Four years ago, I was working for this giant construction company; there was a lot of responsibility and overtime, but I got my annual raises, too. I was stashing away money and planning a white picket-fence-kind-of-dream life of buying a house and starting a family with my girlfriend. Ever since I was young, I remembered learning about the importance of checking your testicles. One day, I found something in my left testicle that just didn’t feel right.
I asked my girlfriend to check it, but she said I was nuts—no pun intended—and that everything felt and looked normal. But you know your boys better than anyone else. Eventually, the mass got bigger, she saw it, and I went to the doctor. By the time I eventually went to get it checked and made the rounds with the doctors, several weeks had passed. We didn’t immediately think it was cancer, but the ultrasound came back with a positive reading.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like everything had stopped. I was like, “Oh shit, what does this mean?”
I had surgery to remove the mass. They did a CT after the surgery and found that the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. I had two options: more surgery where they take all your lymph nodes out from your chest to your bellybutton—‘movin’ my chitlins around’ as my urologist put it—or chemotherapy. I ended up going with the chemotherapy. That became my new full-time job. It was intense—the chemo was pretty much all I did for weeks on end. Fortunately, I’ve been cancer-free since then.
I felt alone during the treatments and especially after my treatments ended. My girlfriend was with me the entire time, but I had a hard time talking to her. While I felt she had an idea of what was going on, she didn’t really know what it was like. At that point, I also hadn’t met any other survivors, so I felt that all the people around me really didn’t know how to help. When I went back to work, I felt like an outcast. They changed my responsibilities at work when I was away. I used to do everything there—from taking apart heavy equipment, doing brake jobs and oil changes, welding and fabricating and electrical work. And that all changed.
Even though I had a good relationship with my boss and had friends at the company, I felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I ate lunch by myself, which I never used to do. I felt cooled off from the world like there wasn’t a place for me. Everything felt different…and wrong. I didn’t have any passion for doing my work anymore.
When I came back, my hands hurt from the neuropathy. I also didn’t like the smell of the oil and chemicals either; they reminded me of the smell of the chemotherapy. All in all, I had a hard time coping with work, which transitioned to my life outside of it. I became depressed. Nothing in my life was positive at that time.
I didn’t think I needed any support to help with the depression—at first. I made it through the surgery and treatments and thought I was ‘all better.’ I did my regular follow-up with my doctors—bloodwork and CT scans—but they didn’t give me any direction to take care of things that could come up like depression. They just told me I could go back to living my life. I thought, “Okay, this is good. I’ll just go back to doing what I’m doing.”
I eventually went to talk to a psychologist and a psychiatrist after my mom suggested it. I took an anti-depressant and something to help me sleep, but that was hard, too. I’d just come off of taking all of this medication and I didn’t want to take any more. But my doctors all worked together and over the course of the year helped to get me back on track.
I should have been more proactive about taking care of myself physically, too. I gained 68 pounds from the chemotherapy. I felt heavy, I felt disgusting. Even though I’m in a lot better shape than I’ve ever been, I still deal with body image issues.
I’m definitely healthier. I used to not watch what I ate and now I’m way more health-conscious. I’m now telling my family and friends what they should and shouldn’t be doing as far as diet and exercise go. That used to not be me at all.
I’ve changed in other ways, too. I used to be materialistic, but then I realized that a lot of stuff is just stuff. Until you’re fighting for your life, you don’t know what the bare necessities are and what it takes to just survive.
I also don’t lose my cool as much as I used to. I used to have a bad temper, but now I try to control my emotions a little bit better and try not to take things so personally. Cancer forced me to be more patient and let things develop as they develop. I really wasn’t able to decipher who a true friend was and I wasn’t able to recognize the people who really meant a lot to me.
Most importantly, I gained a direction in life. I don’t think I was ever supposed to be a mechanic. I’m meant to do something else. Even though I’m working as a mechanic now, I’m going back to school trying to start a new career. But my interests outside of work keep me going. I’m more involved with various kinds of philanthropy work—giving back makes me happy and keeps me sane.
Doug is a four-year survivor.