Cancer and I started our relationship when I was 15 years old. My Grandma Harriet was diagnosed with cancer at age 57. I was not old enough to understand it fully or to digest it. One day she was Grandma Harriet, the next day she wore a cancer turban, and the next day she was gone. What I do remember was the pain it caused my family, and especially my mother. The tears, the grief, the anger; it built hate inside me for this evil disease. I wish I would have been able to be there truly for my mom.
At age 15, I just didn’t understand the reality or magnitude of what was happening. I would see cancer often as I got older. It was not as close and personal as with my grandmother, but it was common. It seemed that every family had some type of relationship with it.
In 2010, my father-in-law Larry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was reminiscent of what my family had already been through. Larry was 60 when he was diagnosed, and he had 2 major goals. To see all his grandchildren born, and to be around long enough so that they would all have memories of him. He was a Warrior. He never complained or moaned; he acted with independence and dignity, accepting that this was his life—he owned it. Larry survived for 4 years; he passed on July 28, 2014.
My wife lost her father, my mother-in-law lost her husband, and my children lost their grandfather to cancer. But cancer didn’t care; it did what it wanted, when it wanted. It played by its own rules, and it had its own agenda.
In 2013, when Larry was going through chemotherapy, I was diagnosed with grade 3 astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer. I had 3 kids under 5, a wife who was taking care of her father, and now this.
I remember lying in bed in the hospital after being diagnosed, and I just started to cry. I started to think about my family, my kids, and I began to be retrospective about my life. I was trying to understand why this happened. In the middle of my 5-minute “pity party,” I just started to scream and curse.
Strength and Catharsis
Strength is not how much weight we can lift, or the size of our arms; strength is something that is deep down in our bellies that at our darkest times we can grab and own it. I didn’t know I had that in me, but when I found strength, I made it mine. This was my journey: cancer was just along for the ride.
I went through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation; the major change in my life came from my perspective. I started to see life through a different lens. I began to understand basic things in life that were not so obvious before my fight with cancer. I was taking lessons and gifts from cancer that I would never give back. They were mine: I was taking them from you, cancer. I started to truly understand living in the moment, and to appreciate the now.
My catharsis became writing. I would share my thoughts, perspective change, and appreciating and understanding the fragility of life. I would do this to unburden myself of the anxiety and fear that sat in my belly while every 3 months I got an MRI to see if the cancer had come back.
For all my optimism provided by this new set of lenses I was gifted with, I still needed that outlet to remove the stress, fear, and anxiety that I pushed deep down into my belly. If that was not removed, it could become combustible. I wrote to alleviate this negativity, and I sent these messages via e-mail out to friends and family. I never read them after I hit “send.” I wrote them for me, to help me deal with the realities I was facing.
Within 4 years of sharing these e-mails, I had more than 20,000 people following this e-mail chain. I wrote for me, but it gave me a better understanding of how evil and prevalent cancer is all around the world.
Cancer is like buying a car. You buy the car, you leave the lot, and you notice that car everywhere. Reality is that the car was always there, you just never noticed it until you had a direct connection. I saw cancer everywhere, and it affected every family in some fashion.
All cancer Warriors and families of Warriors are on a different journey, but their paths are similar. Connecting with this “new family” immediately made sense to me, and my understanding of support and inspiration became clearer instantly. People are attracted to real life and purity.
In 2018, I self-published my book Starting at the Finish Line. Again, I wrote it for me. It made me feel better. I was comfortable with my catharsis to get off my chest things that were raw and real. I had no expectations that anyone but friends and family would read it, and I put 3 copies in my safe, so that when my kids would be old enough, they could read what really happened.
A week later, the book was number 1 in new releases on Amazon in a variety of categories. Life started to change. I was speaking all over the country about my story, my perspective, and the need to have some type of financial plan before bad things happen. I was featured on ESPN NY, did 3 TEDx Talks, interviews, and more.
All this was unexpected, and yet it made sense to me. Connection often leads to inspiration, and I connected with people all over the world who were looking to be inspired. To this day, what all these Warriors do not realize is that they are the ones inspiring me. I am forever grateful for all they do and have done for me.
My wife Rebecca and I have been running the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia for the past 13 years. The first 6 years were for fun, and the past 7 years have been to raise money for Head for the Cure, and The National Brain Tumor Society to beat brain cancer. This is our mission, and we will not stop until we win.
What I Take from My Cancer Experience
I am often asked—with the change in the way I view life, the “gifts” that I have received—am I glad that this all happened? No! It was a horrible experience for me and for my family, and it is something I will deal with for the rest of my life. I wish it never happened, but rather than complain, I will take from cancer instead of it taking from me. This is my life! I own it!
To everyone in the cancer community, never forget, we are Warriors, and we are a family of Warriors. Cancer will never define us: we define us. This is our journey, we own it. Inspiring and listening to our community is a responsibility and an obligation I take seriously. Family is always there for each other.
Cancer, we have had a long history with each other. I hope we never meet personally again. I hope we end your existence harming people and families, and I thank you for the gifts you have given me that I will never give back. I hope those gifts help us end you.