EssayHealth + Wellness

Lessons Cancer Taught Me, Pt. II

by Garrett Fleming

Lessons Cancer Taught Me, Pt. II, Design*Sponge

In the Spring of 2016 I was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that occurs when the body makes too many abnormal lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Over the next 10 months I would spend 100 days living in the hospital, get over 100 shots, have five spinal taps and receive eight, week-long rounds of intensive chemotherapy. You know, just some casual life-changing stuff. Thankfully, in March 2017 all my hard work finally paid off. The cancer was officially gone.

After leaving my last appointment, my guy Aaron and I calmly headed down the street for a well-deserved toast. How odd it was to feel both a part of the crowd and isolated in the halo of this news. Even though I was officially in remission, I still felt like I was trapped between two worlds: that of the healthy and of the sick. The scales were tipping, though. That much I knew as we walked along.

Overlooking downtown Chicago, as the bartender mixed our cocktails, 3 o’clock sun kissed our cheeks and the wooden bar. The joint was next to empty, dinner service was being prepped and we sat tight-lipped.

“You are officially the strongest person I know,” Aaron said, breaking the silence.

How lucky I felt in that very moment. When we first started this journey, we were told 80% of couples don’t make it through a cancer diagnosis, yet here we were having a cocktail and counting my new eyebrow hairs in between sips.

Six months into remission, I’m happy to report we’re starting to get back to normal. We’ve taken trips, eaten lots of sushi (off-limits during treatment) and tossed the meds. Thankfully, more and more days fly by without any mention of my sickness, yet it’s never far from my mind. Oftentimes I lie in bed, and as my thoughts blur and pool like a watercolor, I reflect on the past year and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. And today, on my 30th birthday, I’m happy to share just a little bit of what I’ve uncovered with y’all. When I was diagnosed, my family had a meeting where we frankly spoke to one another about the upcoming year. We acknowledged how tough it would be, and let each other know we were there for one another no matter how challenging it became. More importantly, my parents told my three siblings and me that no matter how we handled it, all would be forgiven at the end of the treatment. You need to yell? You need to cry? You need to get away? You accidentally say something regretful? No problem. Come remission, we’d wipe the slate clean. Doing so allowed us to feel the way we felt, free from worry that it was wrong or inappropriate. It led to a year of honesty the likes of which my family has never experienced.
For someone undergoing chemotherapy, the most dangerous moments aren’t necessarily those when you’re in actual treatment. Sometimes it’s the in-between you have to really worry about. During this lull, the drugs kill both your healthy and cancerous cells, causing your immune system to shrink to nothing. For the next 7-14 days, as your body rejuvenates, you’re highly vulnerable. Enter four awful infections, each of which nearly killed me.

Last September, my weakest moment, I could only cough my way through sentences so I barely spoke for fear I’d never catch my breath again. Unable to walk or breathe without assistance, I laid in the hospital for two weeks as all 145 pounds of me succumbed to strep throat. Yep. Strep throat was taking me out. As I stared out the hospital window, I felt dimmed. My rich black eyes even lightened, as if my body was screaming to those around me what my mouth couldn’t say. Miraculously, the moment I mentally detached from my body signaled the beginning of my recovery. I had to let go in order to keep holding in, let go of my preoccupation with appearing strong, let go of my anger at being what I’d become and let go of my worries I wouldn’t make it. Free from these preoccupations, my mind and body were able to use their strength to heal. We live in a society where we expect people to be bold and take no prisoners. A time when sensitivity equals weakness. I remember watching a local business owner tell an audience of hundreds to never apologize. That to do so in life tells people you’re weak. Lips sealed, I shook my head.

