I still remember getting diagnosed.
It was Monday, April 25, 2011. I was at my doctor’s office around noon for a routine follow-up to a common sports injury.
Next thing I know, I’m getting an ultrasound and no one is saying why. I get told that I need to drive twenty minutes to another hospital for a last-minute appointment.
Fast forward three hours, and I’m still hanging out in the waiting room because, according to the nurse, “The doctor wants to have a long talk with you.”
Finally, around 5:00 PM the doctor knocks on my door and walks in the room. He sits me down and breaks the news:
“You have what looks like a textbook case of testicular cancer,” he said. “We need to move immediately.”
Surviving cancer has been a journey unlike any other I’ve had so far in my young life. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
Here are a few lessons I picked up along the way.
1. Appreciate your ability to experience the world around you.
We go through life constantly worrying about the next thing on our task lists. Wake up, go to classes, go to work, come home, maybe spend some time with friends, Netflix, sleep, repeat. Maybe a couple indulgences here and there.
It’s only when chemotherapy has taken your sense of smell, made everything taste like metal, and has restricted your lifestyle options (no sushi, staying out in the sun too long, etc.) that you realize the world around us is pretty awesome.
It’s full of all these unique smells, tastes, sounds and sights. Appreciate your ability to experience the world around you as often as you can. You never really know when your last time smelling the roses will be.
2. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
Growing up, I relied on myself a lot. Maybe it was the years of playing tennis, or competing as a taekwondo competitor. The mentality that I should be able to do everything on my own is something that was instilled and reinforced in me from an early age. Then I had my cancer surgery.
The day after surgery, having someone help me get out of my wheelchair wasn’t just a courtesy, I needed it. And that certainly wasn’t the last time I needed help.
Lucky enough, there are many people who are willing to help you out in life. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. The world moves forward when those with the ability to open doors help those who need the doors opened.
Remember: if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
3. There’s always a way to take control of your situation.
You will run into hardship at some point in your life. It’s inevitable. When it happens, there are no rules in life that say that you must accept your situation as-is. Like the House of Cards character Frank Underwood once said, “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”
When the doctor diagnosed me with cancer, the next words I remember coming out of his mouth were, “I’ve scheduled you for surgery this Thursday.” He didn’t know when he said it, but that plan wasn’t going to work for me.
At the time, I was involved in a year-long competition run by the American Center for Civic Education. My team had fought our way to the National Finals. Set for that weekend, nothing was going to keep me from flying across the country to compete. Essentially, the conversation went something like this:
Doc: I’ve scheduled you for surgery this Thursday.
Me: Doc… Is there any way we could push this back to after May 5th, please?
Doc: No, it’s urgent.
Me: Okay. If it’s so urgent, can we do it tomorrow morning?
Doc: (confused) What’s so important about Thursday?
Me: Well, you see, I have this academic competition this weekend in D.C…
Doc: You understand what I’m saying, right? You have cancer. This is serious.
Me: What’s your point? D.C. is important too. We can work around the trip.
We moved my surgery to the next morning. I flew out on Thursday to meet up with the team, and we competed our way to a second place finish among the top fifty-six teams in the country.
No matter the circumstances, you always have the ability to take control of a situation and operate on your own terms. It’s just a matter of being persistent, creative, and knowing what you want.
Contributor Raub Dakwale is a Drexel University student, a former international ITF taekwon-do competitor and a stage 3 cancer survivor.