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Lessons Cancer Taught Me + Best of the Web

by Garrett Fleming

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In March of this year as I showered one day, I found a lump in my neck. *Pop!* Overnight, it was there. It sounds strange, but I immediately knew something was wrong. I can’t tell you why, but something inside me just kept saying, “This is bad.” A week passed and no change. Concerned, I started seeing doctors and was told several times that I had a bacterial infection and they’d soon cure it. But my lymph nodes weren’t slowing down. A week or so later on my morning commute, I casually itched my neck. Two more lumps. Anxiously I texted a friend, hiding behind sunglasses in hopes of covering up my tears. What was happening to my body? Why so fast? I wanted time to stop. To rewind. Luckily, my medical team quickly found out I had a very aggressive, yet thankfully very curable, form of lymphoma. Teary-eyed, I asked the doctors what lymphoma was, unclear about my diagnosis. Blood cancer. That’s what it was.

Now that I’m halfway through treatment, those first few days after being diagnosed feel like a lifetime ago; feel like another me. I’m handling chemotherapy well though, and thankfully it’s extremely likely I’ll be in remission around New Year’s. I often daydream about that day, curious as to how I’ll react when I hear the news. Part of me is fearful to go alone because if it’s positive, I want a big celebratory hug. But I also fear I’ll still have tumors and that I’ll disappoint anyone that comes with me to the appointment. This last bit may sound strange, and to be totally honest, I wasn’t expecting to feel that way either. At this point, I should know better, though. The journey I’m on to recovery has me feeling all sorts of new things and keeps throwing me for a loop at every turn. Some days are tough, but on the plus side, every day it reveals to me something about myself, true love and mortality that I hadn’t known before. Cancer’s taken so much from me, the least I can do is take these lessons from it in return. So thank you, lymphoma. Thank you for all you’ve taught me.

Accepting Love without Conditions: There are times I feel so guilty for being ill. There are even moments when I want to keep how I’m emotionally or physically handling my cancer a secret, sure it will keep my closest family and friends from worrying all night. But they just keep trucking along with me, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t always have to be the happy-go-lucky Garrett. I can be the sick Garrett, the sad Garrett and the meditative Garrett I naturally am, and they’ll still be there to help me fight. You’re always stronger when you let others in and allow yourself to bask in unconditional love.

Focusing on the Now: Cancer is not just about going in for chemotherapy. There are probably a dozen appointments in-between each treatment. And each one has the potential to derail your ever-tentative recovery calendar. Cardiologists, ophthalmologists, the works. I hadn’t realized prior to my diagnosis how vital and intertwined the lymphatic system and the rest of your body truly are. I never know what my next appointment will hold and I often lie awake at night wondering what the doctors will say. I’m learning to live in the moment, though. NOW I feel good. NOW I have energy. NOW I can go shopping when I want. I’m currently feeling the best I have since I started, and I’m determined to not worry about the rug being pulled out from under me.

To Feel is Not to Be Weak: In our hyper-masculine culture, us men are taught not to cry. Be tough. To those who say, “Man up,” I say eff off. I cry. I cry a lot. And I’m learning not to feel bad about it. I feel better for it actually. There were times not long ago when I would hide away in the guest bathroom late at night, sobbing into tissue. The release is a much needed catharsis I didn’t want to bother anyone else with. “They need sleep,” I’d tell myself. “Don’t bother them.” As I get more comfortable showing how cancer is truly affecting me, I’m also learning how lucky I am to have those that let me feel without judgement. They’re truly teaching me to be at one with my feelings. —Garrett

 

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  • Treat Your Feet: The latest footwear collection by SoukBohemian features patterns in rust, black and white hues. Plus, they’re all handmade by Mexican artisans.
  • Fall Cooking: I tried out this parmesan-roasted acorn squash recipe this week, and whoa, was it delicious.
  • Kitchen Refresh: Friend to D*S, Dabito of Old Brand New recently renovated his Aunt’s kitchen and the plant-filled, sunshiny results have me missing summer.
  • Handmade Halloween Treats: It’s never too early for a little Halloween sugar rush. These homemade Butterfingers taste almost exactly like the real thing. The secret? Melted candy corn.
  • Mid-Century Must-Have: Other Times Vintage is a fabulous go-to for all manner of vintage decor. This pair of mid-century cowhide sofas takes the cake. Now if I could only find a spot for them in my new apartment…
  • Daily Affirmations: Alexandra Smith’s Instagram is not only a beautifully-curated peek inside her life as a mother and wife, but it’s also peppered with inspiring, self-affirming poetry and tidbits sure to put a swagger back in your step when you’re feeling a bit low.

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Comments

  • I’m so sorry to hear that you have been sick. Thank you for sharing your story. Very best wishes for your treatment and recovery.

