Brian’s Story

As I write this, my incredible wife Catie is a few short weeks away from giving birth to our second child (a son). From the beginning, this pregnancy has been delightfully-almost comically-boring. Of course, everything’s relative…

Our two-year old daughter, Savannah Hope, was conceived (and named) during a very different time. Literally the same week that we learned Catie was pregnant with Savannah near the end of 2007, we also learned that the lumps in my neck were not a product of my imagination. They were malignant, and they had friends.

It turns out that it is relatively easy for the best doctors in the world to diagnose “lymphoma.” However, to pin down exactly what KIND of lymphoma you have, and how to treat it, requires quite a bit of work-even for the veritable medical rock stars at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins? Stage 1, 2, 3, or 4? Slow-growing or aggressive? This type of cell that I can’t pronounce, or that one?

After two or three weeks of poking, prodding, scanning, hand-wringing, and even a little surgery, we had our answer: “Stage 3, Non-Hodgkins, Diffuse Large B-Cell lymphoma arising out of follicular B-Cell lymphoma.” In English, that meant: a slow-growing flavor of lymphoma that was transforming into a more aggressive flavor of lymphoma. “Stage 3” meant that there were cancerous nodes all over my body but, fortunately, nothing had spread to any other organs (which would have been “Stage 4”).

It was now early February 2008, and the plan of attack was (after weeks of uncertainty) refreshingly clear: 5 months of good old-fashioned chemotherapy. I’ll assume that most folks reading this are plenty familiar with the dark side of chemo, so I’ll mostly skip all that. Instead, I’ll cover chemo with four quick observations about what certainly turned out to be, among other things, an interesting experience. In no particular order:

1. As a 31 year old, otherwise healthy guy on chemo, the absolute best way in the world to resist the temptation to start feeling sorry for yourself is to look around at M. D. Anderson and see a 6 year old kid, or somebody’s grandmother, toughing out treatment that is just as bad (or worse) than yours.

2. I am now convinced that it is far easier to be the person physically going through this kind of thing than, for example, to have to be the wife watching her husband or the parents watching their son. When you consider Catie’s pregnancy on top of everything else, her strength and grace during this process were fairly epic.

3. Speaking of parents, when I lost my hair, you would have thought I had won a Nobel prize and was named Super Bowl MVP in the same day, given the pride with which my father gushed about my “nicely shaped head.” Good ol’ Dad.

4. Although chemo often gets a bad name, sometimes it works. Really, really well. For example, I could physically feel certain lumps shrinking after just one round. My scans indicated full remission after just three rounds (which-as you’ll appreciate if you like roller-coaster rides-I found out in my hospital bed the morning after being taken to the emergency room with pneumonia).

People sometimes ask if the cancer experience changed me. My only hesitation in answering that question is that, while I certainly look at the world in a very different way now than I did before this whole thing, it can be difficult to separate out what part of that is due to the cancer, and what part is due to the reward that we received for finishing up chemo in the summer of 2008. That reward looks like me, and she even laughs like me.

That being said, cancer unquestionably deserves credit for its effect on my relationships. New friendships were formed and, perhaps even more importantly, old friendships were rekindled and strengthened. Including, of course, a friend named God.

So here we sit, awaiting our next big gift, in a very different time and place from our last one. I can’t help but think that, while I wouldn’t trade my experiences in 2008 for anything, “boring” is kind of nice too.

My name is Brian Ross, and I am a three-year survivor of Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Category: Faces of Cancer