My relationship with cancer began when I was 15 years old. My grandma Harriet was diagnosed with the disease at age 57. I wasn’t old enough to really understand it or digest it. One day, she was grandma Harriet; the next day, she wore a turban on her head, and by the next day, she was gone. What I do remember was the pain it caused my family, especially my mother. The tears, the grief, the anger—it built this hate inside of me for this evil disease. I wish I could have really been there for my mom, but I didn’t understand the realness or magnitude of what was happening at that age.
I would see cancer fairly often as I got older. It wasn’t as close and personal as it was with my grandmother, but it was prevalent. It seemed 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 diagnosed and he had two major goals—to see the birth of all of his grandchildren and to be around long enough for all of them to have memories of him. He was a warrior. He never complained and he never moaned. He just acted with independence and dignity because this was his life and he owned it. Larry made it four years and passed on July 28, 2014. Cancer did what it wanted, when it wanted. It played by its own rules and had its own agenda.
In 2013, while Larry was going through chemotherapy, I was diagnosed with brain cancer, a grade III astrocytoma. I had three kids under five, a wife taking care of her sick 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 my past. Why did this happen?
Cancer did what it wanted, when it wanted. It played by its own rules and had its own agenda.
In the middle of my five-minute pity party, I started to scream and curse. Strength is not how much we can lift. It’s not the size of our arms. Strength is something deep in our bellies that we can grab and own at the deepest and darkest of times. I didn’t know I had that in me, but when I found it, I made it mine. This was my journey. Cancer was just along for the ride!
Although I went through surgery, chemo and radiation, the biggest change in my life came from perspective. I began seeing life through a different lens. Basic things in my life became clear during my fight with cancer. I took lessons and gifts from cancer that I would never give back like living in the moment and appreciating the now.
My catharsis became writing. I would share my thoughts and perspective about appreciating and understanding the fragility of life. This helped me unburden myself from the anxiety and fear that grew during my three-month-long MRI scans. If the fear and anxiety weren’t removed, I would combust. Writing alleviated this negativity.
I sent these messages by email to friends and family and I never read them after I hit send. I wrote them for me, to help me deal with the realities I was facing. Within four years of sharing these emails, I had more than 20,000 people following my emails. I wrote for me, but my writing also gave me a better understanding of the evil and prevalence of cancer.
Cancer is like buying a car. You buy the car, you leave the lot and then you notice the car everywhere. The reality is 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 their families are on a different journey, but their paths are somewhat similar. Connecting with this “new family” immediately made sense to me. My understanding of support and inspiration became clearer instantly. People are attracted to realness and purity.
In 2018, I self-published a book, “Starting at the Finish Line.” Again, I wrote it for me. It made me feel better. I felt catharsis getting things off my chest that were raw and real. I had no expectations that anyone but friends and family would read it. But one week later, my book was No. 1 in new releases on Amazon.com in many categories. Life started to change immediately. I began speaking all over the country about my story and perspective. I was on ESPN NY, hosted three TEDx Talks and was interviewed regularly. This was unexpected, and yet it also 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 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.
I am often asked—due to my changed perspective and many blessings— if I am glad this all happened. The answer is no! Cancer was a horrible experience for me and 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!
Never forget: we are a family of warriors! Cancer will never define us; we define us! This is our journey and we own it! Inspiring and listening to our community is a responsibility and obligation I take seriously. Family is always there for each other.
Photo by Joe Dantone of Dantone Creative for Newtown Lifestlye Magazine