  • Get well soon! I completed chemo for my lymphoma in January 2016. I was surprised how quickly it went and also surprised that I had a hard time relaxing vigilance even when told I was in remission. But I’m back to almost normal now and wish the same for you!

  • 30 years ago this month, I was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma (Hodgkins). I, too, found a lump by my collarbone around the same time I was noticing itchy feet. I was a busy young mother at the time and was stunned that I could be so ‘sick’ while I felt fine. After a year of chemo, I have never looked back. It’s a shocking diagnosis but I want to send you, Garrett, all best wishes for a successful treatment and a long, happy life. You will probably find it to be much richer and more appreciated after this experience.
    And to anyone else reading this, seemingly small symptoms can be warning signs of serious illness. If anything is out of the ordinary for more than a few weeks, have it checked out. It could mean your life.

  • This will insprire so many! You have such a way with words which brings peace to my spirit, I love what you say about accepting unconditional love and learning to live in the Now. It’s truly an art form! Thank you for being so courageous!

  • Hang in there! I finished chemo for Hodgkins lymphoma back in May and even now have similar feelings to what you describe – I still worry about every doctor visit and what every test holds. But your outlook and mindset is an asset. One day at a time, we get through this!

  • While I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, Garrett, as you know and say here, this is an opportunity to take stock, to think, to love and to let people help you. That last was something I found quite hard to learn. I had 5 months of chemo for stage 4 lymphoma this year and am presently recovering from the odd side effects of that but I am also completely grateful for it. The chemo completely zapped the tumours. I am so totally grateful that there exists this weird kickass cocktail that has saved me. I wish you a very good recovery. Thanks so much for writing about this xx

  • I just have to say, I read this and I loved everything you said, especially the part of To Feel Is Not To Be Weak. I clicked onto the box to write a comment, trying to explain all the emotions this brought up for me. Then something inside my head said, “you’re being weird and creepy, he doesn’t know you.” So I cut my thoughts short and quickly just sent “love.” And now, as I am sitting here, I am like “damn it! why do we all worry so much about being human with each other?! Maybe it’s okay, even if we don’t know each other, to feel for each other. More than okay, it’s the way it should be.”
    So yes, there is so much love right now. And it is a deep love, human to human.

  • Garrett I’m so proud of how you have handled this crisis. You are one strong human being and I’m so proud to call you my nephew. You’ve taught this family a lot by showing what a strong man you really are on this beast we call cancer. I wish this was over like I know you do. All I can do is keep you in my prayers. You know Becky and I are just a phone call away. If you need anything please let us know!!! All our love unc ran

  • You are an inspiration to all of us to live in the now! Best wishes to you for a full recovery and an even fuller life! You’ve got this Garrett!! Much love to you dear!

  • You go Garrett! Appreciate your honesty about such a complicated topic. Not an easy thing you’re going through. Be well.

  • Sending you all the possible best wishes! My life was derailed by a major illness in March, so this particularly resonates with me… but these are valuable lessons for all of us. Here’s to a full recovery.

  • Garrett my husband and I have been in hell for the last 9 months. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer and had a 10 hour surgery. They found more cancer about 3 months ago and he also had to have chemo. The most important thing I learned was someone has to be an advocate for the patient and that was me. I was the one that questioned everything. I wrote everything down. When they called from the hospital, I stayed on the extension and wrote all the instructions down and that helped tremendously. When we didn’t know why they were doing something, we made them stop and explain it. Anyway the last scan showed no cancer and we will be forever grateful. Almost everyone at the hospital was wonderful but there were a few that were not and I stood up for my husband because he couldn’t. I will keep you in my prayers.

  • Thank you for your transparency and incredible perspective. You’re this with grace, humility, and vulnerability – only good things can come from that, despite the difficulty of this time. Wishing you continued progress on this journey, strength, love, joy, and soon…remission!

  • Garrett, it’s always been evident how much care you take with your work here at DS, and I really enjoy reading your posts. I’m so, so sorry for the circumstances that prompted this one. As others have said, you’ve shown such grace, humility and vulnerability in how you’re handling and learning from this experience. I sometimes worry that when people are going through difficult illnesses like cancer, they feel pressure to always be that way. Cancer and chemo are so hard, and I hope that you’re able to be extra kind and forgiving to yourself for those very human moments when you aren’t feeling particularly graceful, when you feel not just sad, but maybe grumpy or downright angry. The people who love you will understand. Best wishes to you as you move through the second half of treatment towards remission!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      This is a great reminder. I truly appreciate it. You’re right. They’ll understand.

