“I don’t know if I can do this.” “Yes you can, son.” “How can you be this strong?” “Well, because I have to be.”
These words were between my father and I while I laid in a hospital bed getting my first dosage of chemotherapy, and they have impacted my personal character forever.
The summer before my high school freshman year, I was diagnosed with Primary CNS large B-cell lymphoma, a type of brain cancer. I spent the entire season in the trenches on the Oncology Floor of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, with IV pumps ready to fire and pain relievers prepared to support.
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t fully understand what it was (I was still recovering from a craniotomy) but I had started experiencing its effects months before. It all started with my stomach. I threw up nearly everything I ate. In two months, I lost 25 pounds. My pediatrician considered me anorexic and prescribed me a gastrointestinal medicine.
My stomach started to recover, but then the uncontrollable “eye twitching” started. When I tried to read sheet music while playing the saxophone in band class, the notes would dance all over the page. While playing soccer at recess, the ball would suddenly change directions when coming towards me on the field. When trying to solve quadratic equations in Algebra, the variables would hop from positive to negative infinity.
This unusual activity resulted from nystagmus, an involuntary rapid movement of the eyes, caused by the tumors in my brain putting pressure on my optic nerves. Eventually, I lost control of the muscles of my eye lids. Even when I worked hard to open them, I had double vision. My visual field was reduced to the size of a paper towel roll.
The pediatric oncologists gave my family and me an 8-month chemotherapy schedule with a 50:50 success prognosis, and a list of the possible side effects of each chemotherapy drug. The chemo was supposed to destroy both me and the tumors, but the tumors definitely had the larger portion of the destruction. While the tumors were getting their daily dose of chemo, I was eating my favorite cereal watching “Duck Dynasty.” While the tumors were being eaten away by cytotoxins, I was playing board games with friends in the hospital room. While the tumors were writhing in pain, I was screaming in delight on the Millennium Force roller coaster at Cedar Point.
Of course there were agonizing moments, but nothing could break my spirit. Every pain was remedied with laughter, every cry with prayers, and every discomfort with get-well cards. While the tumors disappeared from the MRI scans, I grew stronger and stronger, more alive and well.
It has been two and a half years since my last round of chemo, and I have not wasted a minute of it. I am fortunate for surviving cancer and my life is purposefully lived, out of respect for those who were not as fortunate.
Every day is a privilege to connect with others on this earth, to share the pleasure of existence. Every sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell I experience is unique, irreplaceable and invaluable.
Although there are days when it is hard to keep going, I consider the blessings I have had in my life and use them as inspiration to persevere. Every day I strive to learn more about this life, to learn of its laws, to learn from its ancestors, so that by knowing more of the gift of life, I may be even more grateful for it.
Through the grace of God, I worked very hard to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout this journey and have been accepted at the University of Michigan this fall to begin as a freshman – possibly someday, I will be a pediatric oncologist to encourage other cancer patients.
Submitted by Jeffrey Brown