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

First Descents – learning to #OutLiveIt

Whenever I have trouble falling asleep, I focus in to that day on the river. Sitting in my kayak, I paddled as slow as possible, hoping that this moment would never end. I took every second I could to soak in the beauty around me: The tranquil flow of the Snake River, the ascending dry yet tree-covered mountains to either side, the crisp blue sky above, and the occasional eagle, perched on the tree-tops, watching us all float by. As I approached the turn, I could hear the rush of whitewater as my heart pounded with anticipation. Turning the corner, a series of rapids crashed ahead. I aimed my kayak straight towards the meat of the first wave, gripping my paddle perhaps a little too tight. It was my first time during a week-long crash course in whitewater kayaking where I had to navigate through rapids by myself. With no guide to follow, I had to trust my instincts. To go with the flow of the river. To be completely present.

This was the last day of my unforgettable week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with First Descents, an organization that puts together outdoor adventures for young adult cancer fighters and survivors. This is more than a trip, it is an awakening for young people like me who have gone through the grueling physical and emotional trials of cancer to embrace the simple, yet transformative culture of #OutLivingIt. It was an opportunity for me to connect with nature, other young adults, and myself.

When I was diagnosed with brain cancer at 12 years old, I learned a valuable lesson to live life to the fullest. After my surgery and years of recovery, I took that lesson to heart. I strived to experience as much as possible. I hiked through the rainforests of Madagascar, tagged sharks, and sailed a tall ship through the bioluminescent high seas under a star-studded night sky. I explored and scuba-dived the exotic underwater world of Indonesia. For me, scuba diving was what made me feel whole. It was the last obstacle for me to overcome since my first seizure in 2003. I had to wait to be 5-years seizure free without any medication until I could take my first breath underwater. When that moment finally came in 2011 over a shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, I was hooked.

In July of 2014, when I had my first seizure in 10 years, I lost my ability to scuba-dive…the one activity that made me feel me. More so, when diagnosed with my recurrence just a few months later, I felt fragile. After over a year of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, I felt nervous to simply take a trip from Boston to D.C.. I felt lost, and unable to recognize who I was.

When I paddled through my first set of whitewater with First Descents, I was overcome with emotions. I finally found an activity that made me feel the same way as scuba diving. Like the ocean, the river was the ultimate equalizer. Despite my physical limitations on my right side, I could paddle…and paddle well. When I scuba dived, time slowed down. Immersed in an underwater world, all that mattered was the beauty surrounding me. The same was true on the river. The river forced me to be completely present. The moment I thought about deadlines, bills, or anything other than the whitewater ahead of me, I was flipped over. Like challenges in life, the river necessitated taking each rapid step by step. If I was surprised by a wave coming in from the side, or a rock ahead, I was taught to lean into the obstacle rather than shy away from it.

My week with First Descents was so much more than kayaking. What made my experience truly special were the people I shared it with. When the program started, I was given the nickname Siren. The entire week, up until exchanging Facebook contact info on the last day, I only knew the people around me by their nickname. This may seem weird at first, but it was integral to the transformative nature of the week. With my nickname, I felt in some ways reborn: able to come into this new experience without the baggage of my past. I was enabled to embrace where I was and the people I was with. I took on the new experiences and challenges not as Jeremy, but as Siren (my #OutLivingIt alter ego). Eventually, by the end of the week Jeremy became Siren, and Siren had become Jeremy. Both identities intertwined as I moved forward.

The staff, guides, volunteers, and especially fellow young adult survivors were some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. They have left a lasting imprint on my life, and remind me to #OutLiveIt every day. What made my solo kayak on the last day so special was that in fact, I was never alone. As I turned the corner and approached the first set of whitewater, I saw one of our guides hanging off to the side watching. While I had to face the set of obstacles ahead of me by myself, I had the comfort of knowing she was there to help if needed. This was like my journey facing cancer. Yes, I had to face some parts of my experience alone, but I always had my caregivers…family and friends…there to support me and lend a hand when life flipped me over.

After the last wave, I wiped the water from my eyes and paddled into the eddy. As I rounded the corner of the rock wall, I saw every staff, guide, volunteer, and young adult survivor who I had the fortune to spend an entire week with. This is what it was all about. While each of us participating in the First Descents program had our own unique personal journey that we had to paddle through, in the end, what mattered most was that we all had each other. A new FD family.

One of my guides shared with me a fantastic quote by Jack London:

“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”

My week with First Descents taught me what it feels like to be truly present. That no matter where life takes me, I will be content if I am present doing what I love, surrounded by people sharing the moment with me. I shall use my time knowing that I am always striving to #OutLiveIt.

I wrote this because I want you to know how special First Descents is. Brad Ludden, the organization’s founder, is a finalist for this year’s CNN Heroes! If First Descent’s wins, they will receive $100,000 to send more than 100 additional young adults on outdoor adventures like mine. My week with First Descents was one of the best treatments I could have ever gotten, and every young adult going through cancer deserves to have this experience. So PLEASE follow this LINK and VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! (p.s. you can vote up to 10 times!)

Thank you,

-Siren

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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: