Stage 3: Life After Cancer
Patrick Eck, a teen cancer survivor has eloquently and passionately written about his experience as a young person going through cancer. His story ‘Giving Up the (Cancer) Ghost’ takes us through his personal journey of how cancer affected him and the impact it had on his life. In Part 3, the final part of his story, Patrick talks about his issues with anxiety, body image, eating disorders, stunted ambition and repression of his cancer experience. How did this brilliant young man end up talking at not just one, but numerous conferences with such confidence and insight? Read his story now and find out not only this, but how he has successfully found love and an amazing family life.
I beat cancer and went back to finish the second semester of senior year at St. Monica’s Catholic High School. It didn’t take me long to realize that keeping the brave face on was a lot easier within the confines of my emptied-out room, as opposed to an environment where there are hundreds of other teens and young adults who think the world is judging them for every look, word, movement and decision made. I also wore an invisible thousand pound weight of guilt for all of the trouble I had caused those who wound up on the opposite end of my bullying habits, as they had all welcomed me back into school as a cherished member of their community, as a friend, and even as a hero of sorts. That weighed heavily upon me then, as it does now. I suppose that’s how cancer started haunting me without me knowing it at the time.
Here’s a detailed laundry list of the negative consequences of my cancer treatment that I experienced immediately going back into school, and which stuck with me and sometimes worsened, as I moved up through college and into work life:
- Social Anxiety Disorder: Public speaking became a source of paranoia and I even had difficulty talking with family and friends, as described earlier. As a student at Loyola Marymount University, this made going to class, work, and social events unnecessarily burdensome.
- Body Image Issues: The stark contrast in image between being 205 pounds and 135 pounds triggered very negative emotions.
- Eating Disorder: In response to those emotions, I tried to overcompensate, which led me down a trail of hazardous binge and purge eating. My poor body had already been through enough with the chemo….
- Stunted Ambition: I did not feel compelled to strive for higher levels of accomplishment. I grew scarily content with “just getting by,” which meant I didn’t use my college experience to its fullest potential.
- Repression of the Cancer Experience: Rather than face it head on and take it down, I chose to marginalize my experience as just a bump in the road and never really took the time to understand what it did to me.
That hazardous blend of serious side effects led to a pretty tumultuous developmental road during this particularly important stage of development in my life. It held me back.
So how did I wind up on that stage in Florida?
I finally faced cancer head on. Teen Cancer America helped me do it.
The Child Life Specialist at UCLA when I was undergoing treatment was Hilary Gan, who now currently works at Teen Cancer America and who set me up with the folks at Shire Pharmaceuticals. In 2012, during a routine checkup, she started telling me about how I should join the Teen and Young Adult Advisory Board being set up by Teen Cancer America to help design an age-appropriate social lounge and treatment area at the UCLA Hospital in Santa Monica.
Despite the weight of my reluctance and emotional burdens up to that point, my wife, Ana, had also played a tremendous role in helping me work through some of the more traumatic and severe aspects (Long -but-important aside: Along the way, I managed to stumble upon a gorgeously humble woman who understands and loves me deeply, so I put a ring on her, and she graced me with a ring of my own. Her and I now live happily on the cusp of the blazing, boisterous San Fernando Valley with our baby Max, as well as her beautiful, creative niece, Vanessa, her athletic, charming nephew, Juan, and two little furballs named Luna and Stitch).
I had managed to foster a sufficient amount of courage to leap out of my comfort zone and accept Hilary’s offer and jump into the collaborative group.
That was one of my first significant steps off of the island of isolation where cancer had deserted me. I set sail, found a group of amazing cancer survivors – people who related to my experience and were either in my age group or in the age group I was when I received treatment. I finally made some of those important connections, some of which are still maintained to this day.
In the following years, the group stayed connected, and we had several meetings and events that allowed me to continue understanding what I went through better, and allowing me to move further away from the burdens it had shackled to my character.
At one event, I sat down and had a heart to heart with one of the founders of Teen Cancer America, Roger Daltrey from The Who. I did some video interviews for my talented friend Hernan Barangan (very important side note – Keep an eye out for his upcoming documentary: Cancer Rebellion). I was allowed to speak on behalf of the group at another event. I represented Teen Cancer America at the OMG 2014 conference in Las Vegas. I spoke up, for the first time, about some of those dirtier side effects on that aforementioned laundry list of side effects. Each was like a therapeutic milestone, getting me further away from that island of isolation.
I feel like the flight from Los Angeles to Orlando was perhaps the most significant milestone – one that has put the distance between myself and that island as permanently far as possible. I went into the conference feeling excited to share my story, I walked up and presented without hesitation, and I did not feel the pressure from all of my prior afflictions. That’s why I’m sharing my story here, I suppose.
I have finally bid farewell to that island, and I’m back on the mainland. The weather is just fine, for now, but there are storms on the horizon.
It’s hard to determine at what point you start to feel like a curse has converted into a blessing, but for me, it was somewhere around this mixture of having my best friend as my wife, making strong connections while doing something intrinsically rewarding to me, and having the confidence to speak up about how it had impacted me so I could spare others from getting hit the same way.
Again, I think that sort of actualization would have come to me much quicker – my curse would have shapeshifted into a blessing in time to spare me from those emotional backlashes – if I had the opportunity to get treated and connected in one of those built environments that Teen Cancer America works so hard to produce.
Keeping adolescents and young adults on the bridge towards healthy self-development and independence, even in the most dire of circumstances, helps foster and maintain the dignity, sense of purpose, and resilience needed to overcome a critical situation.
Cancer is a monster.
Killing it didn’t put the final nail in its coffin.
Cancer’s ghost snuck out in time to haunt me for years.
It still does, to some degree, but I’ve learned to face many of my fears and beat them back.
I’m giving up that ghost.
Sure, it might grow teeth and claws again and start clawing and gnawing at my body and mind, but I’ve got wind in my lungs, fire in my heart, and a family under my wings. As long as I’ve got those, I don’t have time for fears to guide my life.
I’ll stick to harnessing that fear and helping others fight their ghosts and the cancer monsters they come from.
I’ll also try to enjoy the remaining trips I take around the sun for as long as I can, with the people I care about most.