Behind every action, there is always a motive. We don’t do things for the hell of it. We do things because of something driving us.
Want to know why I’ll find any excuse to travel and dump myself into any great experience head first? Well read on, and you’ll find out! It’s a pretty damn good reason!
I don’t go into much personal information on this website. Most of the time, you really don’t need to know what goes on. But there is always a first time!
Today is a huge milestone for me. Today I celebrate 20 years since I was diagnosed with a insanely rare cancer that should have killed me, but for some reason, it didn’t. I guess milestones are important for anyone who have endured a life threatening experience. It’s only natural to take stock and look back at the years that you should not have had, and to write down all of the things that have been learnt from them.
In December 1994 when I was 21, I was diagnosed with a rare ‘primary mediastinal nonseminomatous germ cell tumour’ (yes, it’s a mouthful!) – a 1 in 10 million chance. To put this into some perspective, I had a better chance of winning the lottery on a Saturday night, which annoys the hell out of me because I still haven’t won first division…yet! (I’ve worked it out, I have a 1 in 8.5 million chance of winning the lottery!)
Basically, this tumour is like having testicular cancer in your chest. It originates from testicular fragments that occur from cell division during embryonic development. It sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but I didn’t make any of this up!
I had started to have symptoms of something going wrong in late 1993, about a year before I was diagnosed. The symptoms were quite unimpressive and unspectacular. They would consist of a cough and a slight fever for about three to five days, and then it would go away, only to reappear every two to three months. I thought it was a product of final year university stress/partying and nothing more menacing than that. Throughout the year, I went to the doctor on campus whenever the fevers or tiredness occurred. There was always the same result – I had a chest infection, and I was prescribed with the antibiotics that was used as the treatment to kill it off.
Towards the end of the year, the cough became progressively worse, especially during the time where I was trying to finish off my thesis at university. I had the worst smoker’s cough for someone who did not smoke. I sounded like I was trying to cough up my entire respiratory system from the inside out for temporary use in a medical student’s practical exam. It felt like it was reverberating throughout my entire body.
When I arrived home, my neck was swelling up by the day. I knew there was something not quite right about this, so I eventually went to my local General Practitioner who sent me for an x-ray. Then everything changed when I first saw the slides – I remember the shades of black and white slowly appearing as each part of the x-ray made contact with the light. Then I saw the big cloud of white. A really big cloud of white. Smack bang in the middle of my chest.
Big white clouds look nice in the blue sky, but not in a chest x-ray – especially when the x-ray is one of yours.
Want to see why a white cloud in your chest is terrifying in photos that are as obvious as dogs’ balls? Well, here you go. Here are some graphic pictures that redefine the term ‘oh shit, I’m screwed’.
I’m going to show you some before an after x-rays just to pummel this article through your head.
But I’m going to show the after pics first because I think it’s better shock value this way! Check this out.
The After X-Ray
Yep, everything is normal and fine here. Probably a bit of the night before’s dinner washed down with a couple of beers.
The Before X-Ray
See that large mass of white? That’s one massive tumour the middle of my chest. This crap your pants X-ray was taken in December 1994. Needless to say, when this x-ray is yours, it’s enough to scare anyone.
Okay, that’s great. But what has this got to do with travel?
Well, travel is just one part of my life, albeit, a big one – and I truly love doing it. I love all of the great experiences that I have gained from travel. Travel is something I’ve gone after consciously because it makes me really happy and frankly, I could not imagine my life without it.
For example, things like tasting a new type of food for the first time that make your taste buds explode. Receiving a hearty laugh from someone you have just met because you’ve cracked a funny joke – even if you butcher their language when doing it! Having someone take you into their home to show you their life. All of these moments are priceless. And they have all happened because of my conscious and sub-conscious efforts to experience whatever the hell I can before I leave the planet. And I’m planning to experience a hell of a lot more!
But it almost never happened. That’s because I considered my lifespan to be 21. I’m now over 41. Everything that’s happened since has been a bonus, because it should not have happened at all. I view every year up to 21 as ‘normal time’, and every year afterwards as ‘extra time’. My extra time has almost exceeded my normal time!
Just imagine having a look at those x-rays, and thinking that the end of your life was about to happen. By the time I was diagnosed, the tumour was 11 x 15 cm (4 inches by 5 and a bit inches). If I had not started chemotherapy at the time of diagnosis, I had one month to live. My doctor gave me, at best, a 20% chance of surviving (he didn’t tell me that at the time – I found out much later, which was a good thing!).
At first, the doctors thought I had lymphoma – which is cancer of the lymphatic system, the part of the body that generates your white blood cells. But it was only after many tests and biopsies when I had a confirmed diagnosis. And for some cheap laughs at my expense, these germ cell tumours release elevated levels of proteins into the blood stream called alpha feta proteins and beta HCG, which are typical of this type of cancer. Ironically, these are the same proteins that are released into the blood stream of women when they become pregnant! Due to the level of these proteins in my blood stream, in effect, I was two weeks pregnant! I still have the ‘pregnancy blood test’ results filed away. Funnily enough, people would look at my stomach for some reason when I tried to explain this phenomena, and I then had to tell them ‘that’s from beer!’