“Sorry” is a powerful word, and one that’s actually caused quite the stir in my relationships. So let’s chat about it. The dictionary defines it as “sympathy with someone else’s misfortune.” I’d oftentimes tell my family and friends how sorry I was that we had to go through this, and they’d almost always get upset. They took it as me feeling like I had done something wrong. What I meant was I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m upset we have to go through this. It was my way of being there with them in the trenches. My sickness was their misfortune. I was acknowledging that. The next time someone apologizes for something that seems out of their control, I urge you to think about what their “sorry” means and why they’d be so quick to take responsibility for it. I bet more times than not, it comes from a place of vulnerability. Tap into that and the two of you will be closer than ever. I was terrified of my biopsy follow-up appointment, the moment that would lead to my diagnosis and end up changing my life. Instead of letting people be there for me, I went to find out the results alone. It was the middle of the workday, the office was still and there I was sitting underneath awfully-bright lights being told I had cancer. I’d been reassured by my doctor the previous week that I just had an infection and not to worry, so I used that as an excuse to go alone. I still should’ve let someone be with me. Instead, stubborn me trekked to my appointment solo. In my case, this signified just how scared I was. If I went alone and didn’t make a big deal out of getting my results, somewhere in the universe something would click, and I’d be fine. If I had just let someone help, the biggest moment of my life would’ve been much easier to bear.
Before I was diagnosed, I was the king of burying my feelings. I’d store them away in a nice lil’ package until they piled up so high they tumbled down on top of me. Since finishing treatment, though, I’ve begun to face my feelings as they come. All I have to do is take a minute, let go of the go-go-go and unpack my feelings as I receive them. This has not only helped me better communicate with those I care for, but it’s also blown back the curtains and forced me to really think about the life I want for myself. I realized I was letting distraction after distraction pull me further and further from my professional and personal goals. Slowly but surely I’m getting back on track.

Cheers to your health! —Garrett

P.S. Read Lessons Cancer Taught Me, Pt. I here.

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  • I’m so glad to hear you’re doing well, and that the horrible stuff is behind you! It’s wonderful you have such a great support system. Wishing you many more healthy and happy years!

  • Garrett, I don’t have any wise or profound words to say in response to your own. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing a piece of your journey with us, and congratulations on being in remission! So many of these lessons, at their core, have to do with being connected – both to others and ourselves without the normal armor we think will shield us from hurt or disappointment. I just read something the other day about how loneliness is almost as deadly as cigarettes. The comments section on the story was filled with people telling stories of loneliness and a yearning for connection. I kept thinking, if so many people are struggling with this, why aren’t we finding each other? We’re lonely and yearning, but so scared, not only to reach out, but also to respond when someone else does. The shields stay up. As I get older, I’m understanding more and more how this armor drags me down in profound ways, and I’m set on shedding it. I think I will print your list and read it to myself every so often as it’s a good reminder of what cultivating vulnerability and connection looks like.

  • Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing. Having just cared for my Dad during his final weeks, your words ring true for the loved ones, the support people, who also face the cancer prognosis.

  • Happy Birthday, Garrett! Thank you for sharing the good news and this thoughtful essay. I especially like what you wrote about the meaning of apologies: “The next time someone apologizes for something that seems out of their control, I urge you to think about what their ‘sorry’ means and why they’d be so quick to take responsibility for it. I bet more times than not, it comes from a place of vulnerability. Tap into that and the two of you will be closer than ever.” YES! for so, so many reasons. I wish you the best of luck, health, and happiness.

  • Firstly, happy 30th birthday – and such a great birthday to be celebrating for all the reasons above! Your written piece here is beautiful and along with everyone else, thank you for sharing and continued fabulous health and happiness. xo

  • Thank you for sharing your story. My mother has cancer and she doesn’t communicate some of these things so well, and your story makes me realize she definitely feeling them and I haven’t been helping. I will work on that. Thank you.


  • Hi Garrett,
    I’m so sorry you had to go through all this and I’m so glad the treatment worked. Thank you for sharing what you learned. I feel like this brings something “real” to all our thoughts of beautiful homes.
    Wishing you good health always.

  • Thank you so much, Garrett, for sharing what you’ve been through.
    Your words show such integrity and connection.
    May your health enjoy the wisdom of your journey!

  • Thank you for sharing this story with us. You are so strong. Health is everything and so many take it for granted. Sending love.

  • Thank you for sharing this. It resonates strongly with me in that a very close family member went through cancer a year and a half ago (unfortunately, she did not survive), and I think that while she likely thought many of the things that you’ve identified here, she didn’t share her thoughts or emotions openly. I often wonder what she would say about her experience if she had lived, and if any lessons would be shared. I think that I’ll now think that she’d have given similar advice. Thank you again, congratulations on being cancer-free, and happy birthday.

  • How wonderful that you are here to focus on what you learned by a life threatening illness. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. May your enlightenment make better and braver persons of us all! Happy Birthday and many happy returns.