After Cancer, Giving Back

Now that I've been nominated as a candidate for the 2014 Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Man & Woman of the Year campaign, I have another chance at redemption.
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Resting anxiously on a retractable bed and about to begin the chemotherapy drug Cytoxan, I sent my mom for a chocolate iced glazed Krispy Kreme donut from the hospital cafeteria. During treatment there were just three times each day when I could eat: immediately upon waking, and before and after the infusion.

Mom returned with an original glazed. I yelled at her: "The chocolate would drown the nickel taste of the infusion, but I don't want this!"

"I'm sorry. That is all they had," she said with her usual patience.

Two hours later with the infusion complete, I asked for small cereal boxes from the heavy shoulder bag Mom lugged everywhere. She dug deep to find them, past the pretzels I sometimes wanted and waters I probably wouldn't but were there "just in case," as she would say. Later, my mom would visit the hospital lobby again to wait an hour at the pharmacy to pick up the thousand-dollar shots I'd receive nightly to boost my white blood cells.

I spent much of my adolescence at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with my mother while being treated for Ewing's sarcoma, a bone cancer. NIH is the nation's medical research agency with its budget allocated by Congress. The American public paid for my treatment and medication; my parents paid for my donuts.

Treatment consumed my junior year of high school and when I returned for my senior year, my friend, Josh, and I estimated my treatment's total cost. Josh began calling me Million Dollar Man. It never occurred to me to estimate the total hours my mom sacrificed for me, or how many times I fussed. I survived by following a set of rules I created for myself, like "don't complain about treatment," so my agitation which could never be about cancer was instead about donuts.

A year later I was diagnosed with my second cancer called myelodysplasia, which is a cancer of the bone marrow. The Cytoxan I had received to treat bone cancer caused, and also treated, my new cancer. I liken that to Krispy Kreme both causing and treating gastrointestinal distress, depending on when you eat it during a chemo cycle.

My family moved to Minneapolis while I received and recovered from a stem cell transplant at the University of Minnesota. This time my treatment was not publicly funded, though my dad's federal BlueCross BlueShield health insurance covered most of the cost. Josh began calling me Two Million Dollar Man.

That transplant was 11 years ago. I am alive and healthy while others aren't. I do not feel guilty for surviving; I feel ashamed for doing wrong, like when I didn't thank my mother for fetching me an original glazed donut when the chocolate iced glazed was sold out. I want to live in accordance with my highest values and I want everyone who is diagnosed with cancer to have that opportunity, too. I want them to be able to struggle with the torment of failing as a son and to be able to appreciate the reward of redemption. Now, as my mother expends her energy on her own health struggles, I am taking care of her. I often still fuss at her. "Did you write down the questions for your doctor? Are you tracking your health numbers?"

Now that I've been nominated as a candidate for the 2014 Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Man & Woman of the Year campaign, I have another chance at redemption. LLS is raising money to fund research to keep others alive years after their transplants, too. My goal is to raise $110,000, or $10,000 for each of my 11 cancer-free years. Please help me make another person the Million or Two Million Dollar Man, so that one day nobody will need such a nickname. At least we can try. It's what we do best. just one click.

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