In January of 2019, I started to feel some discomfort at the back of my throat after long periods of talking. I had just started a new job in sales and I was coaching my kids’ lacrosse teams seven days a week, so I blamed my discomfort on the overuse of my voice. Then the discomfort turned into a constant sore throat, and the pain got worse and worse. But I was still writing it off and treating it with some over-the-counter meds. By July, it hurt so much I could barely eat, and at that point I had been in pain for almost four months.
I finally went in to see a dentist, who didn’t know what it was and sent me to an oral surgeon. The oral surgeon didn’t know what it was either. He told me to go home and try to take it easy for a few weeks. Coincidentally, later that week, I met up with a good friend from college, and I explained what was going on. He saw that something wasn’t right with me, and sent me the number of an ENT. So I called the doctor, who it turned out, I already knew from coaching his kids in lacrosse. He asked me what I was doing there, and I filled him in. He took one look in my mouth, took 2 steps back, and said, “Frank, you have cancer.” After he examined me a little further and took a biopsy, he came back in the room and leaned against the window. I will never forget what he said:
Frank, you’re not going to die, but you’re going to have a tough six months to a year ahead. I’m going to send you to the best doctor in the world for what you have. I would send my own boys to him. You’re probably going to have an operation, maybe some chemo and radiation. During this time Frank, you’re going to need to man the f*** up.
I left the office and called my wife crying on the phone. I felt so bad telling her what was happening. That was very hard for me. To tell the person I love the most something so scary. But I also grabbed on to my doctor’s words, and told myself, “It’s game on, let’s go. Time to fight, time to be a warrior.”
The doctor called me three days later and confirmed the worst over the phone. It was cancer. That night, I went golfing with my wife. We had set up the date night a few weeks earlier, not thinking we would be dealing with this diagnosis at the same time. So at one hole we’d be laughing and making jokes, and at the next we’d be in tears. Humor is a big part of our lives, and it really helped us deal with all the emotions we felt that day.
Cancer is a heavy burden, and I didn’t want to carry it alone. I couldn’t stop thinking about my friends and family. I wanted to tell people and to feel their support. First, I called one of my childhood friends and we talked for close to three hours, just laughing and crying. After that, I knew I was ready, and the next morning I started making my calls. My best friends from home, my college friends, my siblings, and my parents: they supported me from start to finish, making jokes with our funny dark humor. It made me feel better.
As all of these people rallied around me, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had done to deserve all this support. It showed me that I had been doing something right my whole life. It empowered me, fueled my fight, and picked me up on some of those dark days. There are a lot of them when you are fighting cancer. You need help. I got it every day. Telling my friends and family about my cancer and accepting their support was the absolute best thing I ever could have done.
The special people in my life were a big part of this fight, but it was my wife, most of all, who helped me get through. She was just incredible. Between her demanding job and being a rock star mom to our three kids, I truly don’t know how she cared for me like she did. She chose to fight cancer with research, organization, nutrition, communication, and love. And she worked behind the scenes, asking people to call, pray, and text me.
Throughout my treatment, I was also lucky to have doctors who made me feel strong. They told me only what I needed to know. They gave me the confidence that I could do anything, and said that they were proud of me. I am so relieved and grateful that I chose doctors I felt comfortable with. I got so lucky. I will never forget them.
When I started this journey, I thought surgery was going to be the hardest part. I tried to get strong, started running every day and eating healthier. I felt like a machine, like I was ready to kick cancer in the butt. After surgery, my doctors told me that I was in for the toughest fight of my life, and I thought I was prepared. But I didn’t realize that the fight would be 0% physical and 100% mental. The pain I felt during radiation wasn’t something I could fight with my muscles. Coping with it was all about how much I could take mentally. And I was surprised to learn how strong I could be. Throughout it all I tried to maintain a positive attitude, to be a beacon of light for everyone else getting treatments with me at the same facility. No one could understand why I was so happy and energetic, but I would say “You can’t be angry or feel bad for yourself. You have to be positive and mentally strong, and then you’ll get through it.”
The treatments hurt like crazy, but my doctors would tell me to keep eating, drinking, and talking, even when it hurt. They would say, “if you don’t use it you’re going to lose it!” And that was tough to hear, especially when I was on my 28th radiation treatment and my whole mouth felt like it was on fire. One thing I would say to others going through this treatment: never stop doing things! Don’t sit at home. Invite people over, accept help, answer the phone when people call. It may hurt, but the pain is temporary, and you may find, like I did, that the more you talk, interact, and socialize, the better you feel.
My doctors never sugarcoated things. They told me to man up, and I needed that. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. People would always say, “I’m so sorry” when they heard what I was going through. But I always replied, “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. I’m not sorry I have cancer. I’m going to get through this, and I’m going to be a stronger, changed person on the other side.”
And that was true: I have learned so much from this process. I have grown and become a better person. From start to finish, I never asked “why me,” never felt sorry for myself, never got angry with God or the world. I knew I had lived a great, all-or-nothing life, and I had no regrets. I was scared, of course, but never angry. It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud of how I dealt with cancer. I’m proud I’m a survivor.
While I was going through treatment, my wife had the idea that I should write a letter to cancer. I would check in and add things to the letter as time went on. And when I was done, it documented everything I had gone through from diagnosis all the way to my last radiation treatment. It is full of swears, anger, pain, love, support, memories, and growth. I really recommend that to people facing cancer: write a letter to document everything that’s happening to you. Now, when I read that letter, it empowers me. It reminds me of where I’ve been and how much I’ve grown. And it makes me cry too.
I see now that cancer taught me so much about love: how to feel love, how to receive love, and how to understand how other people feel and give love, too. I learned that everyone deals with things in a different way and shows their love in a different way. Just because someone doesn’t rally around you physically and call you all the time, doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Everyone fights in their own way too. For my wife, that was doing research and reading every last thing there was to read about my kind of cancer. That’s how she fought, by gathering and retaining all the information and asking questions. My best friend fought by making plans. He outlined for me how I should live, exercise, and eat healthy. That’s how he fought and how he loved.
The three best things I’ve done in my life are getting married, having kids, and beating cancer. I don’t want to put this behind me, I want to be this changed person that I am. It suits me, the fight, the survival, the determination. The fight gave me life, and I embraced it. It empowers me. Being able to talk about it is a gift and a true pleasure.