Cancer Taught Me: Fearful to Fearless

How a Vegas Trip helped me face Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma

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In July of 2003, my wife and I made our first trip to Las Vegas. We stayed at the Stratosphere during this trip and the memories we made during our anniversary celebration turned both Las Vegas and the Stratosphere into places that held a special place in our hearts. So special in fact that over the years we would do our best to spend time at the Stratosphere every summer.  In 2015, we were planning to end my summer “sabbatical” from my law practice by spending our Labor Day weekend playing at the Stratosphere pool. It was supposed to be a carefree end to a carefree summer.

That changed when in late August and/or e2015rly September of , I learned that I had cancer. The carefree nature of my pending trip suddenly became tainted. Tainted with the reality that in the upcoming weeks, if I wanted to live, I needed to have a “chemo-port” installed in my chest so that the six chemotherapy treatments I needed to combat the Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that was poisoning my body could be properly placed into my blood stream.

Like I suspect is the case with nearly every first time cancer patient, fear became a powerful force in my life. I feared what chemotherapy would do to my body. I feared what chemotherapy would do to my brain. I feared what toll all of this would take on my wife. The list of fears was endless. However, more than anything, I feared that I would die within a year.

In those first few days of learning that I had cancer, my fears began to consume me. It was hard for me to think of anything other than my fears. It became impossible for me to see how I could have any fun in Las Vegas. My initial plan was to cancel the trip. At first blush, this may sound trivial but as I tried to convey above, these trips meant a great deal to my wife and I. Fortunately, for me,  I thought about it a little more and I decided that sitting around and letting my fears consume me would not alter my health. I began to realize that fear was not a cure for cancer. Instead, I was well aware that surviving cancer would mean enduring these six treatments and the associated fallout. I was also aware that nothing I could do at that point in time would alter the impact that my treatments would have on me. Thus, I decided there was no reason to let fear prevent me from experiencing a trip that meant so much to my wife and I. The idea was to keep doing the things that mattered to me and maybe try to have one “last hoorah” before I had to confront the reality of my health.

That is not to say that when I traveled to Las Vegas I was able to leave my fears at home. My fears came with me. My cancer came with me as well.  Even though I appeared to others as healthy, I was somehow different in my own eyes.  I knew that two tumors were growing inside my body and that these tumors might kill me. The weekend began as a battle between my desire to have fun and the fears that sought to overtake me. However, within a day or so I was able to put my fears into the back of my mind and have fun.

Part of my version of fun in Vegas is the champagne brunches they offer at the buffet, so on September 7, 2015, my wife and I purchased all day passes to the buffet and enjoyed ourselves, it was a great day. A day that was not infused with any of my fears.
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When we returned home, I had a souvenir in my wallet, a card from the Stratosphere Buffett that had served as my all access pass for the day. I thought about tossing it away but I decided to keep it as a reminder of this great day. As time went on, I was glad I kept this card for several reason.  At first, seeing this card in my wallet always brought a smile to my face at a time that I was likely otherwise reaching for my insurance card or the card I would show the clerk when I had my weekly blood draws. However, beyond making me smile this card always reminded me how the only reason I was able to experience this day with the joy that I did was to somehow prevent the cancer related fears that wanted to hijack my mind negate my joy (at the time I had no idea how I was able to do this). Finally, as I went through treatment, this card then became a source of inspiration throughout the treatment process.  I wanted to return to the Stratosphere for some summertime fun without my cancerous tumors and without the fears that came with them.

Now I have two buffet cards in my wallet. The latest addition to my collection is dated May 30, 2016. I purchased this card when I returned to the Stratosphere to celebrate Memorial Day weekend. Thankfully, the fears related to having cancer and dealing with chemotherapy that accompanied me on my last trip, the fears I had to suppress during my last trip to the Stratosphere were not with me. I had survived chemotherapy and my cancer was now in remission.

The cancer that made me feel different during my last vacation was gone for now. That is not to say that I was now back to normal. That is not to say that I was not a different person than I was before I had any suspicions that I might have cancer. To the contrary, the person that went to the Stratosphere with his wife to kick off the summer of 2016, is a much different person than he was before cancer became a part of his world. Why?  Because my cancer taught me that fear is the most powerful and destructive emotion that human beings experience. Why? Because more often than not, the only thing our inner fears prevent is joy.

Before surviving cancer, fear played a prominent role in my life. I consistently had fears about the future, I had fears about money and I had fears about my career. I also had fears about more trivial things that over time turned out to be so trivial that my memory dismissed them long ago.  Now that I am a survivor, for the most part, I am virtually fearless; cancer taught me that. That is not to say that I chose to spend part of my recent Memorial Day celebration “sky jumping” off the top of the Stratosphere Tower as many choose to do.  That is not to say that I am going to start cliff diving.  That is also not to say that I have do not have moments where I experience fear about the future.

What I am saying is that when faced with a tangible possibility of death, I began to realize for the first time in my life that I was not immortal. Of course, I knew this on one level. I never believed that I would live forever, but the feelings I experienced after diagnosis and during the treatment process, made me understand this reality on a completely different level. Death was not something that I need not be concerned about for another 20 years. Instead, I now viewed death as something that could happen at any time. Having this new understanding changed me. It improved my life.

At first blush, this might sound a bit morbid. However, cancer taught me that each day we wake up could be our last day on earth is actually quite empowering. I have found that such a mindset provides me with the ability to defeat the otherwise powerful emotion of fear. I have likewise found that defeating fear in this manner has allowed me to experience more joy on a daily basis than I ever did before I cancer entered my life.

In this regard, my technique is quite simple. When I begin to experience fearful thoughts about the future, I ask myself one question “If this were my last day on earth would I want to spend it fearing the future or enjoying the day that I am living now?” My answer is always the same. Without fail, I always choose to experience all the joy that the current day has to offer. I have found that this choice always neutralizes any fears that I have and I am then able to experience the joy of the day that I earned by beating cancer in any way I choose be it at the Stratosphere playing at the pool or sitting in my office working.

My message to you then is simple: if you are experiencing the fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis and/or treatment use your newly discovered mortality to slay your fears. Use your newfound mortality to help experience whatever you enjoy in life unfettered by fear. Use your newfound mortality to experience joy and negate fear by asking yourself this simple question, “If this were my last day on earth would I want to spend it fearing the future or enjoying the day that I am living now?”  I ask you to do this because I suspect your answer will be quite similar to mine, in that you too will choose joy. Cancer taught me that.

If I am right and that joy happens to bring you to the Stratosphere, walk up and say hello but if you ask me to join you for a “Sky Jump” off the top of the Stratosphere Tower the answer will still be no.  I might be virtually fearless but I have my limits 🙂

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