“My Voice” by Jasan Zimmerman

Jasan Zimmerman - 'Survivor'

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.  I know, I’m thirty-three years old, nine years into a “career,” but really, I have no idea what the future holds.  Of course, to me, the future is only two or three months down the road, not thirty or forty years.

That’s the nature of having cancer and having a fear of recurrence, of the other shoe dropping.  It’s as unpredictable as a tornado, and also as destructive.  I rarely think about anything beyond the next few months because of the uncertainty of my future.  Something always seems to come up to derail my plans.

I was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at six months and treated with surgery and radiation.  After that, every checkup was normal.  Even though I was marched into the doctor’s office every time I so much as sneezed, I was told there was nothing to worry about.

Shortly before my ninth birthday, I was diagnosed with a benign mass of unknown origin in the lower lobe of my left lung.  Since it wasn’t cancer, I didn’t really worry about anything except when I could get back on the Little League field.  It wasn’t until twenty years later that I found out the gravity of the situation, that the doctors were uncertain for a while if I would make it after having the lobe removed, but that was way after I had developed my fear of recurrence and illness in the uncertain future.

When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  The prevailing theory is that the radiation that treated the neuroblastoma caused the thyroid cancer.  Regardless of the cause, this was the first time that I understood that I was facing my mortality.  My immediate reaction was that I didn’t want to die.  My next thought was that I was going to miss the tennis playoffs.  It was spring of my sophomore year in high school, and I had just moved up to varsity.  Coach told me I was going to play doubles in the playoffs, and I was very much looking forward to the opportunity.  When I asked if the surgery could be pushed back a couple of weeks to accommodate my tennis schedule, the surgeon replied with a curt, “No.”  After the surgery, I found out that he didn’t think I would be a candidate for surgery if we pushed it back two weeks.  He thought I’d be dead.

It was a struggle to go back to school, finish out the school year, recover from the surgery, and then plan for the radiation treatment in the summer.  It seemed like all eyes were on me.  I was the kid with cancer, the one with the big scar with ugly stitches and the whispery voice.  It didn’t help that one classmate made fun of me for having a “Godfather” voice.  It also didn’t help to hear things like, “My grandfather had cancer.  He died.”  Thanks for the help.

My friends and family did a great job of helping ease me back into normalcy.  Some of my friends would come over for an afternoon to play video games or watch baseball, just to hang out.  It’s great to have people behind you, supporting you, pulling for you, willing you to succeed.  The day after I was diagnosed, I met with some friends at school.  We would always hang out by the gym before class at a specific planter determined by some sort of high school hierarchy.  I saw my friend Jeff there and he greeted me with the universal head-nod.  My mom had called my family and the parents of my friends to let them know the news, so Jeff knew already.  I didn’t need to explain anything.  He didn’t make me feel any different.  After greeting him, we went right to cracking jokes, just like any other normal day.

I wasn’t always able to make jokes to cheer me up.  I went into a black hole of treatment and recovery.  I didn’t know it at the time but I’m pretty sure I was depressed.  None of my friends had to go through a life and death situation.  The biggest obstacle in their lives was finishing their homework without my help, or getting some money from their parents to pay for gas.  I couldn’t, or more specifically wouldn’t, talk about it with anyone.  I withdrew.  It lasted for another fifteen years or so.

During that time, I finished college, had a recurrence of the thyroid cancer (treated with more radiation), finished grad school, moved five hundred miles away from home, and started my first real job.  I wasn’t ever really happy though.  I was able to meet and forge great relationships with great people, but I still felt like an outsider.  I couldn’t ever really figure out exactly what was wrong.  I was only able to describe it as “being in a bad mood.”  There was a ubiquitous black cloud over my head.  Colors were muted, tasks were mundane, time passed slower than a tortoise crossing a desert road.  I trudged through every day, trying to find something meaningful.

One day I read an article in the newspaper about a support group for young adult cancer patients and survivors.  I felt compelled to attend a meeting.  I didn’t speak, other than to discuss my health history in as few words as possible, for the first year.  I didn’t find anyone who was in the same boat as me, having been diagnosed so young and having the specter of cancer hang over me for my whole life, but at least everybody had been in a life and death fight.  I could relate to that.

I was also undergoing psychotherapy, and with the combination of that and the support group meetings, my story began to come out.  At first, it came out in fits and starts, but slowly, ever so slowly, I felt the need to share it.  I’ve become involved in the cancer advocacy community and hope that by sharing my story I can provide hope and inspiration to others going through a similar battle.

I don’t remember what it’s like to not have cancer.  I don’t know what it’s like to not worry about having a recurrence or some other complication from the treatments I’ve been through.  I don’t know what the future holds because I don’t know what my future is.  I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, because if I grow up, I’ll have to face my mortality.  I don’t particularly want to do that.  Again.