A piece of advice for when you encounter somebody that has had cancer: Yes, the big C is pretty friggin’ big, and it’s great when you get through it one piece, but I didn’t survive anything, I lived.
Every person with cancer has two options, do what the doctors say or don’t, a.k.a. hopefully live or almost definitely die. That’s not a battle, or some great divine intervention, but rather a rational response to a medical situation based on the advice of professionals with years of experience influenced by amazing scientific discoveries. That’s it.
I’m not special, my living is no greater than my friends that have died, it’s just how it worked out. The suggestion that I won some battle, or beat something, is just telling me that you think that the people who have died from cancer somehow didn’t fight hard enough? That’s bullshit, and you don’t mean that.
One of the first things people ask me after learning I had testicular cancer is, “How did you know?” I don’t mind the question, though I do feel like a “How are you now?” is a better buffer before the nitty gritty. Regardless, it’s a reactionary question; they are asking for their own sake, in the horrible off chance that they too experience a similar situation.
Cancer is one of those ubiquitous words that everybody knows, but few fully understand, and with good reason. Now imagine you’re 30 years old, the picture of perfect health (vegetarian, non-smoker, runner, basically amazing), no family history of cancer, and then WHAM, “You have a tumor in your testicle and need emergency surgery.” WTF?!
Frankly, it started with a pain in my left testicle. At first it was just a bruise like pain, something small. I first noticed it while dancing with friends. The song sounded like it was saying, “Bagel Bites” on a loop, which my friends and I repeated endlessly. How could I notice a little pain with delicious Bagel Bites on the brain?
I distinctly remember this moment, July 27, 2012 at Akbar in Los Angeles, as the last moment that infallible version of myself existed. Everything changed after that, and not for the better.
The pain got worse. Not throbbing worse, just more pronounced. Almost like this bruise was taking over my left testicle, making everything else uncomfortable. I had been in the middle of training to achieve a goal of running the New York City Marathon at 30, so I assumed it was a pulled groin. What else could it be?
Eventually I made an appointment with a doctor, even though the pain had decreased.
“You have to actually have sex in order to get an STD,” I told the doctor after he suggested that the pain was likely chlamydia or gonorrhea. Convinced that I had some sort of latent STD, one that went undetected, I proceeded to get multiple AIDS tests in the week I had to wait to get my blood work back. All came up negative (note the previous lack of sex reference).
I knew it wasn’t good. Everyone assured me that it was probably something small, certainly not a tumor. It was as if everyone was convincing themselves that it wasn’t a tumor, and I was the only one that was in on the secret. I thought about losing my hair because of chemo, losing weight (a plus, I must say), or dying (a big negative). But during this week I couldn’t talk about these feelings because everyone was so busy convincing themselves that it wasn’t cancer.
“You have a high level of HCG in your blood, a hormone usually found in pregnant women, but in men it means likely tumorous activity,” the STD shamming doctor told me over the phone a week later. He said other words, but after “tumorous,” I kinda basically blacked out.
This was August 7, 2012, the day of a really big show I was producing. Nearly sold out, people had flown in from NYC for it, I didn’t have time to think about some bullshit like dying. I kept it together until I absolutely did not keep it together.
In the car on the way to the show, my comedy partner, Bryan, driving, I began to shake. I couldn’t breathe. The tears came. “I can’t do this,” I said as I tried to see straight, but the tears, or anxiety, blinded me. It was as if all the pain from my groin had shot through the rest of my body, causing an explosion of sadness, fear, whatever. Bryan drove in circles, offering to do the show without me, but I managed to pull myself together and not mention a thing about the cancer during the show. I don’t know how I did this.
The next day I went to a urologist. He was going to confirm whether it was a tumor or not. I laid there, the cold hands of a woman rubbing a wand over my balls during an ultrasound, attempting to make jokes.
“Your job is really hands on,” I said. Silence.
After what felt like an eternity, the urologist came in and told me that it was likely a tumor and needed to be removed immediately.
I feel foolish for saying this, but at the time I really didn’t think I would need surgery. I figured that if it were a tumor, I’d start chemo and that would kill it. Losing my testicle was just something that never entered my mind.
The surgery set up for the following day, I left the hospital and immediately ate a burger, because “Fuck it,” right? I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was in a city that would quickly become my home, where I had great friends, yet in that moment I felt totally lost and alone. It was as if I could feel part of myself slowly seeping out of my pores, leaving a shell of the person I once was. Lost, I went to the only place I knew of where I could make sense of everything.
I wandered around Target for a couple of hours, crying, snacking, buying nothing. I must have ate 5 cheesesticks, never purchasing one of them. Nobody stopped me, nobody asked if I needed help, nobody talked to me. In retrospect it was probably because I looked like a dangerous crazy person, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed. There’s something about every Target being exactly that same that is comforting, and with so much about to change so dramatically, I just needed something that never changed.
A whole hell of a lot happened after that, all of which has been very well documented. But this is how I knew that I had cancer. Put more broadly, this how my life changed forever. July 27 to August 8, 2012 is frozen in my memory as the end of infallibility and the beginning of self-awareness. It wasn’t fun, not one fucking minute of it, yet somehow I’m grateful for all of it.
That said, don’t ever offer me a fucking Bagel Bite.