We went scuba diving in Cozumel for our honeymoon. We even sprung for first class tickets, and it was really nice – I don’t know if I can travel in coach anymore! All of the diving in Cozumel is drift diving. That means they take you out to a dive site and you just float along with the currents. Once you get down to your air reserve, you surface and the boat comes to pick you up. Neither of us had any experience with drift diving, and the first two days were pretty rough, quite frankly. The currents were really strong – too strong to swim against, really, and you were going where they took you. On top of that, the weather was pretty bad and the forecast for the rest of the week called for more of the same.
Clearly, there was nothing I could really do, so I figured I’d try a prayer. I knew it was a long shot – why would God even be bothered with such trivial issues? – but it certainly wasn’t going to hurt. So I asked for better weather and diving conditions, and for a general improvement to our honeymoon, which hadn’t exactly started off with a bang. Honestly, I felt kind of silly asking for such trifling things. But, I also finally apologized for my hubris and vanity – the kind only youth and inexperience can bring. And for perhaps the first time in my entire life while saying a prayer, I actually and sincerely meant it. I asked God for his forgiveness. How arrogant was I to have thought so very little of this magnificent creature who had endowed me with life – with existence itself? How prideful does one have to be, to think they can explain everything? To think that, they have all the answers? I used to think I could explain everything through the lens of science and the physical world and nothing more. Everything else was mere superstition. Well, I told God I was sorry for being such a conceited jackass. I finally said the words, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
I didn’t think it would work, truth be told. It was supposed to rain almost every day for the rest of the trip, and even though I believed God was there, I was skeptical of his willingness to answer prayers, particularly such trivial ones. But, to my surprise and sincere gratitude, the weather and diving conditions improved dramatically and stayed very nice for the remainder of the trip. We went on the single best night dive I’ve ever been on in my life. We saw five different octopi, a couple of squid (that’s very rare from what I understand), tons of crabs and lobsters, and some bioluminescent life. And during the day, there were turtles and fish everywhere. The reef in Cozumel was absolutely gorgeous, too, and I didn’t even see a single lion fish – an invasive species from the pacific that’s ruining some of the reefs in the Caribbean. It was awesome. If God answers such trivial prayers such as these, I can only lay myself prostrate before him, and humbly beg that he will allow the actions of my physicians to cure me.
I took some scuba footage with my GoPro on that honeymoon. I was going to set it to some cheesy techno music because I thought it was high energy or something. But when I watched it, it just didn’t feel right. So I picked another song – Baba Yetu by Christopher Tin. For one thing, it’s an absolutely beautiful song and it fit quite well with the footage. But almost by accident, the video ended up being something of a tribute to God. A way to show, I hope, the stunning, almost unbearable beauty of the ocean and life just beneath the waves. And it’s very suitable, you see, because that song is actually the Lord’s Prayer sung in Swahili. I found it to be one hundred percent appropriate while showcasing the glorious majesty of God’s creation. I’ve always wanted to create something truly beautiful, and I believe that I finally have 1.
Did God really answer such a self-serving and trivial prayer? I don’t know. I know a lot of people would call my story delusional thinking, and would claim that religion is merely a backwards superstition without a shred of evidence for its veracity. But the universe and existence are infinitely more complicated than we can possibly conceive. I earnestly believe that there are transcendent truths which we can’t fully understand, but rather can merely hint at through allegory and mythology. We already know that there are “true” things that don’t exist in the physical world. Mathematics is a good example. Nowhere in our reality can you find a physical instance of an irrational number like pi, yet we know it’s “real.” What is real? What is being? These are extraordinarily difficult questions to answer. But that unending search for meaning and purpose – to find order in the chaos – is what religion is all about, to me.
After that night dive I mentioned, I wasn’t feeling well and ended up throwing up off the back of the boat. One of the other divers asked me what was wrong, and I tried to explain everything to her. We were headed back to the dock, so the engine was going and she couldn’t hear me very well. So later, when we got back to the dock, we got to talking and she saw my scars and asked me what had happened. She guessed it was a car accident, which would have been my guess too. So I told her the short version 2 of it. She was shocked, like everyone. But then it was my turn to be surprised. Coincidentally, her husband, also a diver on the boat with us, had melanoma and they were currently in treatment, too. Here was another young couple, fellow scuba divers no less, dealing with some of the exact same garbage we were. It was actually really nice to sit and visit with them about everything. Even though our exact disease is different, we had some remarkably similar stories to share.
I couldn’t decide, though, who had it worse: him or me? Melanoma is a bad one. Not all that long ago, it was basically a death sentence. But now, some of these new immunotherapy drugs have put some people into a “no evidence of disease” state. That’s the best you ever do after you get cancer by the way, that or “remission.” Almost no one is told, “okay, you’re cured, fly free little one.” In some very specific circumstances, yes. But, most people are followed and surveilled for quite some time after a cancer diagnosis. But all these immunotherapy drugs seem to really work for melanoma, and he was about to start a clinical trial. I, on the other hand, have a very rare disease without much data, but it’s the kind of cancer that spreads on the surface before it invades, and if they can get it all out and get a good result with the surgery and HIPEC and your chemotherapy regimen, there are stories of 20+ year survivors out there. It’s pretty much neck and neck, really. More than anything, though, it was nice to see another patient, just like me, trying to get the most out of the time he has left. Keep on keepin’ on, brother.
On the last day of the trip, we went to Tulum, one of the largest Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. The ruins are set on a sheer cliff perhaps 100 feet above the water, and the ocean is stunningly blue. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was definitely the best vacation I’ve ever been on, and I was lucky enough to spend it with the love of my life, someone who I truly and earnestly believe is my soul mate.
I may have been dealt a shitty card in life with this cancer thing, but I still consider myself a very lucky man indeed, to have such a wonderful and amazing person to share my life with. The rest of my days, actually, no matter how long or short that may be. I love her more than life itself.
But, all too quickly, the brief respite from treatment had come to a close. We were back in the United States, and the very next Monday, we started chemotherapy again. My board exam was scheduled for the first week in November. I had the next 7 weeks to study, and then we were going back to surgery.
The intent of the treatment we’re doing is to be curative. Most cases don’t turn out that way, of course, but if you can get all the cancer out and kill the rest of it with chemotherapy, people have lived decades with this disease. Some groups say that if you can make it seven years out from treatment without evidence of recurrence, that you’re considered cured, in their opinion. My surgeon is skeptical of that one. He says this disease always comes back. But, as always, I had – and continue to have – absolutely no control over the outcome. The only thing I could do was start fighting the good fight once more. Round two was about to begin.
Read the previous installment by Christopher Graham here: Chapter 6 | Part 3: Love, Marriage, and Cancer
Christopher Graham is a radiologist who was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in early 2016 at the age of 32, two months after he was engaged to his now-wife. He has since undergone two major surgeries, intra-abdominal chemotherapy, and has had many significant complications as a consequence of his treatment. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife Nicole and their two dogs. Christopher plans to finish residency and fellowship after treatment, and he and his wife are trying to get their lives back to something resembling normalcy after dealing with such a devastating diagnosis.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hb3OASSR3pg Sorry, I couldn’t resist plugging my video. I worked really hard on it! To be completely honest, it still gets me choked up a bit when I start thinking about the majesty of God and I watch that video. It’s the best thing I’ve ever made, with the possible exception of this book. ↩
- That’s one thing I’ve learned how to do, is to give as much or as little story as I need to for the situation. Sometimes, you have to sum it up real fast, other times (apparently) you write a book. ↩