The Way Cancer Has Shaped Me

Brian Sluga

Looking back on my experience with testicular cancer at a young age, I realize that cancer didn’t define me — it helped shape me.
Illustration of a man with blond hair and rectangular glasses wearing a black t-shirt, smiling.

My personal experience brought to life the all-pervading turbulence of testicular cancer. A harrowing impact on a youth. Turns out, that there was only one question for me: how to go about living? During this time, my mind had the capacity to understand the force of cancer and the limits of humans to affect outcomes, but I was not prepared for what it would do to my mental state of health.

At times, the culmination of pure exhaustion left me crumpled in bed. How could I continue with the daily routine? I was 20 years old, so I decided to concentrate on sleep, running, eating and studying. And that was OK, sometimes. It taught me that life’s simple pleasures can be a routine; going into auto-pilot wasn’t a bad thing.

After running ten extra miles each week and a few sleepless nights along the way, I decided I needed a goal, which was to run a marathon. Feeling better and cancer-free was what I wanted. My strategy was to start by learning the fundamentals of my body and nurturing it. I did worry that every little ache and pain meant the cancer was back. Those days when I was in and out of my cancer testing, I was always pushing my limits and trying to get back to where I once was as an athlete.

Several months of stretching my running distances and being given “clear” signals from my doctors gave me confidence in understanding what my body was telling me. I got around to confronting my running habits. I remembered Coach Mac from my high school days always saying, “Sluga, Keep your arms down! Forge ahead!”

My social circle remained a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. I kept my business of knowing where I was going to myself. I tossed away all the grudges and all the negativity that overwhelmed my life. I came to realize not everyone needed to know about my cancer survivorship. I was like a tree. I nourished myself every day and grew.

Not everyone saw how much I grew, but I did and learned that friends and family helped me become positive.

After all these years, that familiar feeling I once had during my freshman year of college has come back. That feeling of power and health. Health, not only in my body but in my mind. My faith as a Christian helped me know I was never alone. Through the years I have seen the sun going down at the end of the day. Like the sun I may be down but will rise tomorrow. God’s grace helped me understand that I was not defeated.

I learned life goes on, and not as I had planned on making my own decisions and that taking risks were part of the plan. I did fail at times. I changed my college major five times over ten years and partied more than I care to admit. It was all about trying to find meaning in life. I ended up discovering my gut instinct (God) doesn’t lie.

It led me to believe in myself and my abilities. I could set lofty goals and achieve them. Trust yourself!

In contemplating the way I have become, I realized cancer did not define me, but it shaped me. I have a grand lifetime of being with great supportive friends, family, colleagues and the love of my life. That’s not such a terrible position to be in. Oh, and anyway, I’m learning more every day and still growing like a palm tree.

Readers, reflect on how you coped during recovery from illness:

Have you set goals?
Did you go into auto-pilot?
Are you still there or taking calculated risks?
What failures have taught you the most?

See Lori’s blog.

Imposter in the Woods
by Lori Goshert

The call of a cardinal echoes through the trees. A brown anole skitters up a palm trunk, pausing to listen and bob her head.

With one finger jammed between the pages of my book to mark the place, I crane my neck to peer under the lounge chair, seeking the fat brown ant that disappeared underneath. I examine the back rails to make sure the insect is not making her way toward me, and I shake out my discarded shoes. I regard the jumping spider on the arm of the chair with suspicion—I do not fear spiders, but the unpredictability of jumping insects and arachnids unnerves me. I like knowing where things are and where they are going. Especially if they’re creepy.

I consider myself a lover of nature, even presuming to write about birds and environmental issues. But I keep nature at arm’s length—a long-distance romance.

I devour documentaries of faraway rainforests, reveling in the flight of scarlet and green parrots and the majestic decisiveness of jaguars. I will never visit them, but to ensure their survival, I place my pen, my time, and sometimes my wallet at their service. The oxygen those trees exhale makes my life possible, and their destruction is my own.

The only reason I’d leave the convenience of an urban apartment for a house would be to plant fruit trees and let my lawn burst with food for people and pollinators rather than grass. But I know myself—I would rather suffer jury duty or fold laundry than dig in the dirt, where I’d encounter wriggling earthworms. And the very thought of bugs on my skin makes every hair stand up.

There is much in the city to feed my love of nature: The moss hanging from the southern live oaks. The barred owl behind our building periodically calling “Who cooks for you?” I long to answer him, but he stubbornly refuses to show himself for a real conversation.

The wonders of our national parks call to me, and I long to visit and marvel in the august presence of ancient trees, mirror-still mountain lakes, and multi-pigmented rock formations. But when the sun goes to bed, let me bask in the glory of indoor plumbing, snake- and insect-proof doors and windows, and the promise of morning elixir from the venerable coffeepot. (Though a  voice in the back of my mind scolds me, saying I should know how to “rough it.” For the future, when we’re all living in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower.)

Am I an imposter, then, when writing about nature issues? I ask myself that each time I lift my pen to extol the delicate beauty of a green heron, the still vigilance of a lizard, or the mossy fairy-tale shape of a live oak. Yet I continue to look for that owl—through my apartment window—and to write about him and his bird friends.

For the people of Ukraine:

Declaration of Interdependence

On this day
of celebrating
I declare
a new truth
to be held
created free,
on each other;

I declare
what defeats
and hurts
any human,
also defeats
and hurts me;

I declare that
in any corner
of Earth
the air of the
whole planet,

and I declare
that one day
the uncontrolled
of anguish
from those yearning
to breathe free
may vanquish
all of us

unless we free
to declare
on this Day
of Interdependence:

“No one is safe
until all of us are safe
and no one is free
until all of us are free!”

Joe Pacheco