Monday, November 29, 2010

Dudes of Cancer: Monsieur November

Mark Herzlich

In 2006, Mark Herzlich was named a Freshman All-American as a linebacker for Boston College. In 2008, he was a First-team All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a finalist for the Butkus Award—named for the nation’s top linebacker. He was a top-50 prospect for the 2009 NFL Draft, but instead returned to BC for his senior season.

That senior season had to wait because Mark was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in May 2009. Only 150 Americans are diagnosed with this disease each year. I was one of them in 2000.

Watch YouTube videos of Mark if you want to see an amazing story. His determination and attitude were stone cold as he endured chemotherapy, radiation, and tumor resection. He continued his physical training because, when he finished treatment, he wanted to pick up where he left off and win that Butkus Award. Hairless, Mark is seen benching 315 pounds.

His tumor developed in his femur, and so that was removed and replaced with a metal rod. Just under a year after he became cancer-free, his leg muscles bulged during a feature by Raycom Sports. Though I don’t know exactly what his surgery entailed, clearly he pushed through intense pain and physical rehab. Mark talks about putting aside fears in order to get back on the field—fears of breaking his leg, which may then never heal properly.

Mark just concluded his final regular season at Boston College, and it did not end the way he had envisioned it—he had half the number of tackles as two years ago. In an ESPN interview he said that, though he was mentally prepared to play again, his body wasn’t quite there. Survivors like me who were eternally altered by our cancer surgeries look at Mark in awe. At the same time I understand his disappointment in not returning to All-American status. He is a mental giant, and just as I expected a return to greatness on the tennis court, his crystal ball displayed an NFL starting linebacker who just happened to have a titanium leg bone.

Now that Ewing’s sarcoma has received national recognition, let’s push aside prostate and breast cancer funding and awareness campaigns. So what if those two diseases outnumber Ewing’s in annual diagnosis by hundreds of thousands.
Football star Mark Herzlich

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Great Orator

Last night I spoke about TWICE at my Temple, Congregation Ner Shalom. My delivery from the bema wasn't Obama-esque, but I am determined to improve, as I will have more speaking opportunities to come. I am prepared to try anything: Toastmasters, acting classes, relaxation techniques, beta blockers, and of course benzodiazepines.

Here is a transcript of my speech:

Lightning flickered inside my hip. Every time my left shoe landed on the ground, another fiery explosion. The pain left just as quickly as it came, waiting for another flicker.
I was a sophomore in high school playing in a singles match to determine seeding for the tennis team. That was the first time I felt pain, and I pushed it aside because I wanted to play. But it would not be the last time. The pain continued and worsened over the coming half-year.
It turns out I had a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. They say this kind of thing can happen to anyone, but nobody really believes that until it does. So, I went through the whole process I’m sure you’ve heard far too many times already—official diagnosis, telling friends and family, and preparing for and beginning treatment.
Soon after treatment started was when I realized that I had superhuman powers. I know what you’re thinking—that superheroes like Brandon Routh, Christian Bale, and Christopher Reeve are taller and not nearly this good looking. True. But from the signs I was given, there was no other way for me to perceive it. My body recovered faster than the other patients, the treatment was more effective for me, and I generally tolerated everything easier. Chemo kills blood cells, but my bone marrow was more resilient than my nurses had ever seen.
So, however morally wrong it was, I looked down on the other patients and considered them inferior. I distanced myself from them—they were ill, I wasn’t. They were mere human beings, and I wasn’t.
Because of my powers, I didn’t fear death. I felt no reason to become any more religious than I had been before. I didn’t let cancer change me. I likened my illness to the way I rooted for my favorite professional wrestlers Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels: in order to win the match, I had to fight the bad guy, even if that included the 500-pound Yokozuna, though hopefully my opponent wouldn’t give me The Bonzai Drop, Yokozuna’s patented maneuver. My opponent would punish me a little, but in the end I knew I’d win.
I created a set of rules that guided my life: don’t complain, don’t be sad or jealous, don’t be angry for having cancer, think of cancer as normal. I followed the rules to a T. When I saw the other patients whining and crying, I felt reinforced, and so my ego inflated.
After a year I completed treatment—14 cycles of chemo, 5 weeks of radiation, complete removal of my left hip. I was now cancer-free just as I knew I would be. I went on with my senior year of high school and first year of college like cancer didn’t affect me, expect that now instead of playing tennis, I clobbered friends in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003 on PlayStation 2.
The funny thing is that the same rules that helped me survive and even thrive during treatment held me back as a survivor. I was stuck in the past and stuck in a mindset that inhibited my growth. I sought out old friends from high school instead of making new ones. Cancer was a part of me, but bringing it up or telling people that I once had it was an act of complaining. Complaining was my number one sin, worse than any of the commandments or all of them combined.
I was lost, in a sense. But then, abruptly, I was diagnosed with a second, different cancer of the bone marrow called myelodysplasia. This was caused by the very treatment that killed my first cancer. My rules held strong, and were there once again when I needed them, just like Superman bursting through the atmosphere to feel the sun’s radiant energy. Instead of fearing death like most people would normally do in this instance, I stayed focused on getting treatment and surviving.
Whatever qualms one might have about inhibiting my own personal growth in college were completely and entirely outmatched by knowing that I was superhuman. I knew that my powers would lead me to a degree from University of Virginia and beyond, despite receiving a 50/50 chance at living past 20.
But this time, I wasn’t superhuman at all. I received an umbilical cord stem cell transplant at the University of Minnesota, and the treatment beat me up. I developed bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, as well as problems I didn’t know were possible. I was a mere mortal, now struggling to survive, instead of breezing to the finish line. My faith in my superpowers were shaken and nearly lost. But my faith hung by a thread, and though you may not see it, my invisible cape is still tied around my neck. I prevailed against my second adolescent cancer.
Am I now, or was I ever, a Super Man? I’ll leave that for you to decide. Do we all have the capacity for extraordinary things? Maybe so.
And now I leave off with a book excerpt. Even though I did not find religion the same way many newly diagnosed do, I did use Judaism in my own way. Jewish themes are prevalent throughout my book, and here is one instance. In this scene, I am about to receive my transplant via an IV catheter.

In late morning, Jen brought in a pathetically small bag of red liquid with a large O+ sticker on the front. Six months later my blood type would change from A+ to O+, that of my donor. I did a double take. This little thing is supposed to save my life? My unrelated umbilical cord was a 4/6 HLA match from an infant girl born in New York in 1999. That was all I knew of her. With God on my side, I was ready for that baby girl to rescue me.
Before Jen released the valve to allow the stem cells to flow through my veins, she asked, “Is there anything you would like to say first?”
I longed to say the Shema—a Jewish prayer declaring one’s faith in God—but instead said, “Do your job, little fella.” My No Complaining rule prohibited me from making a big deal out of it. It was no joke, and I knew that. Jen released the valve and the stem cells swarmed into my catheter.
While the little girl’s stem cells flooded my body, I closed my eyes and drifted into a fantasy. My strong heart pumped my future marrow through my bloodstream. The cells targeted my hip, sternum and skull. They latched on like spiders, and began to repopulate my empty calcium-phosphorus shells. It was glorious.
Now, there was only one thing left to do—pray that this girl, whom I would never meet and whose name I’ll never know, had the right kind of cells to give me a third chance at life.

Keep reading:
The Great Orator: Part II

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tough Selling

When I blasted the e-mail about TWICE being published to 550+ people, and the Facebook Page invite to 600+, I figured a good percentage of them would buy it. Regardless of the quality of the content, memoirs are inherently interesting, especially when you personally know the author. Hamburgers and I likened it to a snotty girl from our high school who lacked basic writing skills, but if she were to write a memoir, then we’d still buy it.

When I got the feeling that few people were buying from my book’s website, I accommodated.

I visited former doctors and nurses at National Institutes of Health, where I received treatment for my first cancer ten years ago. I took three hours out of my work day and dealt with the insane security measures at NIH, which are somehow more intense than they used to be. I enjoyed spending time with those folks, but was surprised when most—including doctors who are actually in the book—didn’t purchase it.

I am not suggesting that anyone is obligated to buy my book simply because they know me, or because I make factual claims like, “My book will save the world, or, “It will change your life.” I would never instruct anyone how to spend his money. Is my book too pricey in this rough economy? Do people assume my book is not legitimate? Do people no longer read?*

I then offered to personally deliver my book to friends in the Northern Virginia area. I hounded people on Facebook and Google chat, and with texts and phone calls. I wanted to approach the line of being terribly obnoxious without crossing it. This time I succeeded and began bringing joy to book lovers young and old (though, I likely trampled on my obnoxious line).

I met friends in Woodbridge and Manassas to watch football games, and even drove from my apartment in Arlington to the Vienna metro station during afternoon rush hour to deliver one copy. He felt bad and ended up buying two. This may all sound silly, but I view my time and money far less valuably as getting my book out into the world.

I feel like I’m taking an on-the-job crash course in sales and marketing. It can be frustrating how publications and bookstores outright ignore me (a response of “No thanks” or “Not interested” would be better than nothing). But it’s also exciting, and I am up for the challenge. I have a product that customers seem to really be enjoying, but this may be a slow process at first that relies more on word-of-mouth. This I promise: I will never quit until it becomes crystal clear that nobody wants to read my book.

Happy reading.

*My friend, Greek, joked that he had never read a whole book until he finished mine in four days. JD joked that he didn’t know how to read, but finished my book in a week.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dudes of Cancer: Monsieur October

Joe Torre

Many don't realize that Joe Torre was a nine-time All-Star, as well as a National League MVP during his playing days, once even batting with a .363 average. Additionally, most don't realize how poor he was in his early years as a manager, leading his teams to a 47% win percentage.

And then he managed the Yankees for 12 years: Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Ruben Sierra, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Jorge Posada, Cecil Fielder, Kenny Rogers, David Cone, Jeff Nelson, Andy Pettitte, Dwight Gooden, David Wells, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, Orlando Hernandez, David Justice, Jose Canseco, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Kenny Lofton, John Olerud, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Johnny Damon, Roger Clemens, and Mariano Rivera. With the Yankees, he ticked off 1,173 managerial wins with a 61% win percentage, and a 4-2 World Series record. He'll be regarded as one of the best managers ever. I'm not saying anything. I'm just saying.

Torre was surgically treated for prostate cancer in 1999. Despite his Yankee affiliation; and his shit-talking about poor, innocent, young, stupid, naïve A-Rod in his recent book; and that he turned down a $5 million contract to manage the Yankees in 2008 (which would have made him the highest-paid by $1.5 million) because the offer was beneath him, we are still happy to have him in the Survivor's Club. Additionally, Pfizer would be happy to have Torre advertise Viagra, as ED is an unfortunate side effect of prostate removal. Personally, I would love to see 70-year-old Torre in ExtenZe commercials, or at least see Torre fight Jimmy Johnson for the spot.

Postscript: Notice the November 4 time stamp for Monsieur October. Clearly I did this on purpose as a post-Halloween "trick."
Baseball manager Joe Torre survives cancer

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