The year was 2005. It was springtime on Long Island. I was a high school senior, on the cusp of graduating, with real life staring me in the face.
Today, the exact details are fuzzy, but the feeling remains. My father, aka Big Daddy Kane, hit me with a ton of bricks. After noticing a change, followed by a medical exam, followed by more exams, he learned he had testicular cancer. This was my first bout with cancer. As his primary caregiver, I feel entitled to own a piece of it.
I had worked as a pharmacy technician since the age of 15. I knew about cancer and treatment and loss. I became increasingly aware of that last bit, having seen customers in my little mom and pop store come and go. I accepted it as part of growing up, and it taught me a lot. For years, I considered becoming a pharmacist, and being a cog in the healthcare machine. But after I realized I was neither mathematician nor scientist, the dream faded.
Dad had his surgery, rounds of chemo, and more surgeries, and ultimately walked out of the hospital for good. He was in remission. Or was he cured? What did these words mean, anyway?
Fast-forward a few years of community college and state school to a 5-year “super senior.” I took a random elective focused on writing grants. Through a serendipitous friendship between my teacher and a young adult cancer survivor, Cyndy S., I learned one evening about what a 501(c)(3) was. I was introduced to the I’m Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation. Knowing I had to complete a 90-hour internship to graduate, I immediately went on the website and was called out by my professor for being disrespectful to the speaker.
It was a holy shit moment. I was thrust into this sub-culture of a forgotten population of cancer survivors. Sure, I knew about bald children and grandmothers with breast cancer, but this was all new to me. I was also introduced to the sardonic wit of Matthew Zachary. The enemy was anyone who didn’t “get it,” and their name was “douchebag.” On September 21, 2009, I sent in my resume to the man behind the curtain, MZ.
My first in-person meeting was in a conference room in midtown. I was in a room full of cancer survivors, volunteering for an organization that seemed like a tech company in disguise. My second trip to my new internship in NYC was quite different. I got to the office on time and was met by a unique individual name Chad Whitman. I say unique with love, because anyone who met him knew right away that he was special. He was dancing to techno music while bundling hospital literature. He greeted me with “hey cutie,” and I told him I was looking for Matthew Zachary, who had stepped out moments earlier. I had no idea what I was in store for.
After a few months, my 90-hour internship turned into a 300-hour internship, then a part-time job, and ultimately a full-time job. I quit my pharmacy tech gig after 8 years of counting pills and a suddenly useless knowledge of brand and generic drugs. May 2010 was a great month. Dad was doing well after being diagnosed 5 years earlier, I was graduating, and I had a job.
I titled this piece 2 years of Stupid Cancer, but in reality it has been 32 months. A lot has happened. I’ve met scores of incredible people, some cancer survivors, some caregivers like myself, and others who are passionate advocates. I’ve lost some of the friends I made, a reminder of why we go to work every day, and why it’s so important to continue what we’re doing.
I recently had the opportunity to travel from one coast to the other in a Volkswagen Beetle, making house calls to some of our most active cities. Aside from seeing how incredible our country is, I was exposed to some incredible people. Cancer survivors are a different breed and some of the best people I’ve known.
I wish there wasn’t a need for my job, but at the same time, I couldn’t picture doing anything else.