Sunday, September 28, 2014

Derek Jeter Taught Me How to Survive Cancer

I was 16 years old. I hated talking to girls and other emotional and fearful situations, and I loved imagining talking to girls and being a good kid and sports. Derek Jeter taught me how to survive cancer in October 2000, the month after I was diagnosed and began treatment, and 11 months before finishing it.

Cancer consumed my left ilium, so I couldn’t play. And chemotherapy had killed nearly all of my white blood cells, so I couldn’t visit friends. And chemo also had killed half of my red blood cells, so simply standing up made me dizzy. But I could still begin the first Saturday of October the same way I would had I not had cancer, by watching College GameDay on my favorite couch in my parents’ rec room.

I remained on the couch through the Miami-Florida State “Wide Right III” game, and through part of an extra-innings National Leagues Divisional Series playoff baseball game. I finished watching that 13-inning game on a 13-inch television at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on my retractable hospital bed, after my doctor admitted me with a fever and neutropenia.

The next day: NFL pregame show and two afternoon games. NIH did not offer cable television, so I could not see NFL Primetime and Sunday Night Football; I could not complete my 13-hour NFL Sunday ritual. My dad recorded them and brought the tape the next day.

When cancer took control of much of my life, I retained the things I loved—most notably, sports. I watched every televised college and pro football game and baseball playoff game (except those I missed while at NIH), including most of the Yankees' 16 games. By the time Derek Jeter and his Yankees won the World Series three weeks later, I learned when my blood cells would rise and fall; how I’d feel and where I’d be on any specific date; how to transform anger and sadness into motivation; how to believe that cancer would never change me. I learned so much about surviving cancer that I had become the self-proclaimed Greatest Cancer Patient Ever; I had become Superman.

Today, after 20 seasons on the Yankees, Derek Jeter played in his final game. Sports fans across the country are remembering Jeter. They are sharing what Jeter means to them, like the 36-year-old man who feels that Jeter’s retirement represents a piece of his youth dying. Jeter is also sharing how grateful he is to New York City.

I may have retained more vivid memories during October 2000 than any other period in my life, which makes that month historical and important to me. I connected that month’s activities with learning how to survive cancer. Like he has represented his sport, adopted city and team—and youth—Derek Jeter represents one of my life’s most important lessons. Though I will never forget it, I am grateful that I no longer need that knowledge.

Benjamin Rubenstein visiting Yankee Stadium in September 2009
My dad and me at Yankee Stadium, September 2009


Dad said...

Beautifully written account of your visit to Yankee Stadium and inspiring story of the importance Derek Jeter had on your battle with cancer. I suggest that you send your blog to Jeter. He will be grateful knowing he has provided some motivation to your survival of cancer.

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Thanks, Dad. I'm going to tweet the story to the Yankees and others who may enjoy reading it.