That Time I Had Cancer

// // October 31st 2015 // Life

(This is a highly personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.)

On Friday, October 23 I breathed a sigh of relief as my oncologist told me that my six month PET/CT scan was clear. I am cancer free!

High Noon

High Noon Stand Off

It’s an odd thing to sit on that thin crinkly sheet of sanitary paper in a small bland room staring at your oncologist’s framed diplomas, trying to keep yourself distracted from the news you’re about to receive. You get to thinking about how the vowels and consonants that make up that crucial sentence can change the course of your life.

It’s terrifying.

If you’re new here or want to refresh your memory here’s some background on my cancer diagnosis and journal entries about my treatment.

Happy Birthday

I had a birthday once. It was awful.

On October 3rd my family celebrated my 44th birthday by eating at Fleming’s Steakhouse. My birthday is an important date but not exactly for the traditional reason. It was a year ago on that date that I was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma after landing in the emergency room after dinner.

Part of my decision to eat at Fleming’s was to thumb my nose at cancer and what it had done to me. In the year leading up to my diagnosis I’d had ever frequent bouts of stomach pain. Over time I figured out that it was often linked to eating steak.

Since the end of my treatment I’d been feeling great. I could eat and drink anything again. So I was going to go all Genghis Khan on things and get a truly epic steak for my birthday.

But later that night I didn’t feel well. I had pain and other symptoms that felt all too familiar. Over the course of the next few days I was in various levels of discomfort. I was waking up in the middle of night. I even had to dip back into my stash of anti-nausea medicine so I could drive my daughter to school.

I was freaking out. I was certain my Lymphoma was back.

I took walks with my wife around the neighborhood and talked about how we might handle things and what it might mean. It wasn’t so much having to go through the chemotherapy again that scared me. I could handle that. And I knew that the treatment was effective. But the question was for how long? If it came back so quickly, how long would I be able to use that treatment? And would I be consigned to doing three rounds of chemotherapy a year just to … stay alive?

I was psyching myself up to tackle whatever it was that was put in front of me. I refused to lose and knew I had to be in the right frame of mind. I was really more concerned about how it would impact my wife and daughter. Being a spectator to a loved one going through something like this is no picnic. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with me constantly going through chemotherapy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better that than me not being there but it made me sad and very angry.

I finally sucked it up and bullied my way into getting a blood test at my oncologist’s office and moved my PET/CT scan up by two weeks. I got a copy of the initial blood test results and my white blood cell count was elevated. I feared the worst.

A few days later I was able to go back into the oncologist’s office to review my blood test.


Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad

The nurse practitioner I saw regularly during my treatments (who is awesome) gave me the news. While my white blood cell count was slightly elevated the liver enzyme that was the best indicator of cancer was … normal. It looked like I had some sort of infection but, from where she stood, it wasn’t cancer. She theorized that it might be my gall bladder since it had looked a bit enflamed on one of my early PET/CT scans.

So I wasn’t nearly as terrified as I might have been sitting in that room waiting for the news. Because I’d handicapped things since getting this additional information. There was an alternate theory for my symptoms. And it was based in science and interpreted by experts. Who should I believe? My own passing analysis or hard chemistry and decades of expertise?

I was still crazy worried but my (dominant) logical side was able to talk down the emotional side from going completely apeshit. Sure enough it turned out I had nothing to worry about. I’d kicked cancer’s ass and it had decided not to come back for another beating.

This is a good segue to talking about what it’s like having cancer.

That’s Not Helping

Lemur With Hand Up

Almost all of the messages I received were positive and helpful. But just like when you’re expecting a child you wind up seeing more pregnant women I noticed a lot more posts about cancer.

One of the things that irked me the most were posts that claimed traditional treatment (chemotherapy) is just a big pharmaceutical profit center. The idea being that they don’t want to cure cancer, they just want to treat it.

Screw you.

I’m not joking. If you’ve shared something like that you’ve hurt people. Full stop. No wiggle room. Because what you’re saying is that I’m stupid for trusting my oncologist. You’re also throwing shade on a group of doctors who truly do care about the people who are unlucky enough to get cancer. And yes, it’s just luck.

I don’t want to hear about anti-cancer diets. Again, when you post about that you’re basically telling people they ate their way to their cancer. Think about that. That’s a pretty shitty thing to do to someone. “Hey, you probably got cancer because you ate wrong.”

