by Jeff Haugland
Cancer is hard! Nobody beats cancer. No one wins. There is always collateral damage. And if you are one of the lucky few that survive, you spend the rest of your time wondering if it will rear its ugly head once more. What’s worse is the question that follows, will this be my last? With time, this lingering question of mortality turns into much more of a gift rather than a burden. Life becomes less complicated when you are staring down your own mortality. But make no mistake no one beats cancer. There is always long-term damage that gets carried for whatever time remains.
The first picture was taken 3 years ago, about a month prior to my first melanoma diagnosis and the surgery that followed. This is also the last time I remember being fully immersed in the feeling of the moment. Kennedy, who is always an early riser and very busy in the mornings, decided she wanted to snuggle and watch the sunrise with me. This was the last time I was fully content. This was the last time I was able to enjoy a moment without something in the back of my head pulling my attention away from the present moment. There have been other moments in the last 3 years where I have felt joy… just not fully.
The second picture was taken yesterday, after 3 separate melanoma diagnoses, 3 surgeries, a few weeks of radiation therapy, and about 4 of the 24 months of immunotherapy completed. I couldn’t see the physical toll this has taken on me until these pictures were out side by side. I have definitely felt the emotional toll the last 3 years have stripped away, and I have definitely felt the physical effects of it all. I have observed moments playing with my daughter being replaced with the pain that comes from my body trying to compensate for losing mobility and strength in my dominant side. I have observed the emotional toll that comes from no longer having the physical activities I not only enjoyed but needed for the outlet and physical release of stress and burden. I have seen peaceful moments in our quiet home replaced with paramedics rushing in to assess the long seizures and transport me to the hospital. I am witness to the peaceful moments laying with my wife after our days are done finally holding space for one another replaced by the helpless feeling we both feel as we toss and turn, begging for a few moments of relief. And since immunotherapy started, the simple joy of savoring a meal with loved ones has been replaced by a very conflicted feeling of being so hungry mixed with a total lack of desire to eat due to nausea… Or, the meals being forced down knowing that my body needs the calories after days of not eating, knowing most of it will come back up later… But, I had no idea how much of all this can be seen in my physical appearance. Everything looks and feels so dark, and heavy on the outside… I have lost quite a bit of weight, so much so, that my skin hangs. Most of the nutrients have been stripped away, despite completely modifying my diet to the cleanest, most nutrient-dense meals I have ever eaten. But, this isn’t what concerns me most…
It’s the inside that worries me. On the inside, I feel numb to it all. The inside has been emptied. All of what I used to be no longer remains. What is left? Lots of uncertainty at this point, but hope remains. Each day that passes, steals a little bit more of the joy in each moment. Each day that passes, it takes a little more effort to do the simplest of tasks. The hardest part about this all is that the very treatments that are meant to make you well are the main contributors to each days worsening state. Despite all of this, hope remains. Hope and fucking grit! I know transformation is occurring, and all that no longer serves me must be stripped away. I know the time for rebuilding is coming, but I must be patient and conserve my energy. So, I embrace this discomfort and patiently wait for my time to act. Despite all of this, I AM STILL HERE!
Before the blasts and head trauma, I used to write when I was younger. I was pretty good at it too. Somewhere along the way, I lost the desire. It could be most of my head trauma happened on the creative side of my brain, or it could be my reliance on physical activity was a much stronger release of all that was held within. Since physical activity is limited these days, I have decided to start writing and journaling again. This is my attempt to release what I am carrying. Cancer gives us more questions, than answers. And we are only just beginning. We have 20 months remaining, and I will need every ounce of energy, effort, and focus for what’s coming. Hopefully, writing can release the toxins my cells still carry. Hopefully, with consistency, we can start rebuilding in a different way, while we wait for my body to accept physical activity… But, I am tired of stagnation. I am tired of my life being ruled by the uncertainty that cancer brings. All we have is now. If I can’t run, I can walk. If I can’t walk, I will crawl. The most beautiful part of it all is that I can always write… There is beauty in the vulnerability of it all. I am leaning into beauty wherever I can find it these days. Grit is in every fiber of my soul, but hope can be lost. Discovering life’s many forms of beauty is what keeps hope alive. Within this vulnerability, there is connection. And I am grateful for this beautiful vulnerability that brings us so much connection. I refuse to let this harden who I am, and who I am becoming. Thank you for the beauty of connection in this human experience. Hope still remains… Hope and fucking grit. No more stagnation. All we have is NOW! What actions can we take right NOW to ensure better days are ahead?
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.