Present Age: 27
Hometown: Calgary, AB
What school did you attend?
I went to Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. I graduated with a B.H.K. in Recreation and a minor in Biology. Currently, I am taking courses at Mount Royal University towards a Certificate in Non-Profit Organizational Management.
Do you work?
Yeah! With Young Adult Cancer Canada as their West Coast Regional Coordinator! It is freaking sweet. I organize monthly Localife events with Calgary survivors, Survive & Thrive Expeditions in the summer, and also help plan and facilitate YACC retreats and conferences. I also have spent the last two years working on a documentary film (that was filmed on the first Survive & Thrive Expedition), called Wrong Way to Hope: An Inspiring Story of Young Adults and Cancer, that is premiering on October 12, 2010 in Calgary (check out www.wrongwaytohope.com). Also, in February I will be starting up a retreat centre, called Peacefield, located just outside of Calgary in Kananaskis Country, which will be specifically used to help young adult cancer survivors reflect, refocus, and rebuild their lives post treatment.
What are your career goal(s)?
I want to help other young adult survivors not only survive their cancer experience but thrive during treatments and throughout the rest of their lives. Generally, my career goal is to love God and love people…as long as I am doing that I am happy.
Your Cancer experience:
How did you find out you were sick? What event(s) led to the diagnosis?
I got very sick and went to the doctor and after weeks of tests they decided that I must just have mono because hey, I was a strong young man of 25, what else could it be?! (I even went to an Oncologist who told me it must just be mono and decided not to do a biopsy even though none of the tests for mono had come back positive) Over the next year I went back to the doctor six times because I was having trouble breathing and thought I had asthma. Finally, one of the doctors said that we better get a chest x-ray done and that is when they found the grapefruit-sized tumor in the middle of my chest. The tumor was compressing my lungs and windpipe and that was why I was having a hard time breathing.
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
It was 2008 and I was 25 years old.
At what level of education were you at diagnosis?
I had just graduated university and was living in Leavenworth, WA. I was backcountry skiing at least four days a week and was in the best shape of my life!
What was your diagnosis?
Hodgkins Lymphoma, Stage 3
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
What the heck?! How did I climb Mt. Shuksan last week without keeling over?! And then, is this even possible for someone my age?.And then, why the hell didn’t they do this chest x-ray sooner? And then, how am I going to tell Bonnie (my wife of five months)?
How did your family react?
Like every family; they were shocked, angry, distraught, and then they went into research mode and I started getting links to every website that said anything about cancer. hehehe.
How did your friends react? Were you treated any different?
My friends in Leavenworth were shocked but very supportive. Unfortunately, I had to leave all them and move back to Calgary where I had not lived for eight years and did not have many friends. None of my old friends tried to contact me when I moved back and I did not put a whole lot of effort into hanging out with them either because it was very awkward trying to reconnect under those circumstances.
What did your treatment consist of?
I did 12 rounds of chemo as an outpatient (six months) and then one and a half months of radiation (five days a week). The entire process was about nine months from diagnosis to starting treatment to finishing radiation. The worst part of the whole thing was receiving the chemo because the last drug “Doxorubicin” felt like fire in my veins when it went in and the last two hours of every chemo treatment was some of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life (not until after chemo did I find out that there were options like a PICC line or a port-o-cath that would have solved that problem). The best part of my treatment was the free Tim Horton’s coffee and having my wife at almost every treatment with me.
In which Hospital(s) were you treated?
The Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. All the nurses and doctors there are freakin’ awesome! And they have volunteers hand out free Tim Horton’s coffee and home baked cookies!!
What is your current medical status?
I go back for check-ups every three months but am feeling good for the most part. I get occasional pericarditis (swelling of the lining around the heart and subsequent pain, a side effect of the chest radiation), gained some weight that I can’t lose, need to get a lot of sleep, and I am not as active as I was before but some of those could be just because I am getting older 😉
What was the toughest (and best) part of your challenge?
For the first three months of treatments I did not want to acknowledge that cancer had any impact on my life. I just tried to pretend like it was not happening when obviously my life was very, very different. Refusing to engage with the experience made me miserable because the whole ordeal felt so purposeless; cancer was wasting what was supposed to be the prime of my life. My biggest challenge was dealing with these feelings of purposelessness and I soon realized that although cancer might not kill me physically, it could destroy me emotionally and spiritually if I let the bitterness that I felt for having to deal with cancer at 25 take hold of my heart.
So with the goal of finding purpose in my suffering, I thought up a way to use my skills and abilities to better the lives of my YA survivor peers. Ten months later, after countless hours of dreaming, organizing and fundraising, myself and seven other YA cancer survivors from across Canada set out on a journey of a lifetime down the Owyhee River in SE Oregon with a film crew and the film Wrong Way to Hope was the result. The goal of the film is to raise awareness of the specific issues and challenges facing young adults with cancer.
To me, that film was redemption. It brought abundant good out of a painful journey that almost destroyed me. Now everywhere I turn I can’t help but see meaning and purpose as I continue to reach out to other young adults with cancer. Like the lives of so many young adult survivors I meet, the film is drenched in suffering, brokenness, redemption and hope. So what began as the toughest part of my cancer journey — feelings of purposelessness — has turned into a deep understanding of suffering and “lostness” and has given my life more meaning then I ever could have imagined. It is amazing how the toughest part of any challenge always seems to turn into the best part of that challenge. You can read my post called “The Stockdale Paradox” to read a bit more about the process that I underwent.
What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
Planning that film was what really motivated me. As soon as I made the decision to not sit around and wait for this cancer thing to be over, the treatments got easier and less painful, the nausea bothered me less and I was much happier. Having a goal that was more than just surviving cancer was what allowed me to actually thrive during that time.
How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?
Cancer has totally altered the course of my life, but not in a bad way like I thought it would. Physically, it made me realize that I need to appreciate my body more and treat it better; I eat much healthier now. Emotionally, I am more resilient and more accepting and understanding of people. I have a deep empathy for all sorts of people in all walks of life like I never had before. Socially, I have had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with some absolutely amazing fellow survivors who have enriched my life in ways they don’t even know. Spiritually, I have so much more trust in God’s limitless and unchanging love for me and His ability to turn very bad things into very good things (redemption is what He does best!).
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
I got a thousand… 🙂 and I have already said one of the main ones so I will just say this: Getting cancer is a journey and it is important to embrace every aspect of it. It is totally fine to start out being angry, bitter and disillusioned (I did!), but eventually you need to move past that stage. Cancer is bad, it is evil, it is trying to destroy us. The best thing we can do is throw it back in its face and learn from it, grow from it, and become a better person because of it. Be angry, wear your “F*ck Cancer” T-shirt for a while, but don’t get stuck there. Of all of the cancer survivors that I have met, the ones that have been able to make that transition are the happiest, no matter what stage their cancer is or how much time they have left.
What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?
Now I know what cancer is really like and that it certainly does affect young adults more than most people would ever imagine. It’s different for people our age and I want to help. Before my diagnosis I didn’t even know people my age could have cancer.
What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?
When/if you get mono and all the regular tests do not confirm that it is mono, make sure your doctors do a biopsy.
Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?
No. But about half way through my treatments I did pick up a poster that had fallen on the ground that advertised a retreat with Young Adult Cancer Canada. The rest is history 🙂
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada?
I work for them now! Best job in the world.
Mike Lang, West Coast Regional Co-ordinator
Young Adult Cancer Canada – Calgary Office
P.O. Box 18062, Calgary, AB, T2Y 3W0