You smoke two packs of cigarettes a day or eat five pounds of bacon every week you’re certainly upping your odds. But most people don’t fall into these categories. I certainly don’t. I never smoked. I haven’t had fast food in twelve years and gave up soda five years ago. I got cancer. It wasn’t my fault.

I researched my ass off when I got my diagnosis. See, I’m pretty good at digging things up on Google. Hell, I knew so much that I had a decent conversation with my oncologist about the potential treatment regimens I had available. Yeah, she was impressed I referenced the BRIGHT study comparing the two treatment protocols.

Yet, look what happened? I had myself tied up in knots thinking my cancer was back. But all it took was looking at one liver enzyme level and knowing that my other readings were “always all over the place” (i.e. – noise) to know that it wasn’t.

You don’t know better.

I’m not saying you should blindly accept everything as fact. But the tin foil hat conspiracy theory stuff is not helping anyone. You should not be messing around with the mental state of someone with cancer.

Positive Work

Staying Positive Is Hard Work

Staying positive while you’re going through cancer is … work. I know I lectured you about how science is what truly matters but it’s not always that black and white. I believe that staying positive and believing that you’re going to beat cancer helps. When sick I often visualize my white blood cells attacking and destroying whatever is trying to take me down.

I would often chant ‘I’m going to be okay’ over and over again for long periods of time. It was just something I would do reflexively to convince myself. To give myself strength. To give whatever my body was doing extra momentum to kill what was trying to kill me.

But you’d have to be certifiably insane (or on some seriously good meds) to not think about the alternative from time to time. I’m an introspective guy too so I could go deep down that rabbit hole if I let myself. So it was an effort to stay positive. It was … a persona I had to create to ensure I survived.


Enjoy Music Bar

After my sixth and final round of chemotherapy and the resulting clean PET/CT scan I stopped updating my CaringBridge page and essentially stopped talking about cancer. I didn’t even return emails from a few friends and family congratulating me on the great news. #sorry

The thing is, I was tired. I’d been thinking about cancer every day for the last seven months. Sure, my day to day life hadn’t changed that much but it really had … consumed me. No matter what you were doing it was always lurking there in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. Even though it was a good result I just wanted to move forward and have things go back to normal.

It’s also strange for me to process. I’m proud to be a cancer survivor but I also don’t want to wave that around like some sort of ‘card’ I can play. Many of you also heaped praise on me for how I wrote about and approached my cancer. While I sincerely appreciate those kind words it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. What I did and my writing about it helped me. So in many ways I feel like I’m being complemented on being selfish.

But I’m glad that others have taken something positive from my journey. I sincerely wish all of those going through cancer (or any hardship) the very best.


Right in the Feels

I was also overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from friends and colleagues. That was … very special. Of course I expected some responses. I’m not a complete social pariah. But what I got was so much more than what I expected. I hope I can give some of that back to you (in a less dire way) in the future.

I can’t thank all of you enough for the kind words, unexpected Tweets, random IMs and emails. I hope you know just how important that out of the blue message can mean to someone. It certainly made me think about reaching out to folks, even if I’d lost touch, which is something I’m apt to do.

One special thank you to Leeza Rodriguez who provided some incredible insight and recommendations, particularly on dealing with nausea. Because of her help I was able to find the right mix of drugs in a shorter amount of time. It made the last three cycles of chemotherapy far more manageable.

Overall I’m just humbled by your collective kindness.


Stephen Curry Winning

I will still periodically hoot or shout or grin like a maniac thinking about how I did it. I beat cancer! Doing so was both very difficult but also not so bad either. I try to downplay it sometimes but why should I really?

I had the idea for the title of this post for a few months. I was sort of scared of it. Because it treats cancer in an almost flippant way. Then I had my little rollercoaster ride and I thought my fear was warranted. I’d taken things too lightly. Karma.

But as you can see I wound up using the title. I won and cancer doesn’t deserve my respect. It may come back at some point but I’m not going to let myself think that’s going to happen anytime soon. And if it does come back I’ll kick it’s ass again.


You always hear how having cancer or having a brush with death changes you. Suddenly every day is supposed to be more precious. Priorities are supposed to change and you’ll do those things that you were putting off for some future date.

Maybe that’s how it is for some people. But not me. Part of this is because I’m already living like that. I’m my own boss and make a very good living. I work from a great home and get to spend my days with my gorgeous wife. I am really there as my daughter grows up. My parents live 45 minutes away and I see them at least a couple times a month.

