Life After Fear: When leukemia struck, I bounced back. What followed has been the best year of my life.

I have spent the better part of a year reconstructing a week’s worth of memories.

It’s been a slow process, and there are still huge gaps – days’ worth of gaps – but I’m getting there. The memories in question are of the family trip to Oak Island in early August 2017, just before the start of our kids’ school year. With my wife Rachel’s help, I now recall that we saw my brother and some folks from her side of the family at the start of the week. I remember now that it rained for several of our days there. I remember that we packed umbrellas and took Sarah and Lucy, our kids, on a salt marsh boardwalk anyway. I remember, too, that we paid a dollar a head and walked to the end of the ocean pier. This is where Rachel took a really good picture of the girls.

A few days later we were in my hospital room, and her phone slipped out of her hand. It didn’t fall far, but it was hot to the touch when she picked it up and wouldn’t turn back on. The photos inside it – like many of my recent memories – were simply gone. I had just learned that I have cancer, and I was a wreck.

It went like this: We left the beach and came home to Pittsboro midweek – Wednesday, I think it was. Friday I went to the doctor, curious about a lump on my neck. Saturday night I went to the hospital. Sunday morning I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which is such a rare diagnosis at 35 that my age range doesn’t even show up on statistical models. I can remember my trip to the hospital in crisp, precise detail, but my memories of the beach trip – and, indeed, much of summer 2017 – were eclipsed by what happened on August 12, which was the Saturday when everything started.

And now, in August 2018, I’m looking the first anniversary of my leukemia diagnosis squarely in the face.  I can’t really say how I’ll feel when August 12 comes, but I suspect I’ll be fine.

See, not only am I alive, but I’ve had one of my best years. For one, my medicine works. I have a strain of CLL that doesn’t respond to traditional chemo and that was considered terminal less than a decade ago. Today, it is merely incurable – considering the alternative, that’s okay by me. I take a few pills every evening, and they have very quickly reined in my disease. The only thing I can’t do anymore is eat grapefruit.

Why else has my year been so great? For one, I have a good crew: I married well and I have great kids, and I have a core of reliable friends as well. My close call reminded me that nothing is more important than surrounding yourself with good people who you value and who value you. Since diagnosis I’ve started taking better care of myself. I’ve cut my drinking by about two-thirds, and I’ve started working out daily. I’d like to pretend that I would have had the discipline to actually take these steps without a cancer diagnosis, but it is what it is.

I’ve been a professional nonfiction writer since 2010, but since my diagnosis I’ve made a conscious effort to write fiction as well. I’ve always had short story and novel ideas floating around my head, but I never had any real success in putting them on the page. A few months after diagnosis, however, I added fiction to my deadline board, with 2,000 words due every two weeks. After many months of that, I’ve written a number of chapters in two sci-fi books and I hope to finish them by 2020. I can’t wait to share these stories.

Speaking of writing, another thing I did after my cancer diagnosis was accept an exciting new job editing this very magazine. I got four new tattoos (I’ve wanted more tattoos for years, and these four new ones are only the beginning) and Rachel and I went on the zipline course at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Western North Carolina. It was worth it. It was so worth it.

I discovered something during our ziplining trip. When I clipped into my harness and looked down from the first tower, I had zero fear. This is remarkable, because one reason I’d wanted to take the ziplining course was because of my fear of heights. I wanted it gone, and I figured ziplining from mountaintop to mountaintop would force it out of my system. Yet with a cancer diagnosis came a very real fear of death, and my theory is that it forced out all other fears in my life – including, yes, my fear of heights. I’ve tested this theory since, such as when we rode the Ferris wheel and the chairlift ride at the State Fair that October, and it’s confirmed: my fears are just plain gone.

I’m not afraid. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t lose sleep. I stay positive, and it’s not a front.

The way I see it, one of two things is going to happen. One: I’ll not have as long a life as I’d hoped, in which case there is simply no time to waste on worry, fear or self-pity; or two: I will live a normal lifespan, in which case I owe it to myself (and to all the people whose luck wasn’t as good as mine) to live without worry, fear or self-pity. Either way, fear is no longer relevant to my life.

So why have I spent hundreds of words talking about myself? I want to illustrate a point: cancer doesn’t have to be the end. Yes, I know some forms are more aggressive than others and that many, many people don’t have the same treatment options I do. I simply happened into a form of cancer that is manageable by modern medicine, and I know I’m not alone. Not only does cancer not have to be the end for me, but it doesn’t even have to mean I’m unhealthy. Yes, I have leukemia, but I’m also in the best shape of my life and I am genuinely and sincerely as happy as I’ve ever been, if not happier.

As for the memories I lost? I’ll make more. I have time.