Reflections on 46 Years of Cancer Survivorship
by Ronald K. Bye
We all have a story to tell. A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. My story has many beginnings and, thankfully, no ending yet. My story is one of survival, rebirth, finding my voice, and, finally, healing.
Just a few years after Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, I heard those fateful words: “You have cancer.” I was 20 years old and had been married 11 months, 2 weeks, and 5 days. I was trying to find my way in the world and looking to start a life with my young bride. That was August 8, 1975.
After the doctor’s usual 20 questions and extremely awkward “Drop your pants and let’s have a look,” he locked eyes with me and said, “You definitely have a problem.” My heart stopped beating as panic spread through my every fiber.
A right radical inguinal orchiectomy was performed, and later that day, I was given the grim news. The diagnosis was “pure embryonal carcinoma with vascular invasion.” I had testicular cancer, a virtual death sentence in those days.
A week later, it was my first wedding anniversary. As a surprise anniversary gift, my wife gave me an 8-track player and a John Denver tape. The very first song I played was “Lady.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the lyrics, Denver sings, “Did you think our time together was all gone?” Then he goes on to add, “I swear to you our time has just begun.” How prophetic those lyrics turned out to be!
Another week went by, and my doctor’s office called and asked me to come back in to discuss my prognosis and treatment plan. I agreed, rather expecting it would be something along the lines of “Take two of these and call me in the morning.” However, my urologist didn’t quite see it the same way.
He sat me down and proceeded to tell me I had a 50-percent chance of living two years, and a less than 10-percent chance of seeing my 25th birthday. He told me he knew of only ONE person with my pathology that lived past five years.
After so many years, I finally acknowledged my scars, both physical and emotional.
That evening, I became a survivor, determined to beat the odds. In fact, I became so focused on surviving and having a future that I never again even considered the possibility of not making it. Perhaps it was inner strength, or denial, or naivety, or maybe a combination of all the above, but I somehow found the fortitude to deal with the coming months of surgery, plus a full year of chemo, all while maintaining some level of sanity and my will to live.
However, that same focus, determination, and denial also caused me to lock my struggle away inside. I told no one.
It wasn’t until I came upon the 30th anniversary of my diagnosis, and my 50th birthday, that I began to think back on what I had been through all those years ago. I requested copies of my medical records and went on to sit down and read them. It brought back so many emotions I had locked away deep inside. For the first time, I truly saw the fear, panic, shame, heartache, and pain I had hidden away. After so many years, I finally acknowledged my scars, both physical and emotional.
I decided to write my story as a way of working through my emotions. It was a catharsis of sorts. As I did this, I began to realize that not only had I locked away the specific emotions related to my illness, but I had locked away most all my emotions. For so many years, I was afraid that allowing myself to feel anything would open a Pandora’s box, and all the pain and hurt and fear I kept locked away would just flow out.
I had been miraculously cured of cancer more than 30 years before, but it was not until I started sharing my story that I finally began to heal.
Survivorship is not about living or dying. It’s not about the physical being. It is a state of mind. An acceptance of one’s situation and a determination to fully live each day, no matter how many or how few we have ahead.
Ronald Bye is a 46-year testicular cancer survivor. After his “awakening” in 2005, on the 30th anniversary of his diagnosis, Ron finally began to heal from his cancer experience. He went on to write a memoir in 2009, Memoirs of a 30-Year Cancer Survivor, and became involved in cancer advocacy, which he still does today.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2021.