Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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I have cancer, but cancer does not have me

anthony.jpgBy Anthony Morales

I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December of 2019 with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. I was offered an amazing job opportunity from General Motors to work as a product development engineer in Detroit; however, I wanted to take a break from responsibilities and work a part time job waiting tables and traveling before starting my career. I decided to wait to move to Detroit until June 2020.

I started the new year by visiting my family in Ecuador for the holidays, hiking the Amazon, going to the beach, ziplining through the Andes Mountains. I was doing the traveling I wanted. In February, I was invited to a childhood friend’s wedding in Hawai’i. More traveling, hiking, memorable moments created. I was living the active life I wanted.

This momentum shifted when the COVID lockdown started and I lost my job as a waiter at Uncle Julio’s. Now my days were filled with in-home workouts and wine-induced self-made fun; trying to make the most of the world stopping. That all changed in April.

I developed a bump on my neck accompanied by a mild fever. I’m invincible. “This will just blow over,” something I’m sure my subconscious was thinking. These symptoms stayed consistent for days, they don’t get worse—but they don’t get better either.

On April 21st, my mom began documenting my health in her journal. My symptoms had become more severe: extremely swollen lymph nodes, a nasty non-stop cough, shortness of breath, and a consistent 104 degree fever for weeks. My doctor prescribed antibiotics to treat these symptoms but nothing worked. I was facing a monster I couldn't see. Coronavirus was mentioned, cat scratch fever was mentioned—but never cancer… not for another month.

On May 21st, I was diagnosed with cancer: Anaplastic ALK-positive large cell lymphoma. A rare type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

I contacted GM and told them about my health. They were reasonable and moved my start date back to October, but didn’t know what the future held for me in terms of my employment after that. I didn’t know what my future held.

My career stops. My life stops. I stop.

The “why me?” questions filled my head; my hair went; my eyebrows went. I couldn’t be physically active; I couldn’t enjoy music -- or even water after a round of chemo. I got nostalgic for my once healthy body. I knew I had every right to feel bad, to hate life, to give up; however, that’s just not who I am.

After my second round of chemo and first round of LP with IT chemo, I developed what’s called a lumbar puncture headache. I was immobilized and left bed stricken for days. My new life, juxtaposed to my previous physically active life, sucked. I was feeling down during this recovery period. I began to heavily rely on my phone for entertainment and an instant dopamine fix. This made me become more depressed and the only thing that helped was continuing to be on my phone to cope; this cycle continued and fed off of itself. I needed help.

I sought asylum in the self-help books I’d been reading over the past few years for my own personal growth. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, rang faintly in my head. I identified that I was stuck in a bad habit negative feedback loop and now recognized this new monster I was up against.

The book recommends to add or take away an action from the habit cycle you want to fix. I challenged myself with an extremely achievable goal: move to the living room instead of staying in bed all day. I did exactly that and spent the rest of the day on my phone in the living room. I didn’t save the world, I didn’t fix all of my problems, I was still depressed; however, I accomplished a goal I set for myself.

The next day, I had the confidence to set two very easy goals. I decided to move to the living room and spend some time outside to enjoy the sun. I began to generate my own momentum; I started taking responsibility and piloting this negative feedback loop and steering it into a positive feedback loop. Days progressed like this where I tasked myself with very achievable goals such as cleaning my room, reading one chapter in a book, making myself a sandwich.

This momentum builds enough to where I’m waking up at 4:30am and going on morning walks to watch the sunrise at Northwestern’s landfill by Lake Michigan. I’m practicing my photography on these walks, listening to music I love again, enjoying the beautiful outdoors again. I find myself sharing my photography with a few friends, gaining more confidence and beginning to experiment and take more risks with my photography. I’m now viewing myself as a photographer instead of someone who just takes pictures. All because I changed my perspective.

I started to reach out to people. Cancer + COVID = a lot of isolation. I missed talking to people, meeting people, having face to face interactions. The book, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, made me aware that my love language was quality time. There was a huge void in my life not being filled. I began to invite friends over for bonfires in my backyard (to be responsible with my immunocompromised state as well as social distancing and mask wearing). The void starts to fill.

The momentum of this positive feedback loop continues to snowball until I decide to start a podcast. I set up a GoFundMe in part to finance the podcast, but also to donate to charity (50% of what I raise). I have amazing support from my family and friends and I’ve already raised a substantial amount toward my goal.

On September 21st, I started my podcast.

On January 11, 2021, I will be starting my career as a product development engineer at GM.

All of this momentum started with that first step of moving from the bed to the living room. This massive snowball rushing down the side of the mountain started with a single snowflake.

I’ve tried to put into words what has happened to me: if I’d be this person without the experience of my diagnosis, if I’d be this happy, if I’d be pursuing these passionate hobbies of mine. The only constant in life is change. My life changed forever, but I’m trying to adapt.

As crazy as it sounds, being diagnosed with cancer turned out to be a gift.  

I get weird looks when I say this. From flirting with death to today’s elated optimism. Other survivors are really the only ones that understand what I mean. Cancer has destroyed me, my family, and the people around me. I can’t control that. It’s not my fault I tell myself and know I’ll believe it one day; however, what I decide to do from the rubble is my fault. That is something I can control. This is my life and the cards I was dealt. I’m going to play my best hand and I’m going to make the most of it—this is my life and I’ll be damned if I’m not singing and dancing while on this crazy journey. 

On May 21, 2020 I was diagnosed with cancer. I have cancer, but cancer does not have me.