Joe is from Melbourne, Australia and wrote a self-help book for men with cancer (thanks to being diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 36). He also encourages people to do his 7 Day Challenge to Take Your Life Back After Cancer.
1. It’s a different world that you didn't know existed
Maybe your life wasn’t perfect (I hope you don’t live under the stairs), but at least it was familiar, predictable and well, it felt like your own! But the cancer diagnosis, like a diabolical version of Platform 9 and 3/4, transports you to the alternate reality of medical tests, oncology wards and uncertainty.
I will never forget the doors of the oncology ward opening in front of me, like crossing into Hogwarts, one surreal moment of many more to come. You get slammed with a new vocabulary of concepts you didn’t know existed (oh, is that what survival rate is?!) and almost magical incantations (“I just want this to be over!” - but then, this isn’t very magical after all).
And then, of course, there are those that unwittingly become your teachers. If my oncologist is the wise Dumbledore, and my urologist is Mad-Eye Moody (for a while, I wasn’t sure WHAT was going on), then the head nurse Dixie is the Prof. McGonagall, always the voice of reason amidst the mad rush and confusion.
2. You find out A LOT about yourself
Turns out, you have magical abilities - resilience, persistence, facing the unknown and persisting despite the pain. What’s more, you are forced to confront your fears (remember Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake? I am not going to miss those cannulas in my arm, oh no).
Yet nothing is a given, you’ve got to figure out what’s right for you. I wish I had a copy of “Weird Wizarding Dilemmas and Their Solutions” when I had to decide whether to go with radiation or chemo after surgery. The radiation oncologist was the exact replica of frustrating, amorphous and non-committal. What are my chances if I go with this treatment, I asked? Like Harry, you are relying on your intuition and evidence based advice from wizards you know, like and trust.
3. You have no idea what is REALLY going on or how things are going to work out
I was lucky with my medical team (must have been a lucky cancer Sorting Hat), but the never-ending worry left a permanent scar on my head. The constant, relentless wait for the next artifact, the next specialist appointment, the next treatment, the next scan result.
Here’s me, making my way from the veranda to the swing bench across our backyard. My head swimming, legs full of lead, I finally conquer several strides of grass. I plant myself on the swing bench, like it was meant to happen.
Time for my very own magical artifacts - my coffee and a great book. I’ve so been looking forward to a good cup of coffee, gulp - YUCK! Argh, this is awful, this thing tastes like dishwater. Wait, that’s because everything after chemo tastes like dishwater! So I hang my head and set the cup aside, and get the book out. I open it up, look inside, and I can see the words, I can understand each one, but they don’t fit. I can’t grasp the meaning, it escapes me, so I put it aside too. I’m a mess How on Earth will I get through the next six weeks of waiting for results?!
4. You should never have to toughen things out on your own
Too many times Harry Potter dives head first into danger (well, almost too many times) without asking for help, or advice, or even talking to anyone about it. It all worked itself out in the end, but there were too many close calls (Chamber of Secrets, I’m looking at you!) and a whole lot of worry for everyone involved.
And I get it. Just before I started chemo, I took my 2-year-old son to our favourite park for the day. We ran around on the playground, chasing away the naughty seagulls, played with his toy cars, ate our delicious cheese, and crackers, and sultanas. A truly magical day, and at the end of it when we were leaving, I said to myself: How can tell this kid about my cancer? So we said the doctors are going to look after me, and off I went.
The hospital was far away from home, and we’d often talk on Skype. So one time when we were talking about everyday things, I noticed the pain in my son’s eyes. He could tell that something was wrong, that us adults were keeping secrets from him. And when I saw that pain in his eyes, I realised that by wanting to shield my son from my cancer, I excluded him. That’s when I knew that things had to change. We sat down with Michael and explained what’s going on, and we made cancer a part of our lives, he was himself again, playing and goofing off.
And it really came together for me when Michael’s birthday came around. We had our celebration in my oncology ward. My mum made the cake; my wife brought his presents; we had oncology nurses come in and sing happy birthday. I was there plugged into my drip, when I saw the joy on his face as he was hugging his new giant Hulk, I realised that’s when our lives became normal. When I stopped trying to be a hero, to take it upon myself to carry it all, and it helped out the people I care about the most.
5. When you go back to your world, you will never look at it in the same way again
When Harry goes back to the world he grew up in, his entire world view has changed. And it’s not just the Dursleys - it’s the way he feels, even the way he sees himself. And the same is true for our lives after cancer.
Some say - I won’t let cancer define me. But how can it not?! Our experience shapes us, yet the key distinction is that we choose HOW it will define us. We do that through our beliefs and values, and in our attitude towards life, and by taking action in a meaningful way.
I found greater purpose in life by contributing to something greater than I am through my book and Simplify Cancer podcast, videos and speaking - and home is now the source of comfort and solaced, the ever-present Room of Requirement. or people like you and me (and Harry too) have the proof that, after everything that we have been through, life is precious and fragile and we have to make the absolute best of it because any day, it can be taken away!