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Illustration by Adam De Souza

I was a really healthy guy. I spent my 38 years doing the things one does to optimize their health. Eat well. Exercise often. I thought of these habits as doing everything I could to increase the probability of a long and healthy life. By all accounts the odds of me developing cancer were extraordinarily low. So when the sore in my cheek turned out to be a malignant tumour, I was shocked. The abstract concept of my life ending suddenly became real. Life is a game of chance, and I was dealt a rotten hand. What I learned from cancer, is that how you play the hand you’re dealt makes all the difference.

My wife and I were desolate for a few days after the diagnosis. The brilliant life we had worked so hard to build for ourselves was in jeopardy. How would we tell our two young boys? Googling “oral cancer survival rate” led to wormholes of negativity best left untravelled. Fortunately, we quickly realized that desolation is a fool’s game when you’ve got a battle to fight. In a tearful conversation late one night, we resolved to change our attitude from “why us?” to “we’ve got this.” That same night, I printed out the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley and kept it with me everywhere I went. I recited the poem to myself in MRI machines, waiting rooms and hospital beds. I always savoured that brilliant finale: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” The poem helped me discover the silver lining of the months of cancer treatment that followed: hospital beds are conducive to deep thought (especially with no visitors, thanks to COVID). The cocktail of anxiety, pain, fear and hope that came with a life-threatening illness narrowed my focus, and led me to some reflections that will shape the rest of my life.

Life is short and unpredictable. In a matter of days, a sore in my mouth upended my life and had me fighting to survive. Life is full of chance and there’s nothing we can do to change that. All we can do is spend the time we have left the way we want. I’ve lived so far believing my supply of remaining time was abundant, not appreciating how quickly that can change. I may have 40 years left to live, but maybe I only have two. This is true for everyone. In either scenario, allocating any remaining time to pursuits I don’t value is squandering my most precious resource. Cancer has brought the brevity of life into clear view. As I’ve progressed through treatment, the initial shock of potentially having my life shortened has been replaced by the feeling that I just don’t want to leave the party – I would miss everyone too much. In the time I have remaining, I know now, more than ever before, that the highest and best use of my time is spending it with family and friends. When I was fighting a battle with the highest stakes possible, I realized they were the reason I was fighting at all.

You’re always luckier than you think. All my doctors agreed that I was unlucky to develop a cancer for which I had none of the risk factors, and at a relatively young age. Immediately after my diagnosis, I agreed with them. Now, with the benefit of months of cancer treatment behind me, I recognize that cancer taught me just how lucky I am. The outpouring of support I received, mostly during COVID stay-at-home orders, moved me to tears on a daily basis. My wife immediately picked up our family and carried us on her back. Volumes could be written on how lucky I am to have her. Our two boys were too young to understand what was happening to their daddy, and their blissfully ignorant playfulness was a constant source of the best kind of comfort. Going forward, no matter how bad my own situation is, I will always consider myself lucky if those boys are happy and healthy. My wonderful close family and incredible friends put together motivational video messages set to the Rocky theme song (a personal favourite). There was so much food delivered to the porch of our house that our freezer was bursting and my family didn’t cook a meal for months. Friends who I hadn’t heard from in years reached out with helping hands. A friend’s mom, who I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade, knit me a quilt. It was like the scene at the end of my favourite Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. The lowest low of my life led me to truly appreciate how lucky I am. All that support helped me believe that even with cancer I have lived, and plan to continue living, a wonderful life.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Cancer treatment takes things from you. It takes some big things, like your health, but sometimes even more painful are the small things. The little pleasures that you take for granted. In the hospital after surgery, my feeding tube prevented me from eating or drinking for 10 days. I missed the sensation of food and drink in my throat. The first sip of hospital-grade apple juice I had postsurgery was heaven! When radiation temporarily took my ability to talk, I missed communicating with people, especially reading bedtime stories to my boys. Try as we might to keep what we have, things get taken from us. This is beyond our control. What we can control is our appreciation for what we have, while we have it. For me, this means slowing down and constantly expressing gratitude for the people and things I have in my life.

What I learned from cancer will guide the rest of my life. I’m optimistic about my prognosis, but the fear that it will recur will be with me forever. That fear can be all-consuming at times, but life is short and I can’t control recurrence. Thinking about it is a wasted pursuit, so I’m determined not to. Instead, I’m focusing on recovering from the toll cancer has taken on me. During my recovery so far, another line from Invictus has been my mantra: “under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed.”

Matt Ferrone lives in Toronto.

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