Cancer, September 11th, and finding perspective

Sometimes, having cancer can be a good thing.  It provides perspective, it strengthens, and it often gives a better appreciation for life, if you let it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like you all should run out and get melanoma to become more enlightened, but as a side benefit, it can really help frame life’s ups and downs.  Everyday disappointments are a little easier to handle, major turmoil seems more bearable, and even tragedy is weathered with a greater sense of resolve and purpose.

I woke up the morning of September 11, 2001, almost a year removed from cancer surgery.  The 11 months prior had been trying; the aftermath of a melanoma scare had taken a toll mentally and emotionally.  I took my “beating cancer” as any “invincible” 25-year-old would — with the mindset that I was strong enough to overcome anything. Meanwhile, carpe diem ran off the rails, with wild emotional swings, late nights, and generally misplaced priorities.  Sure, there were plenty of good stories along the way, but I lost a relationship, burnt several bridges, damaged many others, and missed many an opportunity to put my life on the right track while I was busy tending to my wants.

Then, like most Americans, life changed in a few hours.  Unlike most Americans, I could walk a half a mile from my apartment in Hoboken and gaze out over the Hudson River at Lower Manhattan. That morning, I planned on taking the PATH train to the WTC stop with my girlfriend, grabbing a Christmas present scarf for Dad with a $25 credit at Century One (directly across from the North Tower), and then heading back to my office in Jersey City.

Luckily, I am lazy, and didn’t get out of bed until it was too late to do optional Christmas shopping. Long story short, the girlfriend went without me, and I was getting dressed for work and eating breakfast when my roommate came down and said a plane hit the World Trade Center.  She and I watched the news and saw plane #2 hit live.  I got one call out to my family telling them we were OK; we got one call in from her boyfriend/our roommate verifying we were all fine, and informing us that the fourth plane had crashed at Shanksville. We had just been there a couple months before, at his family’s lake house a few miles away. Terror hit close to home for the third time that day.

The hours after were filled with laps around Hoboken with a list of friends, which, one by one, we checked off until everyone we knew was accounted for.  Hoboken was hit hard – 39 residents perished by one account, 53 by another, which would make it the zip code with the most deaths on 9/11.  Either way, after New York itself, Hoboken is the city listed with the most 9/11 deaths, but remarkably, neither Jody, Ali, nor I lost a friend or co-worker we were close to.  

The memories of that day, that week, are all still clear – missing posters for Cantor Fitzgerald or MarshMcLennan employees, makeshift memorials in Sinatra Park, car tires chalked to see how long they had been there, and if anyone was ever coming home to get them.  My buddy Mark and I somehow got into the city and as far down as Houston St. on September 12th, but there was nothing we could do to help, other than watch the ambulances line up on the West Side Highway and listen to the eerie silence that had settled on Manhattan. Then we did what many 20-somethings did with feelings of regret, helplessness, and anger – we drank and watched and waited for our lives to go back to normal. Normal never returned.

So, what does this have to do with cancer? Heck, I started this with “perspective” and then spent a couple paragraphs proving how out of whack mine was in 2001. For a long time after my 2000 melanoma and then 9/11/01, this perspective faded in and out.  Moments of clarity dotted the road I took, but most ended up obscured by id-pleasing adventures. Even the move to Florida didn’t curtail them completely; it just added new characters and places along the way. It was the journey from a barely-out-of-college-kid-with-cancer to (mostly)-responsible-adult-with-cancer that gave me the outlook and appreciation of life that has proved so beneficial over the last year. 

By experiencing and handling traumas in 2000 and 2001 so recklessly, a decade later I had, thankfully, taken many lessons from those emotional roller coasters. Guilt for not getting up early (and for sending said girlfriend to Ground Zero some 30 minutes before the first plane hit) and thus being able to help at Ground Zero, which gnawed at me for years, has been replaced by a “God had a different plan for me helping people,” knowing it’s possible I would have been hurt or killed had I gotten on the WTC train that morning (my curiosity would never have let me leave, and my nature would likely have put me in harm’s way). 

Appreciation for life as a journey, not a continuous string of happy hours, has only come as a family was created around me. The fortitude to go through continual treatments for that family has given me the chance to use my strength to do the little things for Jen and the kids, not to hollowly back up the bravado of a self-absorbed 20-something. The resolve, the determination, the purpose — all of the things I have shared here as part of my battle — they are the same words I would likely have used in a 2001 blog, but the depth of their meaning has changed.  Now, it’s not about the determination to get better for my own sake, the purpose is not so that I don’t “miss out” on things I want. Perspective, long an elusive shadow, has become a mainstay in my life. I have a family that needs me here. I got a head start on helping people with this blog. I have my purpose now.

Melanoma. September 11th. Once they were back to back crises, a twin towers of why I should lead my life however the hell I wanted to, consequences be damned. Now…. now, they are two painful experiences that gave me the tools to handle the challenges of the past year, and of the next one(s). For those who were unable to escape their fate, be it at the hands of cancer or terrorists, I carry on and hope to make the world a little better of a place, so that they may not have died in vain. Thank you, cancer, for that lesson. Thank you, NYPD and FDNY and all those whose lives were lost that day in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. May you rest in peace knowing that your deaths have given purpose to the lives of others.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »