It’s been…a Year

Literally and metaphorically: it’s been a year, today. One year since I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer I had never heard of. And a year of sickness, surgery, healing, and change, so much change…in and around me. It’s hard to know what to do on an anniversary like this. There’s a lot to celebrate and a lot to grieve, a lot to embrace and a lot from which to look away.

Tonight, Aaryn and I will be seeing one of our favorite bands, the Avett Brothers, live, and that feels pretty perfect. Over a decade ago, these lyrics struck a chord (pun very much intended) within me:

I once heard the worst thing a man can do is draw a hungry crowd
Tell everyone his name, pride, and confidence
But leaving out his doubts.

I really hope I’m not doing the worst thing here, but there’s a couple things I’ve been wanting to tell ya’ll. Maybe this will even turn out to be a good thing.

Love’s Resilience

I’ll never forget the look on my oncologist’s face when she came in the room to tell me that my cancer progressed from stage II to stage III. Before she told me that the immunotherapy wasn’t working, I could see that it wasn’t working as she was trying to hold back the look of defeat and project the statistically-rooted optimism and determination I was used to seeing. She gave Aaryn and I some time to process, and then laid out my options moving forward. I’ll sum them up for you:

  1. Keep down the same path, using treatments I had well-tolerated, and cross our fingers.
  2. Throw everything – radiation, a novel surgery, and an immunotherapy combo with possibly significant side effects – at my tumors.

I have been, and remain, of the opinion that life should be measured by both quantity and quality, with the emphasis on the latter, so I thought about it for a few seconds and asked a couple of clarifying questions, and then a response just welled up and out of me, something to the effect of “I have two boys to raise and this woman right beside me to aggravate. Ya’ll schedule it and I’ll do it.” Just weeks later, I was under the knife: having 44 lymph nodes removed and a 10x dose of chemo flooded into my left arm. Recovery was rough, but as soon as I could get my arm in position I was on to radiation, every day, and then straight to an immunotherapy regiment that would leave me in bed for days at a time.

My body was broken. Healing yes, but broken. On bad days I felt like a human dumpster fire, on good days, a trash can sitting out in the Florida summer sun. My thoughts were so cloudy I had to fell my way through them to find a coherent thought. And my spirit was parched; when I could get to a sitting position in my bed, I’d just stare out the window.

I was languishing in mind, body, and spirit, and if I’m being honest mourning my own death. Even if I wasn’t biologically dying – which I wasn’t entirely sure of – the person who told his doctor to throw everything at him was gone. “I”left, and a stranger took my place. Those months were marked by loss in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

But, let me tell you what never left me: a deep and real love for, and from, the people in my life. I’m not talking about the idea of “love” floating in the ether as eternal concept. I’m talking about friends from long ago up to today, my family, church members, co-workers, even unnamed protesters from the summer of 2020 I could only remember from above their masks; they all filled my mind and heart, and often my dreams. No matter how intense my suffering was, nothing could take them away from me. It wasn’t something I set out to preserve, just something that refused to break. I talked and messaged with folks every day, laughing, remembering, connecting, and as cliche as it is, apologizing to those I had wronged. I wasn’t trying to tip the eternal scale in my favor. I saw, I mean in my face, saw, for the first time that in the end love, friendship, and the bonds of family (biological or chosen) were really and truly the only important things in this life.

Up ’till that point, I had treated those relationships like bonuses in the otherwise serious business of this life -at times even like appendages that simply moved with me throughout my days. It took me forty-one years to realize that those relationships were the real work of this life and the very core of my reason to be. This discovery is not the silver lining around my cancer cloud, but the sun burning it away so I could see a way forward.

I want to be clear, this is not the feeling of joy, relief, gratitude that we’ve all experienced when we dodge a bullet that had us dead to rights. I know the recurrence rates for my cancer, and I know that no one gets out of life alive, so there’s no getting out of these woods, at least for the foreseeable future. Virtually no one researches Merkel Cell Carcinoma, so if a breakthrough occurs, it will only be a secondary result of someone researching the more infamous cancers. I’m too rooted in reality for the endorphins to lift me up and out of this reality (p.s. if you’ve ever wondered, “Does he ever get excited?” this is why).

And yet, I know that if the moment comes sooner than any of us would like, it will be the love for and from the people in my life that will carry me home. My prose is starting to devolve into poor hymn writing, so let me get to the point: I don’t think I’m special or that my experience is unique. I don’t think that love “wins” or “conquers all.” But I know it can’t be beaten or vanquished, even by death. Trust it. Grab hold. And never let go. Practically, that means prioritizing your people over work, elective side hustles, your screens, and the noise of this world aimed solely at stealing your attention so Smiley Gladhands can buy a jet.

Someone once wrote a letter to people he cared about to tell them that “Love never fails,” and still today people read that part of his letter at weddings and get it tattooed on their bodies – some out of future hope, and others out of present experience. (Some ‘cuz it looks “dope,” “on fleek,” “bussin’,” whatever word the kids are using to describe real, awesome things these days.) That’s the kind of love I’m talking about: the kind worth holding on to, the kind that has kept me afloat this last year.

The time to deal with it is now

Write this little adage down, and don’t forget to quote me: If your trauma treatment becomes the easiest thing you’ve done to stay alive in any given year, it’s been…a year.

At the beginning of 2022, I was diagnosed with PTSD and began EMDR therapy. If you’ve never heard of that, it’s used a lot with trauma survivors to help them reintegrate and move through, and around, their trauma. I knew the data (thank you LCSW wife), but it almost seemed like a joke: “Lemme get this straight, you want me to relive one of the WORST moments in my life and moving my eyes from side to side is supposed to make it…what?… not as bad?”

And that’s precisely what happened: things started getting not as bad, not like a rocket ship, but a single-prop: steadily churning through the air. Over time, I learned a couple tricks around riding wind currents. And then how to land the plane and end the journey well. I’ll never forget that first landing.

It was the first time I was able to have that memory, and not let it have me. I paused the memory of being ganged up on by the church’s leadership and learned to move around it and finally see something that had been there the whole time, hiding in plain sight: amidst the lies, betrayal, and accusations filling the air, I was safe. It was horrible, but I was safe. And they weren’t powerful; the only way you do the things they did is out of powerlessness. I won’t lie and tell you it brought about any sense of pity or forgiveness, but understanding, sadness, and ultimately grief. It wasn’t just my career as a pastor that died that night, but my sense of calling, and something – though the words escape me – in the being and mission of that church. Now that I could have the memory without triggering a flight-or-fight response, I could see and feel that there was a lot to grieve, and I hadn’t been able to because I was stuck in my memory.

Over the course of several sessions I could feel “me” returning to myself, and could feel the ecclesial hit squad (though most didn’t know that was their role that night) having less and less power over me and my family. What happened happened, I did what I had to do to stay alive, and the chips fell everywhere. I’m grateful to my counselor and EMDR that guided me back, and it was just in the nick of time.

I’ve been wondering lately how I would have processed the news of my cancer had I not completed my therapy just days earlier. Most certainly apathy, but I fear worse. It’s not hard to imagine the news of a rare and aggressive cancer moving my traumatized self from suicidal ideation to attempt. And that would have been tragic because as hard as this road has been, I’ve gotten another year with my people and started a new career for which I’m grateful.

And that’s because I dealt with my sh*t before my sh*t could deal with me, and I have very little doubt it would have gladly done so.

So this is what I know now: the weight of this world is heavy enough without additional baggage in tow: whether it’s the consequences of your choice or others’ choices. The time to deal with it is today, because tomorrow you might be sitting in a Walmart parking lot in Beaufort, SC, reading an automated pathology report from your doctor letting you know you have cancer. In an instant, you may need every ounce of mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical strength you can muster to face reality. Just those few days between the end of trauma treatment and the start of my cancer care were all I had to prepare for the life-changing news.

Dealing with your sh*t is hard; just a hunch here, but my guess is that’s why someone started calling unresolved trauma, past hurts, regrets, etc., “sh*t.” But there are mental health guides who can show you what gear you need and what you can leave behind, Sherpas who can help you carry the weight, and base camp who’s there to support you every step of the journey.

I promise you – crisis or not – it’s worth the work.

Your people are worth the work.

You are worth the work.

If you need help getting started, I’m here for you, and I’m certain others are, too.

It’s time to get back to the day, to this day. It’s been…a year…of struggle, gratitude, and change, and hopefully the beginning of more to come.

2 thoughts on “It’s been…a Year

  1. Brandon, you are an amazing man and awesome writer! Thank you for sharing your reflections and thoughts. I’m sorry you had to go through all this shit. I appreciate you taking time out of your evening to chat with me at Woods. I also appreciate your work and attitude while at Woods.You have been a blessing to so many! Thank you and thank God for you! Jill


  2. Brandon,
    What a beautiful heart you have and out of it flow beautiful words that are so deep and so transparent
    that they bring life to us who know you and to those who do not know you at all.
    I thank God for your gifts of clarity and courage. What a gift you are to me, to us all.
    I love you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s