We human beings are big fans of narratives. The Seattle Seahawks lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots because they passed on the goal line instead of giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 because Mitt Romney couldn’t relate to the average American voter and disparaged 47% of the electorate. JFK defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 because he looked better on TV. “New Coke” failed in 1985, not because it was a poor product, but because of people’s psychological attachment to the original Coke.
All of the above narratives are simultaneously partially true, partially false, and entirely impossible to prove. Narratives serve a constructive purpose, in that they take the small pieces of knowledge we share and have readily available to us, and enable us to create plausible stories to explain the events that wound up occurring. Without narratives, we would in many cases be unable to form conclusions and would spin our mental wheels, unable to move forward and make new decisions based on our knowledge of the past. All of that said, narratives can be dangerous if we put too much stock in them and mistake a narrative for reality. While narratives typically contain elements of truth, their flaw is that by using them we are using the small fragments of reality we do know in order to tell an entire, complex story, ignoring entirely the vast majority of factors that we do not know in the process, and assuming with hubris that the minority of information we already know must explain the outcome in hindsight.
Today, I became one of the happiest statistics you can become. Today, I joined the growing ranks of 10-year cancer survivors. On Tuesday, June 10, 2008, an oncology nurse administered the last of eight chemotherapy treatments that drove my Hodgkin’s Disease into remission. Fourteen weeks prior, the same nurse administered my first treatment, beginning by telling me “we’re going for the win.” This past winter, I saw the same nurse yet again for a blood draw after receiving the news from my oncologist that he only needs to see me once a year now instead of every six months.
Surviving cancer is an incredible victory and a defining experience in one’s life. However, the less you know about a person, the greater the tendency to define the entirety of that person and everything that happens to that person through the lens of the few highlights you do know. This is, again, the danger of narrative. While certain aspects of my character today have undoubtedly been influenced by my battle with cancer 10 years ago, it is a giant and unwise leap to assume very many aspects or events in my post-cancer life would have unfolded much differently had that battle never occurred. Would my career have looked different? Would I drive a different car? Would my outward personality vary much in a non-malignant parallel universe from what it is in the real 2018?
The answers to all three of those questions are, I haven’t the foggiest idea and neither do you. However, if we don’t stray into the realm of narrative and stick to the facts, it’s still possible to say beyond a reasonable doubt that none of the following things could or would have happened had chemotherapy not existed and I had not been able to survive cancer a decade ago:
I would not be alive, and probably wouldn’t have lived to see my 35th birthday.
My two daughters, now 8 years old and 5 years old, would never have existed.
By extension, anything my two daughters will go on to accomplish in this world, and any descendants they may ultimately produce, would never have existed. You can extrapolate this through generations and see the butterfly effect that saving one life can produce.
If I had never experienced cancer, I would never have been motivated to run a dozen marathons nor to raise many thousands of dollars to benefit cancer charities and help turn other patients into survivors. And that brings me to the fun announcement portion of this blog post:
I did not create the above graphic. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society did, in naming me their Honored Hero for the 2018 Chicago Marathon being held this October. The photo on the right is me with my wife Krissie on our wedding day, June 21, 2008 – yes, 11 days after that aforementioned final chemo treatment. The photo on the left was taken less than 16 months later in downtown Chicago as I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, fulfilling a promise I made the day after I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. I will be running this fall not just as an Honored Hero but also to raise funds for the LLS. If you’d like, you can donate to the charity and help turn more patients into survivors at this link.
Because of all the problems described above with narratives and the fact that I really don’t think I am any sort of egomaniacal person, I can’t quite get fully comfortable with the “hero” tag they are bestowing on me. Heroes wear tights. Heroes fly. Heroes are, if not faultless, close. I am none of those things. What I am is somebody who took his medicine, got better, and got healthy enough afterwards to run marathons for charity and raise a family and be a husband and a dad. And if that makes me some sort of a hero to some, well, so be it, but I really think that just goes to show that anybody can be a hero.
We are, all of us, more than our narratives and have innumerable facets beyond and beneath our labels. While I do not know and cannot know the precise extent to which my own facets and traits have been shaped by my cancer experience, I do know that survivorship has made my life richer than it would have been otherwise. If you currently find yourself battling cancer, know that while you are unfortunate in one very big and obvious way, you are also very fortunate in more subtle ways that will reveal themselves over time. I am very fortunate indeed to have been given a full healthy decade post-cancer. I look forward to many more. And it is my hope that I, and others like me, can do our own small part to make the same possible for others with effects that ripple through the generations.