I went from a relatively normal existence as a university student trying to write my way though an Honours Thesis, to wondering if I was going to survive the coming months. All of this blissful and intoxicated student existence had suddenly changed with the utterance of a few words from a medical professional – ‘you have cancer’.
Well, after that initial shock, I then had to be pummeled by a toxic chemical cocktail that would probably kill most people. But I had to look at this way – if I don’t have the chemo, I will definitely die. If I do have the chemo, I might just live. But there’s no guarantee. Having three months of poison pumped into me was by far the most challenging time of my life. The last weeks of 1994 changed everything for me forever, and it was definitely the most turbulent time I have ever experienced.
I had incredible support from family and friends. The support came in all sorts of forms – from being taken to the movies, or the beach or anywhere, multitudes of phone calls, and sometimes letters (remember, these were the days before the internet!). All of these were greatly appreciated, even if I was zombied-out for most of the time. These constant messages of support lodged into my brain and have never left me. An experience like this is a great way to find out who your friends are. I was very lucky to have a large support base. I will always be eternally grateful to them because I wouldn’t be here without them.
Probably the worst experiences of my life were telling them I was sick for the first time, because the reactions ranged from stoned silence to bursting out into tears. I hated every second of that, and felt guilty for telling them, even if the diagnosis was completely out of my control.
Who considers their own mortality as a teenager or in their early twenties? Not many! Most people that age think they’re bulletproof, but that’s so far from the truth. Having a life threatening illness definitely makes you consider your own mortality. What’s also confronting is that you meet others in the same boat as you who may not be as lucky. You may have been in the trenches with others going through the same thing – and some of them may not have a desirable outcome. This is especially true if the person’s background is similar to yours.
I see many people who persist at something they hate doing as part of the ‘delayed life’ path. They think they will live to the ‘average’ western world life expectancy of approximately 80 years old, meaning they’ll retire in their 60’s and then live their life. But the thing is, for there to be an average age, half of the population has to die below the average! And no one knows WHEN they are going to die because anything can happen. Your life can be taken away from you in an instant, and with no warning.
As mentioned before, I consider that my lifespan should have been 21 years of age and that every single birthday that has occurred since then has been a bonus. I say, keep bringing them on!
I’ve also backed up my personal experience by helping others as well. I worked at a cancer charity on their Helpline for a while, both in a face to face and over the phone capacity. This role provided support to people with cancer, and I have found that my own experience allowed me to empower others and show the path forward. When I’ve talked to other cancer survivors who are a few months down the track, I’m quite amazed at some of the words I hear – because they were similar to my own at a stage in my life.
Really, I learnt an absolute crapload of things from that experience about what life is about. Everyone has probably quipped at some point ‘life is short’, but you have no f*&%ing idea about what that really means until your life is almost taken away from you, or someone who is really close to you dies unexpectedly.
I value my life. That’s because at one stage, I didn’t think I was going to make it. You always value the things that you didn’t have at some point in your life.
So, if I had to write down some of the most important things that I’ve learnt during my ‘extra time’, what would they be?
Well, I could write about that all day, but here are 20 succinct points for you to have a look at and stew over.
Hey, if you take something from this, that’s great. If you don’t, then go back to piss farting around on Facebook to enrich your life with more cat videos.
My 20 Life Quotes
- If you think you will reach the ‘average lifespan’, you’re a complete fool. For there to be an average age, half of the population has to die below average! You have no control over when you die. Everyone is terminal. The only question is when.
- Be an accumulator of experiences, not things. You can’t take the things with you when you leave the planet. The experiences will stay with you, and the people you experienced them with, forever.
- The opportunity of a lifetime comes around every couple of minutes. Don’t sweat on missing out on something you thought would change your life for the better forever. Something else will come along soon, especially if you go after what you really want out of life.
- Bad experiences only become negative ones if you don’t learn from them. Always look for the lesson in the experience. This will provide a springboard to better things, even if it feels like you’re going through hell at the moment.
- Take things seriously by not taking them too seriously. The funnier something is, the closer to the truth you are!
- You always get what you wish for – but it usually doesn’t turn up in the package you expect.
- The people who matter, don’t mind. The people who mind, don’t matter. It’s none of your business what other people think of you. It’s your life, who cares what other people think.
- If you don’t make plans for yourself, you’ll definitely be part of someone else’s.
- Trust your instincts. If it feels right or wrong, then it probably is.
- Try doing something that’s not structured or planned for once. You just never know where the experience might lead you. For example, I plan most of my travels by only planning the entry and exit point, and whatever happens in between just happens. And I’ve never been disappointed with the end result!