      -Garrett

  • Please, I have a question that I would love some answers to. My son, who is 18 years old, was born with a vascular haemagenoma. Basically, it is a raised growth that covers the back of his left leg and it behaves like a benign tumor and is painful. He has had numerous surgeries to remove it, with hurdles along the way. He is an easy going kid generally. Doesn’t complain about his condition. But his medical condition has changed him. He is not very tolerant of individuals who complain about things that he considers insignificant and he has become a little bit cynical. Has anyone else experienced anything similar? I would love some feedback as I know he doesn’t want to worry us, his parents, and sometimes I think he may be withholding his fears, concerns, annoyances etc. Thanking you in advance.

    • Hi Selma,

      I have struggled with the same feelings at times! I totally get it. ON one hand you’re told that this is a time to be selfish and focus on getting better. On the other hand you have to get out of your own head at times and focus on others. Sitting at dinners with friends I’d wonder why we were going on and on about something that seemed to trivial given the suffering and pain some others are going through. I simply remind myself that anxiety and pain are relative. One person’s simple annoyance can be another person’s nightmare. I also think back on everything my friends and family have done for me and it helps to trigger me back into being there for them when they need me.

      -Garrett

      • Dear Garrett, thank you for your reply, it is warmly appreciated. Your comment that “anxiety and pain are relative and that one person’s simple annoyance can be another person’s nightmare” resonated”. It is something that I will ask my son to take with him and ponder upon when he is becoming less tolerant of others. I am hoping that as he matures and experiences life, that he will come to not just know but truly understand that every soul experiences hardship. From the depths of my heart, I wish you a full recovery and a continued life filled with love, family, friends and all that gives you joy. Warmest regards, Selma.

  • I am so sorry to hear you are ill. Please realize how much of a gladiator you are for beating this. And in any moments of doubt if you ever feel alone, sick, and tired, remember that there is a community of people here who are cheering you every step of the way.

  • You’ve got this Garrett! I’ve been there too! Dec 31, 2017 will be the 5 year anniversary of my last chemo for Hodgkins Lymphoma. I totally relate to everything that you’ve said here. I always wondered how I would react to the news and was somewhat surprised at the calm that came over me. There is nothing like the big “C” word to show us what we are really made of and to show us what is important in life. Cheers to you!

  • Garrett, thank you for sharing, both your photo and advice. I always enjoy your posts, and appreciate hearing more about the person behind them. Of course, I wish you weren’t having to deal with all of this right now!

    The sad honesty of these lines is really sticking with me: “Part of me is fearful to go alone because if it’s positive, I want a big celebratory hug. But I also fear I’ll still have tumors and that I’ll disappoint anyone that comes with me to the appointment. This last bit may sound strange, and to be totally honest, I wasn’t expecting to feel that way either.” <3 <3

    I wish you the best, in illness and treatment and beyond!

  • Garrett thank you for sharing. I was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer and am currently undergoing chemo and radiation treatment. So many things you shared I have felt and it is a relief to know I’m not alone in those feelings. Love and positive vibes to you during your treatment and beyond. You are strong and amazing!

    • Hi Carissa,

      Another thing I have learned throughout this process is that anything I’ve felt someone has felt before. It’s reassuring and has made me feel more comfortable with my true feelings. You are NOT alone!

      -Garrett

  • Garrett, thank you so much for sharing this. I am a young mom that has had a long summer of dealing w melanoma. I don’t even like writing it out becaus that alone brings so much anxiety. I just want you to know that you are not alone in your feelings. I don’t know if you’re at all religious but someone sent me Psalms 91 to read and i have read it over 100 times since. “His word is my shield” has been my mantra through everything. I hope it can bring you some peace as well. Much love to you. Xo

  • Garrett,
    You are such a talented, wonderful, and inspirational individual. I remember when we started emailing each other back in April and you told me you were battling this diagnosis.
    You said , “not too worry and that you would be fine”. I was so touched when you said that. I can’t imagine what you are going through , but I know what it is like to spend time in the hospital with a special baby. The last thing I wanted was someone to pity my child or our family. You have the strength to get through this and that makes a difference. I complety agree to be your best or worst self, let it out , and ride the roller coaster of emotions…. It’s natural and the heathy way to handle this! People can crash from holding it all in or pretending to be something they aren’t. You’re great and you’re doing great ! You’ll have a great story and other people to inspire after this all. XO Rachel

    • Hi Rachel,

      I LOVE what you say here about riding the roller coaster of your emotions. Its a wild one and I’m slowly learning to.

      -Garrett

  • What a wonderful post. I wish you all the luck in the world for a full recovery. My sister is currently going through this too. x

    • Hi Fiona,

      I’m so sorry to hear your sister’s going through this. If she needs anyone to talk to let me know and I’ll DM you. I’m happy to help any way that I can!

      -Garrett

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