I’ve lived in places ranging from Washington, DC to San Diego. I’ve traveled abroad and can afford vacations to Hawaii or anywhere else I want to really. I get to sit and binge watch Dark Matter. My daughter and I rush out to the back yard to stare up together and watch the International Space Station pass overhead.

A life full of small moments is my reward.

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Comments About That Time I Had Cancer

// 26 comments so far.

  1. Gabriella // October 31st 2015

    Hey AJ, I am so happy for you… I had a scare with cancer. It was like life rushed past right by me. I didn’t want to breath another breath in fear time would pass by and I would die with my next breath. I walked around the city like a zombie after I heard the news. Looking at every single person with hope and envy that they didn’t have to live with this secret.

    I was devastated, I was afraid to tell anyone about it. I was afraid of alienating my friends and family. I suffered with this knowledge on my own… I will never forget that week waiting to find out if the cyst they found was malignant. No one will ever understand that feeling unless you’ve been there. It sounds like you’ve been there and have come out the other side. You have a wonderful family and so much to be thankful for. Thanks for sharing this story AJ, it made me cry tears of joy for you!

  2. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing your own story Gabriella. It really is sobering when you’re waiting for those results. You look at other people in a very different way and it’s almost as if you’re standing still, in some sort of time capsule, waiting for whatever your life is going to be afterwards to begin again.

    Thanks again and I’m glad it was just a scare.

  3. Louis Gray // October 31st 2015

    You rock, AJ. Cancer is the f—ing worst. But you won. And while I know the journey was absolute garbage, I knew you would win. Maybe my being so close to Drew’s battle and those of many others helped me believe you had this in the bag, but I had no doubt. Welcome back from the other side. Great to hear the good news.

  4. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks so much Louis. Having so many people believing certainly helped me believe too. And please give my best to Drew.

  5. Leeza Rodriguez // October 31st 2015

    I am so thrilled (smiles, tears, etc) to hear the good news! YAY! When I read your description I can’t help but remember the terrifying moments in the oncology office during my daughter’s treatment. The silence while waiting in those exam rooms was deafening. I still hyperventilate every 3 months in front of the fax machine, as we wait for her lab results to come through. And there is no higher emotional high than that second in time where I lock eye contact with ‘the number’ on the fax, …the good number, the normal number, …the praise-be-to-God number! It is sorta like winning the lotto.

    Your message about trusting good ole western medicine and big pharma is such_ an important_one! Please keep ranting about this! Forever. The idea that these providers do this for the money is simply laughable. Oncologist have the hardest jobs in the world–making the right treatment decision and delivering the good/bad/awful prognosis day in, day out, at all hours of the day and night. Doing it over and over and over again. You know how I feel about this–no amount of money could every compensate them enough.

    And about mentioning me. Much joy! Drugs are awesome and life saving. :-). So–onward with living that wonderful life!

  6. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks again Leeza. Your insight and advice was super practical and really helped.

  7. Jesse Kohl // October 31st 2015

    i’ve been seeing your blog posts here and there for a few years and always enjoyed your writing. but i didn’t know about these things until ii saw this post. my dad went through cancer stuff this year and it’s been a challenge, so i can relate on that besides the usual SEO interests that bring me here. i guess i don’t have a lot to say but i do want to say thank you for sharing your story. ii have always found this blog valuable but personal stories go beyond SEO and search and all that. i hope any health challenges are overcome because i would selfishly like to keep reading the things you publish. i’m thankful that I found your blog and i sincerely hope the best for you.

  8. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks so much for the kind words Jesse. I hope everything is okay with your dad. And look for more posts from me over the next few months.

  9. Jim Hathaway // November 01st 2015

    AJ, I’ve been subscribed to your blog for a pretty long time but due to life in general had fallen out of my routine of keeping up with pretty much all my blog reading, so I completely missed the original news of your illness. I just went back and got caught up your original posts and wow! Was not only hit by the seriousness of the situation, but was elevated by your attitude about it, and I’m so relieved for you at the way things turned out. Should I ever be faced with a similar challenge I know that your posts about this will one of the first places I go for moral support.

    The knowledge you share about the filed we’re all engaged in is of great value to me and to many others. I expect to have your insights available for a long time to come!

  10. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks so much Jim. It would be easy to miss my posts because they’ve been so infrequent over the last year or so! I hope to rectify that over the course of the next few months and make good on delivering that value.

  11. Alicia Kan // November 01st 2015

    So spot on.

    When I was laid up with cancer 11 years ago, I lost count of how many people told me to eat organic food, attach a shower head that filters out all the carcinogens in water, and not to sleep with a mobile phone on the nightstand “because it emits cancer-causing rays”, among other things.

    People have different ways of processing cancer when it befalls someone near and dear. Some don’t visit the patient because then cancer is too close to home and they’d rather not be reminded of their mortality. Some visit to rubberneck. Some visit just to say they’d done their duty.

    For the people who were blaming my failure in eating organic broccoli, I now realize, 11 years later, that they were utterly terrified of cancer and this was their method of coming to terms with that fear.

    Cancer is a mirror. Everyone who looks into that mirror see themselves in it.

    These days whenever I read bloggers, retailers, anyone saying that kale or whatever-trendy-vegetable-of-the-moment contains cancer-fighting properties, I let them know (nicely) that cancer is a complex disease that can’t be eradicated by simply eating kale. Or lifting weights five days a week. Or not coming into contact with cancer-causing dry cleaning bags. If it were that simple, then the disease wouldn’t be around now, would it?

    But such is humanity. We strive for logic in the illogical. It takes going through the disease to appreciate the irony.

    It also takes living through cancer to appreciate, as you say, the small moments in life. For me, I learned when I was happy versus when I am not. Happy is eating an ice cream; not happy is eating hospital food. Neither experience is profound, but cancer makes you see the distinction, crystal-clear, in everything that you do.

    Congratulations on making it through, AJ.

  12. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    I love everything in your response Alicia! First off, congrats on being a cancer survivor.

    You’re right about people not knowing how to process it. I mentioned that it’s no picnic being a spectator to a loved one going through cancer. Not only is this gut wrenching but it scares people. Most people want there to be an answer or at least a reason. Few are comfortable with the idea that it’s just luck for the most part. Things don’t happen for a reason.

    Others seem to go into hero mode, wanting to be the one person who finds the cure that will save their loved one or friend. Perhaps that’s a defense mechanism too and they’re just terrified at the prospect of losing them. But it results in them digging up some very strange stuff.

    I’m glad that you also gained clarity through cancer and can enjoy those small moments. It makes me think about the late David Foster Wallace and how he talked about the routine of life and that we have a choice of how to look at it.

    Going through something like this simply makes it easier (for me at least) to find meaning in the small things.

  13. Dennis Seymour // November 02nd 2015

    the Feels from this post.

    Congratulations! Loved hearing the news!

    Though we might not really know each other personally, I’ve been following you for some time now so I do treat this as a one-sided friendship hahaha.

    Glad to hear the news, go build more moments with the family! :)

  14. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thank you so much Dennis! I plan on building those moments with family and with folks like you. Simply interactions like this can make a day.

  15. Lawrence Swiader // November 02nd 2015

    Such good news. Congratulations!

  16. Henson // November 02nd 2015

    Glad you are okay!

  17. Sonya M // November 02nd 2015

    AJ, I have a family member who has also beaten cancer, and believe me, I can relate to your news. Keep positive and stay strong! :)

  18. AJ Kohn // November 02nd 2015

    Thanks and great to hear that Sonya.

  19. Tise // November 02nd 2015

    Great to read this. Thoughts and all good vibes your way.

  20. Barry Adams // November 03rd 2015

    I’ve lost friends and family members to cancer. Some are currently fighting cancer. Some are wining – some aren’t. It’s great to hear the story of a victor. Thanks for sharing, AJ.

  21. Neil Dickson SEO // November 05th 2015

    Keep on doing what your doing AJ!

  22. Mike // November 08th 2015

    So glad to hear you’ve beaten cancer, AJ. I, like you, don’t smoke or do anything that would put me at particular risk for cancer – in fact, I exercise regularly and try to be as healthy as I can – but cancer is something that crosses my mind pretty often. I can’t imagine what it would actually be like to experience having it firsthand.

    Here’s to your cancer staying away for good!

  23. AJ Kohn // December 21st 2015

    Thanks so much Mike. Try not to dwell on it if you can. I know that’s easier said than done but I’m getting better at it myself.

  24. Bob Wilson // January 25th 2016

    Thank you for writing this AJ.

    God bless.

  25. AJ Kohn // January 26th 2016

    Thanks Bob!

  26. Ken Ashe // April 29th 2016

    Congrats on beating cancer. That’s awesome!

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