Medical School Decision!

Two years ago today, I started my first day of chemotherapy. This morning at Dana Farber, I received news that my most recent MRI is stable, and I can now extend my scans to every 4-6 months! While the exam room for my visit was the same, it was surreal to think how much has evolved throughout this journey.

When I started chemo, I decided to apply to medical school. I had no idea what the future had in store for me, but I knew this was the path I wanted to pursue. I am now incredibly excited to announce that in just 6 weeks I will be moving out west to the Bay Area to join the U.C. Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program!

Getting to this point was harder than anything I expected. From finishing prerequisites during treatment, taking the MCAT, to the year-long application process, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Yet above all else, the greatest obstacle was my own internal struggle.

As I have written before, coming face to face with my own mortality provided clarity to what I truly value in life. For me, those values include family, friends, and using my time to live fully in the present. The medical school application process was often the antithesis of my values since medicine is inherently a future-oriented profession. Filled with uncertainty of my prognosis, time became more tangible. Taking that precious time to bury my head in studying or essay writing was difficult. Balancing my yearning to embrace the present while maintaining my goals for the future was at times almost impossible. There were several moments I wanted to quit, but I kept on. Not because of my own determination, but rather the support of my family, friends, and extended community.

I cannot express in words how thankful I am to everyone who has been a part of this journey. To my incredible medical team and Dana Farber’s Young Adult Program, you provided me the opportunity to progress from “cancer patient” to “incoming medical student” in just two short years. To my friends, and most importantly, my family…when the burden of uncertainty clouded my perspective, you provided clarity to why I chose this path. When I doubted myself, you gave me the strength to keep moving forward. For that, I am forever grateful.

Throughout this process I had to learn how to balance my present-oriented values with my future ambitions. I learned that in life we do not need to sacrifice one for the other. Goals are good. They get us out of bed, and even if we might not reach them, we can at least say we tried to achieve something greater than ourselves. These pursuits are only healthy; however, if they do not require us to give up our presence. To enjoy the people and places around us.

I feel incredibly lucky to be joining a medical program that not only enables, but also encourages me to find this crucial balance. During this decision-making process, the program’s values, approach to medicine, and pervasive sense of community felt like the best fit for me.

The Joint Medical Program (…or JMP for short), is a 5-year graduate/medical degree program rooted in collaborative inquiry and advocacy for social justice. For the first two and a half years, I will be based at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Public Health with 15 of my fellow classmates. Together, we will undertake a holistic approach to learning medicine through a 100% problem-based learning curriculum. Concurrently, I will pursue a masters in Health and Medical Sciences where I will have the opportunity to integrate my passion for the environment within my medical studies. Following that, I will transition to the clinical portion of my education at UCSF, and graduate in 2022 with my MD (…wow that’s a long ways away)!

Thank you to everyone who has been there for me along this journey. Please know how truly grateful I am. I look forward to continuing to share with you this new, exciting adventure as I transition from patient to practitioner.

Best,

Jeremy

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Gratitude

On November 5th, 2014, I left Indonesia for what was supposed to be a 3-week Thanksgiving vacation. As most of you know, this vacation turned into a rollercoaster of treatments and recovery for my recurrent brain tumor. Now, two years later, I write this on November 5th, 2016 during my first night in Sukadana, Kalimantan at the edge of the Bornean rainforest of Gunung Palung National Park. As the thunder rumbles and the insects chirp, I lay in bed under my mosquito net finally with the time to reflect on my journey that brought me here.

Time works in mysterious ways. While so much has happened over the past two years, the moment I landed in Indonesia it felt like no time had passed at all. Yet I return to Indonesia a much different person than when I left. When I found out about my recurrence, I was taken away from the life I had built for myself in Indonesia. My friends, work, and community, which had been my home away from home, were suddenly gone. Throughout my cancer treatment, I knew I had to eventually return to Indonesia.

However, when the time came to go back, I was terrified. Everyone kept saying how excited I must be to go back to Indonesia, but all I felt was discomfort and an overwhelming flood of emotions. Leaving my home meant that this past chapter of my life, my recurrence, was coming to an end. I kept asking myself, why wasn’t I ecstatic to be done with the most physically and emotionally challenging period of my life?

After thinking over this for some time, I remembered a train analogy I used when trying to explain the feeling of losing options in my treatment plan. In a blog post I wrote, “It felt like I went from having two trains I could choose to ride, to instead having one of the trains taken out of commission, and having to hop on the other one (i.e. the chemo/radiation train) that was already leaving the station.  I felt like a passenger to my own life decisions because there was really no decision to be made anymore…I felt powerless.”

When I finished treatment a year ago, I felt like the train had dropped me off at a station in the middle of nowhere. At this station, there was no map, no directions for where to go. No guide on how to reintegrate into “normal” life after hopping off the cancer train. I could have tried to follow the tracks to where I had come from, but to do so would have been impossible. Cancer changes so many different aspects of your being that returning to your pre-cancer self in many ways feels inauthentic. I decided to press forward and not look back. I continued through my recovery and medical school applications with blinders on. I kept myself so busy that I never spent time to fully feel everything I had gone through…to truly comprehend how significantly my life had changed.

