. I never expressed even a lick of fear going into 12 weeks of brutal chemotherapy, and after post-chemo scans showed a residual mass, I never expressed even a lick of fear going into the RPLND surgery, either. I was a warrior, and I didn't care what I had to do to beat this stupid cancer. I had a life and a family to get back to, and there was no way in hell cancer was going to take me away from all of that. Little did I know just how afraid I really was. The warrior spirit overpowers everything, including our fears.
- Relapses are Terrifying for Supporters As Well. I've long said to others that the cancer community and support groups can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides us with invaluable support that simply can't be found anywhere else. There are so many things about fighting and surviving cancer that only other cancer survivors can understand. We can't be without this support, yet, seeing others experience recurrences of their cancers and friends not making it, can shake our wobbly post-cancer foundations. This is what makes it real. This isn't the flu that we're getting over. Yes, our cancers can come back, and yes, people can die, but it doesn't mean that you will too.
As Nalie says in her video, just because she's experienced a recurrence of her cancer doesn't mean that others will too. Indeed, it was partly the stories of a few cancer survivor friends that had experienced recurrences, that had spooked me so badly into believing that my cancer had returned as well, and that I was next. We connect with each other so personally, and can have such close emotional and spiritual bonds. But what's going on in another's body is within their body only, and has nothing to do with yours. What can you do? Pray, yes, but just keep LIVING every single day that you have.
- Love Conquers All. Just as you don't fight cancer by yourself, you don't fight a recurrence of cancer alone, either. You need a Crew, an Army, or an all of the above support system. As painful as it had been to see Nalie go through this, it's been inspiring all the same to see her family, her parents, her brother, her boyfriend, Vee, and so many friends and "Nalie's Army" all rally by her side, and to fill her life with so much love. It's what tells us you're worthy, you're loved, you're cared for, and we need every bit of that, because of how worthless we can feel.
Similarly, my recurrence scare triggered the sudden release of every single fear I'd never felt, because my warrior spirit had locked them all away. I felt like I was falling off of a cliff and as good as dead, only to be lifted up by angels. My wife rallied to my side, my children inspired me, friends new and old were there, including ones I didn't even realize I'd had, all suddenly appearing at the exact time I needed them, and I'll never forget this or these people for as long as I live. These beautiful souls rescued me from a great spiritual abyss, like a relay team of angels in my life, and some of them had no idea of the role they were playing. Talk about inspiration.
FIGHT LIKE HELL, NALIE!
I believe with all of my heart and soul that you're going to beat this, because you have so much to do in this world. 2017 might not have started how you had hoped, but this is not your time. You have so much to do, and we in the young adult cancer community everywhere are with you, and believe in you.
Blessings and Godspeed from myself personally, another Scorpio young adult cancer thriver, and from all of us at the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation!
You can learn all about Nalie and her journey here.
She still launched her YouTube show, by the way. Love it!!! :-)
Cross-posted at StevePake.com