Guest blogger: Jothy Rosenberg
“You have zero chance of survival.”
That is what my nineteen-year-old brain heard in 1976, as my doctor told me that the cancer that took my right leg three years previously had now spread to my lung, two-fifths of which had also just been removed. What I believe he really said was, “No one has ever survived once this type of cancer spreads through the bloodstream.” That was over thirty-seven years ago. I survived. And then some.
Cancer had left me with three disabilities: the visible one (leg), the invisible one (lung) and the psychological one. Well, then there was a year of intense chemotherapy to come next. As soon as the chemo regimen ended — injections of four different drugs for five straight days, then three weeks off, to repeat again for a year — I determined that I was going to drop out of college, drive west to Utah from Detroit, and become a ski bum until I died.
I saw a romantic appeal in the idea that I would ski until I dropped dead. They had made it clear that I had zero chance of survival based on the old way of dealing—or not dealing—with the cancer once it had spread to the lung. They had high hopes for the chemotherapy, but they did not know for sure it would work. I had gone three years thinking all their tests were just a formality and that nothing bad would happen. Now that something bad had happened, I was no longer the optimist. But I wasn’t fatalistic either.
At nineteen, it’s hard to shake the fundamental belief that you are immortal. But if I was going to die, I wanted to accomplish something that was truly important to me first. I wanted to be so good at skiing on one leg that people would just say, “Gosh, he’s a great skier,” not “Wow, he’s good, considering.” I knew it would take many days of skiing, focusing, and working hard to eliminate that word. I needed to improve my balance through the bumps. I needed to take my strength and endurance to an entirely new level. I wanted to be able to ski steep and deep with the best of them. Most of all, I wanted to dramatically refine my skills so my turns were symmetrical, crisp, and fast. In the meantime, I would be doing something I loved, and after the year I had just had, I needed that more than anything.
I skied 100 days straight with no breaks that season. I accomplished all my skiing goals. The snow melted and I was not dead, yet. So I decided to finish college after all. A year later I was graduating from college and I was still not dead. Heck, I thought, what do I do now? So I went to graduate school and got a PhD in computer science. The specter of imminent death gradually began to fade and I somehow learned to look to the future. I married the woman who 30 years later is my wife, we had two kids who are gown now. I became a serial (risk-taking, imagine that!) entrepreneur who has started seven high-tech start-ups to date.
How did this happen? Was it the chemotherapy? Excellent medical care and vigilance? Was it my attitude? We do not know for sure. But the answer is probably all of the above. The part you have most control over is attitude. Stephen Hawking, the world-famous physicist and bestselling author who, at age twenty, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), has spent almost fifty years in a wheelchair. He spoke frequently about the attitude that has sustained him. “It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability,” Hawking said in a 2005 interview with The Guardian newspaper. “One has to get on with life, and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
I fought to live with all my being. I used sports, like skiing, to build back self-confidence so essential to a healthy life. I added biking and open water swimming. I kept very fit and I felt driven to live to the maximum because I was never sure how long I had. I have never lost that basic trait. I think in moderation it’s a very good trait for a cancer survivor to have.
Remember, if you think something seems “Impossible”, you just might be spelling it wrong. It’s spelled “I’m possible”.