Sunday, September 16, 2007


A new school year is starting, and I happen to be in Michigan as September cools toward October. This is where I spent most of my first days of school, from kindergarten to college and graduate school.

I went to a college football game yesterday, the first one I've attended in person since finishing my last degree in 2003. Being back on campus made me think more intensely about the environment of school: the things I enjoyed, the things I miss, and the things I'm happy to be done with.

I became ill during my graduate schooling, and in retrospect my symptoms were probably caused by my cancer and went misdiagnosed for four years. The illness did slow me down sometimes and stunt my activities, but mostly I chalked it up to aging and a delicate constitution and continued about my business. The cancer was not diagnosed until the symptoms became more intense a few months after leaving school.

I wonder what I would have done if the diagnosis was made while I was still a student. Would I stay enrolled? Skip a semester? Leave entirely? I would probably have wanted to stay, but after experiencing surgery and chemotherapy I can't imagine that it would be possible to keep up while going through those.

And if I took a break when would I know to go back? In reality, doctors never say "Congratulations, we've removed the cancer and you're cured!". The results always feel very fragile — the drugs unpredictably knock the cancer down to immeasurable levels and you hope that it doesn't grow back, at least for a while. The chemotherapy may take months or years, and you have no idea how long a break will last when it comes.

Can you commit to years of schooling when you doubt that you can get through uninterrupted? What do you do if a final project is coming due and you start to feel something funny in your body? Do you push through and see the doctor later, or do you drop the schoolwork to go for consultations, lab tests, and scans? What happens to your social network, coursework, and housing if you get pulled away in the middle of a semester and can't return for a year? Does it even make sense to pursue education when you have a fatal disease?

I've met other young cancer survivors and I feel sad for those who were struck in college or graduate school and had to drop out. Myself, I answered many of those questions consciously before I knew what was making me sick and decided that finishing my doctorate was an invaluable goal. Particularly the final year of school I completed through stubborn determination and health be damned.

I'm realizing now that those issues don't stop with graduation. The intense, planned, compulsory institution of education is past (unless I go back as a teacher, which I'd like). But the freeform development of postgraduate adulthood is still enormously impacted by cancer.

Right now I am on a biweekly chemotherapy cycle. I get an infusion on the first day, take poisonous pills for seven days, and then recover for seven days. Out of that I usually feel pretty good for the last four days of recovery, bad for the last four days of poison, and so-so on the other six. My mental capacity fluctuates from good days to bad. I lose memory, quickness, creativity, and ambition on the low days. I imagine that if I were in school I would forget and disregard my classes on one week and realize how far behind I've fallen the next.

I'm trying to figure out how to plan and evaluate events with the knowledge of what's going on in my body. What in the past three years has been a true reflection of my character and what is a temporary handicap of my illness? It's hard to know in the midst of this great disruption.


Megan said...

Hey Rick,

I'm another young adult colon cancer survivor. Had surgery one year ago and finished FOLFOX about five months ago. Your blog has lots of moments of me in there. Thanks for writing. It's always good to feel less alone. :)

I blog, too. Check me out sometime:

Sending you good juju,


Jackie Brown said...

Rick, I came across your page by clicking on an ad on myspace. Your writing provides such a strong connection for me because my son, who just turned 33 on Sunday, was diagnosed with cancer at 31 years of age in the summer of 2006. I have heard story after story of young people stricken with cancer. Our society is in denial and holds onto the myth that cancer strikes only the "old." My son is a programmer and video blogged about his experience on a website that he developed:

As mega says, I'm sending you "good juju" too. Peace and blesSings