by Matthew Walsh (1987-2007)
This essay first appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, 2006 Edition.
Life comes down to one thing. Of course, I am speaking of experience. Don’t we all share our life stories about our experiences? For me, the experience of being diagnosed with cancer shaped me as a person and played an enormous part in how I live my life.
Last year, in December, results came back positive, which meant I had malignant melanoma (skin cancer). Initially, I wasn’t upset because I assumed something as little as skin cancer could be treated. Well, I soon found out that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. Suddenly, things were not okay anymore. I think my reaction was typical of most people’s reactions. I’ve spent my life with the crazy mentality that nothing bad would ever happen to me. “No, I can’t have cancer; I’m not the type of person that gets cancer!” It’s ironic and, in a morbid way, kind of funny. We’re all aware of experiences that can occur within our lives, yet we always seem shocked when they actually happen.
First, let us flashback to two summers ago. At the age of seventeen I was what you would call your average teenager. I hung out with friends, went to parties, and genuinely had a good time. I was an active student in my high school. For two years I was the president of the key club, and I spent four years as an active member of the high school drama club. Although my academics were never very strong, I was still a well- rounded individual. Like most kids my age, I just wanted to have fun. Then everything changed with one small mark on the center of my back.
I still remember the day like it was yesterday. My sister and I were just about to jump into our brand new pool on one of the hottest days of the summer, when all of the sudden my sister turned to me and asked what was on my back. At this point I was aware of this growth, but honestly never gave it a second thought. Soon after, it seems like everyone in the family wanted to see it. Everyone seemed to have their own opinions of what it was, or could be. Stupidly, against the advice of all of my sisters, I let it go. There was a new mole on my back that I had never seen before, and I just let it go. To this day, I wonder if my life would have been different had I checked it sooner. A month later, the mole had grown and was now raised off the skin. This was cause enough for concern. At this point, I wasn’t familiar with what this could mean; the words skin cancer meant nothing to me. A quick trip to the local doctor and the mole was removed, never to be seen again. The doctor himself, whom I’ve been seeing my entire life, even was pleased with everything. However, procedure dictates that all removals are sent to a lab for further testing.
Now, skipping a few weeks ahead, I’ll always remember being in class when my mom called my cell phone. “But, this makes no sense—she knows I am in class. Why is she calling me?” To me this meant something was wrong. I actually snuck out of class, found a hidden spot, and called my mother. “Damn it,” there was no service in the building. But I heard a voice mail that changed everything. “Matt, it’s Mom. I need to bring you to the doctor’s straight after school. The mole might not be nothing.” Now, imagine hearing that on just a normal of school. Then out of nowhere a teacher came looking for me and asked if I was Matthew Walsh. He told me that there was an emergency call at the office for me. Of course, it was my mother. So, we went, and to make a long story short, that told me it was melanoma. But there was no cause for concern: it could be removed; they just needed to do some routine surgery to remove the surrounding skin.
This already was an experience I didn’t want. Well, afterward, two more surgeries were required because the cancer spread in my body and got my lymph nodes. Believe me, this made my past year one from hell! After the surgeries, which were spread out over six to eight months, I had to start chemotherapy. To give a sense of how tough this has been, let me just say that to this day I still receive chemo three times a week. The first month I had to leave school every day and go sit in a chair for hours on end. Suddenly, I was forced to grow up! This meant no more fun at the school lunch table, but a lonesome lunch at the doctor’s surrounded by much older and sicker patients. For a month I did that every day. Although it may not seem long, it felt like forever. Now I go three times a week just for a quick shot. It all wouldn’t be too bad, but the side effects are awful. They have calmed down quite a bit from the beginning, but they still really bother me. The best way I can describe it is like having constant flu. We all know the feeling: lightheaded, hot one minute, cold the next. Your body is shaking uncontrollably and you can’t do anything about it. Well, I had that feeling every day of the week. I had a flu that just wouldn’t go away.
I guess you just start to get used to it, but some things you never get used to. For instance, my immune system is a lot weaker than my peers’, so my doctor told me if my friends even had colds, I couldn’t be around them. I was never to share a drink or anything with anyone. All of this is still true today. I just get sick too easily. The worst part is that the chemo attacked my thyroid. This caused me to get very rundown, to the point where I walk a flight of stairs and I’m ready to pass out. I have difficulty breathing. Plus, I am now on so many medications that it does a number on my stomach, and eating isn’t easy.
I can honestly say I hate it. I hate that I can’t be a kid, and I hate that this disease chose me. I hate that I can’t even run around with my little one-and-a-half-year-old nephew without needing to rest every minute so I don’t fall over. One thing I will say though is I don’t regret any of it. This has been an awful experience, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. However, because of this downfall, I have grown up so much and learned so much about myself and my own family. I know I am very strong, and I have people around me who care for me more then I would ever know.
If I have learned one thing, I can say it is that anything is possible! I learned that due to experience. As a people, we need to realize that nothing is guaranteed to us. Think about it, the only thing anyone is really promised is death. It is gloomy-sounding and unfortunate, but true. I’ve learned not to take life for granted. Now, that’s not to say I feel I’ve been reborn and live each day to its fullest potential. However, I can say my eyes are a little clearer. I do recognize the fact that each day is a gift.
The most important thing I’ve learned it is to be grateful for my life. How many people actually sit down and say, “Wow, I’m lucky to be here!”? I’d be willing to bet there aren’t too many. So you see, experience shapes who we are. Again, having cancer hasn’t totally altered my mentality on life, but the experience has clearly opened up my mind a bit more. I have been held back, but it has caused me to really think about what I want out of life, and helped me to go for it. The greatest part is that as I sit here, I have only four more weeks of treatment left. I have made it so far, and experience has taught me that I just need to hang on a little longer.