Thursday, August 21, 2014
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'Everyone believes in me so much and I can't let that many people down'

Interacting all weekend with an extremely diverse crowd gave me more insight on how I really feel and am handling this. It was fascinating to hear myself explain basically the same thing, repeatedly, in so many different voices. It was like hearing a referendum on what makes me tick, given by myself.

'Everyone believes in me so much and I can't let that many people down'

 "To me, there are three things that we all should do every day, we do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh; you should laugh every day. Number two is think; you should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions move to tears, could it be happiness or joy. But think about it, if you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day, that’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re gonna have something special." - Jim Valvano, ESPY Speech, March 3, 1999

This weekend the Sharpe family, minus Josie, took a quick trip to Philadelphia for a wedding.  Not just any wedding; this was one of my best friends marrying my cousin.  I didn’t exactly set them up – they came together on their own, albeit after the memorial service for my grandmother (and Josie’s namesake).Hardly the normal “and they lived happily ever after” narrative’s beginning.

I lived with Ninja (don’t ask) after we both graduated from CMU, and Jessica was a second cousin in name only – her and her sister Steph were the only close female relatives on my Mom’s side, and they were always just part of our normal family routine.  Our Italian side (like many in the area) was never very good at discerning details like “type of cousin” anyways - we’re all just relatives. Show me a Delaware Valley Italian family member, and I’ll show you someone who has more cousins, aunts, and uncles then they can count.

Anyway… this wedding has been on the calendar for months, and was the ONE thing I wasn’t missing unless the doctor locked me in the hospital.  OK, OK, that is a slight exaggeration – I would not have seriously endangered my health or recovery by traveling, but my doctors were going to have to make a pretty good case for keeping me in Florida.  Luckily, everyone deemed me fit to travel, so off we went into the outer bands of a winter storm.

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Since the bride’s side was half my family and the groom’s side ended up being a large collection of college friends and Ninja’s family (whom I have known for many years), it was open season on hugs, how ya doin’s, and all sorts of positive reinforcement.  I got more “you look great” comments in 48 hours than I had in the previous 37 years - which means I either spent most of my life being ugly and was cured of that dreaded disease by melanoma, or people expected me to look worse than what they saw.  Although, I suppose option C is possible, that some of you are just flat-out liars, in which case I say “Thanks and carry on.”

Watching my “little cousin” Jess walk down that aisle and seeing her dad Walter fight back tears as they got towards the front of the cathedral (in a pretty lopsided contest, the tears won handily), I let myself get misty-eyed for the only time all weekend – surprising for someone who easily gets teary-eyed for both happy and sappy reasons.  Maybe because I wanted to project how good I feel or strong I am being.  Perhaps so I don’t slip “out of character”, for lack of a better word – that I keep any emotions other than positive ones in check, especially surrounded by a couple hundred people that all know me and what I have been going through. 

After some careful thought (check that off Jimmy V’s daily list), it is much simpler.  I didn’t cry all weekend because I was just too damn happy to be there, too damn happy for a couple of people I love becoming a couple, and too damn happy to be surrounded by so much love to feel anything else (check “laugh” off the daily list, too).  However, for several moments in church, I saw that “little cousin” whom had grown up to be a married woman and thought about my own little girl, and the promise to myself to walk her down that aisle one day.  I did my best to keep the groomsmen from seeing, but under the façade, there were plenty of emotions that brought tears to the surface (check mark #3 for the day).

Keeping a positive keel made it a difficult, wonderful weekend.  Physically it was extremely tiring– like most trips back home, there was little downtime.  It also brought together emotions that wouldn’t exist outside the vacuum of this wedding.  Seeing these two particularly important people in my life get married was emotional enough, knowing I was the common bond linking their now-intertwined lives.

Then there were the interactions with dozens and dozens of people I have barely seen since this cancer fight started.  I have gotten good at reading how people frame their questions and comments to me.  Some fall into the “always upbeat” category, while others can barely mask their concern and fear for my health despite some excellent cheerful acting.  A number of friends want to know everything, most feel a little awkward asking or bringing up medical talk, and a few really can’t handle it and avoid as much talk about the now as possible, focusing on future plans when everything will be better. 

Watching each coping mechanism – none of them better or worse, just reflections on different ways of dealing with a stressful scenario – I better understand how I cope with this situation. It also allows me to open up in different ways.  Any armchair psychologist will tell you surrounding yourself with people whose opinions and viewpoints match your own limits one’s ability to see all angles.  Similarly, interacting all weekend with an extremely diverse crowd gave me more insight on how I really feel and am handling this.  It was fascinating to hear myself explain basically the same thing, repeatedly, in so many different voices.  It was like hearing a referendum on what makes me tick, given by myself.

First and foremost, I rely on the strength of an extremely large, very passionate, and unbelievably supportive network of family and friends.  In turn, I mirror that strength; partially to give others hope they can win their battles - either current cancer issues or the inevitable future ones.  I am also partially full of some sort of guilt – everyone believes in me SO MUCH that I cannot let that many people down. And even though I normally tend to shy away from being evangelistic, “God” and “prayer” are usually brought up in some form, even (especially?) when discussing with friends I know aren’t religious.

Talking about this so much also made it clear who all of this was for, and it’s not me, or even Jen. It’s for my kids; inevitably, most conversations led back to getting better for my children. I have a lot left I want to do in this life, but the only thing I have to do is make sure Daddy is there for Josie and Tommy until they can stand on their own adult feet.  It is also for Jen, but she is a tough woman who would handle a loss with strength she didn’t know she had, even if it meant too many of our dreams would go unfulfilled.  I want and need to be there for her and our future too, but Josie and Tommy need their Daddy.  Of all the people I cannot let down, those are the two who matter most.

When I think about this weekend, be it weeks or years from now, I will remember Walt’s bittersweet tears. One day, I will get a chance to have that emotion move me to tears, too, and Jimmy V will be proud.

T.J. Sharpe
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About this blog
T.J. Sharpe is sharing his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma. A South Jersey native and Bishop Eustace graduate, he currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his wife Jennifer and children Josie and Tommy. He was Patient #1 in a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa as the first person worldwide to use this sequence of treatments to fight melanoma, and is currently in a second clinical trial at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale receiving Merck’s anti-PD-1 drug Lambrolizumab

The Patient #1 blog will update the progress of T.J.'s fight against cancer, and also touch on many cancer-related topics.

Follow T.J. on Twitter and Facebook. Reach T.J. at Patient1@tjsharpe.com.

T.J. Sharpe
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