What's your biggest fear? Being buried alive? Dying alone? A mauling by an enormous swan? Getting cancer? That last one was never on my list of fears—I'm a “buried alive” guy—but then a urologist sat me down in his office and told me the bad news: I had testicular cancer. And Righty needed to come out ASAP.
The first question people always ask is, how did I know I needed to go in? That something was wrong? Let me tell you: you know. I was on a flight back home to L.A. Marley & Me tugged at my heartstrings, but the tears in my eyes were the result of the hellscape in my pants. It felt like someone was slowly squeezing me down there and wouldn't let go. Should I run to the bathroom and check the situation? No chance. I'd chosen the window seat and the big guy on the aisle was fast asleep. It would have taken a feat of in-flight parkour to escape. So I'm trapped, aware that something is wrong, my groin in agony, and I'm stuck in a metal tube for four hours. I stared out the window wondering what kind of evil had seeped into my sack. I crossed and uncrossed my legs roughly a million times, desperately hoping to find a position that alleviated some of the pressure. Nothing worked. Dread set in. It was just me, testicular pain, and Owen Wilson's awful dog training skills until we hit the ground.
When we finally landed at LAX, I felt like Kuato from Total Recall was going to pop out of my scrotum. I sprint-waddled off the plane to call my doctor. Having delicately explained in very general terms that something was very wrong in a very sensitive area, the doctor's receptionist put me through to the doctor, who immediately referred me to the urologist who would go on to administer my testicle's last rites. The following week, I had the first surgery of my life. When I woke up, I was relieved to know that the cancerous testicle was gone, but stunned. I was now permanently unbalanced.
Chemo, The World's Worst Antivirus Software
If you're going to get cancer, testicular cancer is definitely the way to go. According to the American Cancer Society1, if the cancer hasn't spread outside of your scrotum (Stage I), the five-year survival rate is 99 percent. If it travels to your lymph nodes (Stage II), as mine did, that number drops to 96 percent. Not horrible at all. Those are strong odds. Compare that with the survival rate for men with lung cancer (only 15 percent survive beyond five years) and you can find a certain gratitude living here in Halfsack City.
For some people with testicular cancer, losing the offending ball is the extent of the ordeal. For me, it was the beginning. Cancer is an insidious sweaty-faced anarchic hacker in the body. It attacks one system to get in, but then, if you don't catch it early enough, it starts digging around in other parts of you until there are little pieces of its cancer-hacker-code everywhere. You need to run a pretty gnarly anti-virus program to get rid of it, and that program is chemo.
Two weeks after my surgery, I sat down in a giant room full of old people and annoying beeps to start my first chemo cycle. The chemo treatment plan, a blend of bleomycin, etopocide, and cisplatin known as B.E.P. (not a Swedish house DJ collective), is both exceedingly effective and exactly as terrible as you'd expect of a medicinal cocktail that literally pumps liquid platinum through your veins. My treatment was administered in three three-week cycles: five days the first week, then one day in each of the next two weeks. Each treatment lasted five to six hours. and I would sit in a La-Z-Boy-type chair in a large open-plan treatment room alongside at least twenty other people being pumped full of similar chemo meds. I was hooked up to an I.V. drip in my own little semi-private stall, where I'd watch daytime talk shows on a tiny TV or surf the Internet (chemo bonus: free Wi-Fi!), counting down the minutes until I could go home. Every day I wondered if this all could have been avoided if I kept my cell phone further from my nuts (I was told no, but still...). At the end of each three-week cycle, my immune system, suppressed to the point that I competed with AIDS patients for lowest white blood cell count, I felt like shit. What's the opposite of fun? Chemo. Chemo is the opposite of fun.
Life Without Eyebrows
Outside of chemo, you still have a whole life to live. That's the part nobody tells you about. In the three weeks of a BEP chemo cycle, the actual kicking cancer's ass part took up maybe forty hours total. The rest of the time, I enjoyed the weirdest staycation of my life. Cancer became a superpower. It wanted to kill me, sure, but there is no better excuse—to others, and to myself—than cancer. I napped the way Chicagoans vote: early and often. If I wanted to skip an acquaintance's birthday party, I mentioned the crippling effects of chemo. If I felt that smoking a ton of weed would help me briefly forget my cancer to me, I smoked a ton of weed. And then I would binge on a dozen doughnuts, because my nurses implored me to eat whenever I could (and because god bless medical marijuana for giving me back my appetite). Cancer stripped away all of the shoulds and shouldn'ts. I did what I wanted, whenever I wanted—at least when I wasn't puking my guts out from the chemo's side effects.
When you're going through treatment, you only have one job: to get better. For the first time in my life, I wasn't beating myself up about performing at work or finding a girlfriend or staying in shape. Cancer made it okay not to focus on the mundane stuff of everyday life. So I started a podcast. I took walks by myself. As strange as it is to say, cancer—at least my 96 percent survivable form of cancer—let me step back from the grind and enjoy my life a little more.
Of course, I was also nauseous all the time. I couldn't concentrate, which made writing fairly impossible. The full medicine cabinet worth of drugs I'd been given to combat the chemo's side effects made me look like a totally different person. My face ballooned thanks to the steroids. By the end of the second round of treatment, my hair began to abandon me. I would wake up to homemade Furbys on my pillow, so at some point I decided to just shave it all off. Nobody really stares at a bald guy. Plenty of men lose their hair. But let me tell you: people stare when you lose your eyebrows. Don't take your eyebrows for granted, guys. They're a key indicator that you're a human. When you're fighting off cancer, feeling human is really all you want. Normalcy becomes something you crave. Which explains why I went on a date the night before I started chemo.