As my flight took off for Indonesia, I finally had the perspective to look down at the train tracks of my journey over the past two years. I felt my muscles tightening during my seizures. I heard my doctor telling me about the new growth and saw the sorrow in my mom’s eyes. I remembered the pit I felt in my stomach when I had to weigh my treatment options. The rumble of the proton beam machine. The 10-month fog of chemotherapy. The black hole of isolation and lost independence. The constant ringing of uncertainty with every decision I would make as I planned for my future. As I left for Indonesia, I felt all the loss I had kept suppressed.

Yet even with all that loss, these past two years have in many ways been a true blessing. In a peculiar paradox, coming face to face with my own mortality has taught me how I want to live. I was provided the rare gift to be truly present in my life. To be present with my loved ones, friends, and everyone I care deeply about. To develop new friendships and relationships with some incredible people I would not have otherwise met.

Just a week after finding out about my recurrence, a fellow Oligo tumor survivor wrote to me, “We are blessed, fortunate souls; our tumors invited us to open up and see the gifts we already are living…and then some.” These past two years I have been incredibly lucky to witness these “gifts” – my family and friends – all of whom reached out to support me when I needed them the most. To be authentic and vulnerable to the people I love, and have that returned in kind, is an indescribable feeling that has become core to how I wish to interact with those around me.

It was also the simple gifts that warmed my heart: family dinners, waking up to the smell of freshly cooked French Toast, engaging in insightful conversations and joking with friends long after paying the bill, seeing extended family, being home for important events in my brother’s and sister’s lives, and simply embracing the moment with the people I was with.

When I left for Indonesia overcome with a rush of emotions, I realized that I was feeling immense gratitude for all the people in my life. It is no exaggeration that I would not be where I am today if it was not for every single person who went out of their way to accompany me along my journey. From finishing the basement of the new house so I had a place of my own, endless rides to appointments, to messages of support along the way, every act has helped me garner the strength to keep pressing forward. You created a place of comfort and safety during a period in my life of immense worry and unease.

Going back to Indonesia meant leaving behind that comfort and safety, and I felt scared to take that leap. The night before my flight I received an email from First Descents, the young adult cancer outdoors program I participated in this past summer. The email said, “Do something that challenges you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, and whatever it is, something that reminds you of how good life can be.” To live life to the fullest means to do what is uncomfortable. To push yourself beyond what you think is possible and take risks. For me, moving back to Indonesia is exactly that. It is an opportunity for me to reconnect with the parts of myself that I left behind in 2014 through the lens of the new person I have become since my recurrence.

Looking back on my journey with cancer, I realize that the comfort and security I felt during my treatment and recovery wasn’t a temporary chapter of my life, but has always been there and will continue to be there. I am incredibly grateful to know that there are so many people in my life that I can lean on for support in times of need, and I hope you know that I will always be there to support you as well.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” In my search for meaning throughout my cancer journey, I have discovered that what matters to me most in life is to be present with the people I share my life with. No matter where I am in the world, no matter where my journey leads me, I can be content in knowing I have the love and support of so many. For that I am incredibly grateful beyond anything I can put into words.

So, in short, thank you!

What Life’s All About

The Boston Brain Tumor Ride last Sunday could not have been a better day.  It wasn’t just the beautiful weather, scenic bike routes, festive environment, or the fact that I received two Red Sox tickets afterwards.  No…what made Sunday a day I will never forget is all of my family, friends, and community who came together to support me, to support each other, and to support the larger brain tumor community.

In a speech I gave after the ride, I mentioned that coming to terms with my own mortality has made me more understanding of the importance of the present, and that it is in the present where I draw my hope and strength.  Those words could not have been more true than on Sunday.

Quite literally actually, Sunday was the best I felt health and energy-wise since starting the chemo cycles two and a half weeks ago.  After finishing my first chemo cycle, I felt pretty fatigued to the point where I was unsure whether or not I would attempt to even get on a bike.  On Sunday morning though, I managed to complete the 10-mile ride, gaining energy as I biked along the route.

This wasn’t some miraculous achievement I pulled off, rather, it epitomizes what I have believed and continue to believe since my original surgery in 2004:  that what keeps me going, the reason I am still here today, is the support of my family, friends, and larger community.

I truly believe I was able to bike the 10 miles because of the energy of everyone around me both there in person and afar.  This ride was a success not because of one individual, but because a community came together to be there for one another.  Together we raised over $35,000 for brain tumor research!  But our success goes beyond the number of dollars raised…it includes the community of hope that was forged.  That community includes the over 45 riders in Boston, Chicago, and Bali…the more than 500 people that donated to our team…and the countless messages of support in the months leading up to the ride.

After my speech, I received a heartwarming hug from a mother whose son passed away at 23 years old, my age, from a brain tumor.  In our brief moment of embrace I apologized for her lost, but she responded by thanking me for continuing to live on in the way she would have wanted for her son.  And that’s really what this is all about…

On Sunday and in the months leading up to the ride what united us was not just the impact of brain tumors, it was an appreciation of and love for life.  It was recognizing that what life is all about is being there for one another.

To me, recognizing the importance of the present means appreciating all of the people by your side.  And just like the success of the ride could not have been achieved alone, my journey with brain cancer will not be one I walk alone.  I had the amazing privilege on Sunday to witness all of the support I have.  With that privilege, I believe, comes a responsibility to in turn be there for all of those around me…my family, friends…my community.  Because when it all comes down to it, what is truly important in life is being there for each other.

So thank you for being there for me, for giving me strength, and for giving me hope.  It was a day I will never forget, so let’s keep on riding…and keep on living!

Check out photos from the weekend below: