My crystal ball displays someone familiar—it’s Benjamin Rubenstein, but he’s different. I see him as a junior in high school with a huge He-Bro out on the tennis court. He’s wearing a headband to keep his long, corkscrew curls out of his eyes. Does he know how ridiculous he looks? He’s playing Froddy, who broke another racket. Yep, Ben just secured the number two spot on the varsity tennis team.
Ben is talking to Mr. Spunkmeyer now, requesting a college letter of recommendation. Ben wants to follow his big brother and attend Virginia Tech. His mom pushes him toward the University of Virginia, but his grades are subpar. In the meantime, he’s enjoying high school and doesn’t want to leave. He continues playing neighborhood football after school each day, and still has delusions that he will be a Washington Redskin.
That kid loves his university. He joined his brother’s fraternity and dragged Zeke with him. Like most Hokies, Ben is on the five-year plan and will finish college with a degree in engineering. I wonder if he even realizes how blessed he is, how unbelievably close he was to getting struck with cancer not once, but twice…
My emotions are at war when I focus on my cancer experiences. I’m happy I’m no longer in the hospital. Many of the most draining, boring, and worst days of my life occurred there. But those days have vanished.
I also feel sad when comparing my past and present. I lived with a sense of purpose that is unmatched nowadays. Cancer has given me a new way to view the world, but it’ll never be the same as when I was 16 or 19 years old. Although I assured myself I wouldn't take anything for granted, that’s impossible now that I’m healthy.
While on spring break vacation in Mexico years ago, I attempted something new and frightening—tell my new female friend about my cancers and how they affected me. I wanted to drop my guard, desperately, but I didn’t know how.
When I finally shared with her, I expected to feel invigorated and refreshed, but I didn’t. So, I told a pretty girl that I survived cancer twice, that I endured 15½ months of intense physical therapy in order to walk again, that I stayed in a single hospital room for 65 consecutive days. What did I really accomplish? Just one more person who saw me as the Sick Kid.
The next day when we passed at the pool, I said hello. I wondered how much of our conversation she remembered from the previous night. I wondered how many of her friends she told my story. I wondered if she saw me differently. Did she pity me? If she was interested in me before, did I ruin that by showing her my true self? Did your past define you, and if so, was that my true self? How can some cancer survivors tell everyone while I struggle to tell one? How can I be so good at surviving cancer, yet so bad at discussing it?
My past has caught up with me, and I’m beginning to embrace it. Hopefully I can use my past experiences to live a fuller life in the future.
Though as much as some things change like my willingness to divulge my story, others stay the same. Like when I noticed a strange marking on my rib cage which resembled a bug. I thought an insect burrowed through my skin like in The Mummy and would cause a killer infection. My dad looked at the bug imprint and said, “Didn’t you get a skin biopsy there? It looks like stitch marks.”
Or the time I thought I might’ve had a brain tumor because I felt strange after minor ear surgery. I only felt weird because I had been taking Percocet.
Or the time I lost a memory bet with Bubble and was convinced the radiation caused brain damage, simply because I’ve always had a good episodic memory.
And while on that same spring break in Mexico, I forgot to spread sunscreen on my left shin. The next day it blistered. I remembered reading that one bad sunburn doubles your chances of developing malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
I could already foresee a red spot on my shin 15 years later. It’s expanding at a rapid pace, and I can't slow it down. Eventually it spreads and kills me, all because I forgot to put sunscreen on one small part of my body on one day in Mexico.
More things stay the same. I still can’t listen to country music without remembering riding home in my dad’s minivan after being discharged from the hospital, each song telling a story, a life lesson.
I can’t listen to or watch Rocky without remembering why I kept the soundtrack with me at all times, just in case, how my love for the character will never cease, how “his whole life was a million-to-one shot,” and if he could do it, I could do it, if Rocky could get back up then so could I.
I can't take a drive with the windows down and the stereo on without remembering that first summer of driving freedom at sixteen years old, with my arm hanging out and blowing with the wind, how my friends and I didn't need alcohol or an event to have loads of fun, how just cruising was enough, how that age held such power and promise, how I held such power and promise, how Pre-Cancer Ben was such a quiet and innocent kid who never hurt anybody and didn't deserve to get cancer.
Keep reading: I Am a Cancer Survivor (Part II of IV)