- If you give what the other person wants, you will get what you want by default. Always try to create a win:win situation. There’s no point tramping on someone else to ‘get ahead’, it will bite you in the arse one way or the other. Alternatively, don’t make yourself the loser in a deal. It just makes you feel cheap. If a win:win situation can’t be achieved, just walk away immediately, it’s not worth it.
- 99.9% of the world’s people are great, honest, caring human beings. Don’t let fear constrain you from seeking out great experiences with the human race. FEAR is just an abbreviation of False Expectations Appearing Real. FEAR just holds you back from experiencing the wonderful things in the world.
- Good news doesn’t make headlines. Ignore everything that you see or hear on the news. It’s just an overexposure of the bad things that happen so that maximum ratings can be achieved. The news doesn’t report about the great time you just had with your family or friends over the weekend when everyone walked away happy. Ignore the news completely. Make your own.
- Life’s way too short to bypass great food. I’ve never heard someone rave about how awesome the diet cuisine of a country was.
- You will learn a lot more from your failures than from your successes. Always learn. The day you stop learning is the day you die.
- Don’t try to experience everything in the world, but experience everything that you do well. There’s no point in skimming over the surface of an experience. Get stuck into it, suck the marrow out of it.
- There is only one thing that you need to get what you want – persistence. It’s not that I want everyone to be a stalker or anything like that. If you give up on something, then you really didn’t want it enough.
- Never underestimate the value of taking an action, no matter how small. Every action has a consequence. If you take thousands of positive actions, something is bound to come off sooner or later. In your favour.
- My worst day is someone else’s best day. If you think you have a crap life, yours would definitely be the envy of someone else’s. And finally
- It’s better to live one day like a lion than one hundred days like a sheep (quote from my late grandfather). It takes a lot of courage to stray from the herd. I don’t want anything left in the tank when I eventually go.
There you go. Some of the things I’ve learnt in the last 20 years or so. I’m sure I’m going to learn a whole lot more.
So, What’s The Meaning of Life?
Well actually, I like the end quote from the Monty Python movie of the same name, where Michael Palin says: ‘Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. And, finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy, which it seems is the only way these days to get the jaded, video-sated public off their f&*%ing arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment? Bollocks. What they want is filth: people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats. Where’s the fun in pictures? Oh, well, there we are. Here’s the theme music. Goodnight.’
Okay, that was a bit silly, but for me, it’s a matter of pursuing the things that make me happy, as many as I can, for as long as I can, and involving as many people as possible to join in the party!
I would say that this illness changed everything. It didn’t change my personality, but it definitely changed my perspective on life and my attitudes to a lot of things. You’re going to be a long time dead, so you’d better make your living time memorable. This experience has altered my perspective on life forever. What had seemed important was not anymore, and the things that really mattered became totally obvious.
Check out these lyrics from one of my favourite ever songs called Sometimes, from Midnight Oil:
Sometimes you’re beaten to the call
Sometimes you’re taken to the wall
But you don’t give in
Sometimes you’re shaken to the core
Sometimes the face is gonna fall
But you don’t give in
I have no idea how many times I listened to these great lyrics just to keep my state of mind locked in positive. Just trying to claw onto life anyway I could.
The thing is, the situation after an experience like this is a ‘new normal’. There are huge emotional changes. I can almost guarantee that your perception about life and what it’s about will always after going through a life threatening experience. Those words ‘You have cancer’ are the sudden thud of an instant journey that throws a myriad of emotional, psychological, physical and practical challenges to anyone who hears them.
One thing this experience gave me was the voice in the back of my head.
The voice hounds me every day, and keeps saying ‘are you doing enough with your life?’
It’s been two decades since all of this happened. I look back at this experience as the single biggest learning experience of my life. Winston Churchill said ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’. There is always life after a bad experience, and I’m living proof that people do live for a long time after something almost kills them, and do have rich and rewarding lives afterwards – which is probably because of the experience! Yes, this experience has dominated my perspectives on life, and will do so for the rest of my life. I have had many fantastic experiences, but none have compared to the massive intensity and emotional pounding of that I endured through late 1994 and early 1995.
The very first paragraph in the introduction to Al Gore’s book, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, possesses the following words that are definitely pertinent to me: ‘Some experiences are so intense while they are happening that time seems to stop altogether. When it begins again and our lives resume their normal course, those intense experiences remain vivid, refusing to stay in the past, remaining always and forever with us.’
Yes, it isn’t fair if something like this happens to you. Sometimes, life isn’t fair, because it doesn’t discriminate. If you’re lucky enough to survive, be very, very grateful for it. I am! I’m probably the most grateful person in the world.
The thing is, do you choose to have this experience work for you or against you? You do have the choice on how you interpret the message.
That is up to you.
I know exactly which camp I’m in.
I hope to see you somewhere on the road very soon!