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Taking Off Your Mask and Facing Cancer

If you’re reading this, well hello! My name’s Jake, I’m 28 years young and I talk about all thing’s mental health, wellness and my battle with cancer on my Instagram @jakeobrien. I’m also much easier to understand in writing than any other form of communication these days because somehow, I managed to get into a pickle with Laryngeal (voice box) Cancer. Bummer!

Before my diagnosis, I assumed I may have simply overused my voice at work (I’m a fitness coach), which resulted in a somewhat sexy Christian Bale like sound. However, as time went on things persisted to deteriorate. I ignored it for a while, that was until one of the more embarrassing nights of my life went down.

One of my longest standing childhood mates asked me to MC at his wedding. Being the outspoken extrovert that I am, I said: “Of course I can!” even though my voice was obviously getting worse every day and I denied anything being “wrong."

By the time the wedding day had come around I could barely talk BUT being my stubborn self, I stuck to my word and MC’d for the night. After the beautiful ceremony we all headed into the ball room.

There must have been around 100 guest. I was nervous as hell, but I had my scripts done and I was ready to give it my all! I grabbed that microphone and with my loudest and proudest voice asked everyone to take their seats. Unfortunately, the microphone only amplified how weak, raspy and frankly unattractive my voice had become. Hesitantly, everybody sat down.

I proceeded to introduce the bridal party and do all the other important tasks of an MC. Things were going smoothly enough, but I was the laughingstock of the entire wedding. