Life is a roller coaster, not a Ferris wheel: AJ’s testimony of triumph over cancer
As I said in a previous post, I am not the only one with something to say…And in an effort to recognize other interesting views, I have created the series, “Your Turn,” through which I post stories written by other people. I am honored to present the first entry in this series. This story is written by Anthony “AJ” Joiner, a celebrity in the Atlanta area. And without further ado…
Last July, I announced I was leaving the radio to take care of a friend with cancer. It was a bit of a lie. I was the friend with cancer. Sorry for lying… but now I’m back! Cancer free and living my life like it’s golden.
And I want to share my story with you.
It was a beautiful, sunny Hotlanta day. The days that always remind me of Freaknic.
It. Was. Perfect.
On a visit to the doctor, I was told, “Mr. Joiner, we’ve found a strange mass in your throat. We’re going to have to run some tests…” You always know something is wrong when the nurse deflects and defers all of your questions with phrases like, “I don’t know Mr. Joiner, or you need to speak with your doctor.”
After being poked, prodded and violated by nurses, doctors and a strange, older women wearing stilettos – they broke the news to me. “Anthony, you have a cancerous mass in your throat and a brain tumor.”
“That c-c-can’t be right. I don’t feel sick. As a matter of fact, I had a physical in March and they said everything looked perfect,” I pleaded. “They drew blood and the whole nine,” I continued. “I don’t smoke – I really don’t even know a lot of smokers.”
Another nurse entered the room and told me my brain scan was being looked at by a neurosurgeon and I would know whether it was malignant or benign in a few minutes. I stared at her coldly as she tried to remain upbeat and comfort me.
Suddenly, I had an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. It was the feeling of being on a roller coaster JUST as it reaches the peak of its climb. You are about to drop – fast, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. I felt helpless and hopeless.
Fighting to hold back the tears from all of the emotions and thoughts that were running through my mind, I asked the nurse, “Am I going to die from this?”
She went into this diatribe about blah, blah, blah, medical advancements and blah, blah, blah, survival rates and eating right and exercise and blah, blah, blah….
I ignored her.
I struggled to come to grips with my new condition, and in what seemed to be a desperate act of self-preservation, I made a silent promise to myself. “I will beat this.”
The nurse, after leaving for a moment, came back in and told me the neurosurgeon looked at my scan and the brain tumor was benign – and I only needed a follow up appointment to run a few tests. I felt a little better – but not much.
The first two people I thought about now were my girlfriend and my mother. How could I break the news that I had cancer? Several scenarios crossed my mind. Maybe I would just not tell my mom. No need to worry her. How would my girlfriend react?
My girlfriend was in utter disbelief. She had all the same questions only from a concerned girlfriend perspective. Her response was, “We’ll make it through this baby.”
My mother took the news like any mother would. Shock first, acceptance, and then resolve. “Mama will be with you every step of the way baby,” she affirmed. “God will never put more on us than we can bear.” I later learned that it really hit her very hard, but I never saw anything but a praying, strong mother. I love that woman.
Surgery, chemo and radiation treatments followed in the next few months. These were the toughest five months of my life. I lost 53 pounds. I lost the ability to speak above a whisper for about a month, and I felt as if no one could relate. At times, I would vomit for an hour. My girlfriend would try to get me to talk about how I felt, but it backfired. The drugs made me unresponsive, unattached and unemotional. She would say things like, “At least you only have a few more months, then it will all be behind you.” That would really piss me off. I felt like she was taking my sickness lightly. I would lose my temper and tell her not to say anything about it. At all.
I was afraid and a bit uncertain, and I did not know how to handle it. So I lashed out at her. The person closest to you always has it the roughest. One day things came to a head when I could no longer keep myself together. She held me in her arms as I came unraveled. I felt so lucky and blessed to have her there with me. I promised to try and communicate better with her and to talk about my feelings when I felt up to it.
In this struggle we learned that “being there” sometimes meant silence or space. Sometimes it meant only a smile. We learned to communicate through our own language since the radiation rendered me speechless for a while. It was our love language. My cancer – though it was really tough – taught me a lesson about love and relationships. It took our friendship and love for each other to a place it had never been before. My sickness taught us to enjoy each day and to never take anything for granted – especially each other. It was in those months that she really went from my girlfriend to my forever. Through this ordeal, we learned that as long as we had each other, we could survive anything.
My friends and family were there in a huge way too. My mother was right – you find out who your real friends are when tragedy hits. I had friends who would call just to say, “Hi” and friends who would call and pray on the phone with me. Others would come by and sit with me or read to me. Some friends would offer me rides to and from the hospital when my girlfriend was at work and I couldn’t drive, and some would rub my back as I vomited. One friend in particular flew across the country just so she could sit with me through one of my eight-hour chemo treatments. I’m grateful for all of the e-mails, all of the calls, and all of the prayers and the drop-in visits.
I. Am. Blessed.
Cancer has taught me several things over the last year and a half:
1. It has taught me to let my loved ones know they are loved. Today.
2. It has taught me to never, ever take the small things for granted.
3. It has taught me to appreciate my strengths and work on my weaknesses.
4. It has taught me to value true friendships.
5. It has taught me gratitude.
6. It has taught me to view the glass as half full. Things could ALWAYS be worse.
7. It has taught me to accept grief and anger as necessary emotions.
8. It has taught me that everyone is beautiful in their own way.
9. It has taught me to recognize when I’m being petty and let it go.
10. It has taught me to live. Now.
At times it felt dark – but there was always a light to guide me to a safe place -my girlfriend, her family, my family, and our friends. I now know these are the true joys of life. I have just what I need – the basic important stuff.
I can truly say the last year and a half was a hell of a ride. A cancerous roller coaster ride.
But… I’ve always chosen the roller coaster over the Ferris wheel.
P.S. Men… GO TO THE DOCTOR. I know we try to be macho-manly men, but get yourself checked out regularly. That pain you’ve been ignoring will only get worse if you don’t get it checked out. The doctors still haven’t identified the source of my cancer; however, if I had gone to the doctor when I first noticed the “bump” on my neck (11 months earlier), I wouldn’t have had to go through such aggressive chemo and radiation treatments.
AJ was diagnosed with cancer in May 2006 when he was 33 years old. He has been cancer-free for three years. He proposed to his then girlfriend, Akosua, in November 2006, and they were married in September 2007. Aside from his 9-5 as an IT consultant, AJ is also the creator of “The A Spot,” a movement through which AJ has developed a radio show, doled out relationship advice through an e-mail newsletter and promoted events. His current brainchild is First Thursdays at Django, a live music showcase. AJ is also an honorary chairman of the “Real Men Cook Atlanta,” which will be held on Sunday at the Georgia Railroad Depot from 3 to 6 p.m.
I “met” AJ through spam…at least that is how I first perceived it…He sends out e-blasts several times each week about events in the Atlanta area. However, at the end each e-mail is a personal message through which he emotes about various issues in his life. At first, I was like, “Who is this guy that keeps sending me e-mail without my permission?” But now, I look forward to his e-mail. We’ve never officially met, but I consider him my virtual friend. His story about his ordeal with cancer was at the end of one of his messages a while ago. I thought his story would be the perfect way to kick off this series, and he honored my request by submitting his story…it’s a wonderful story…Check AJ out at theaspot.com.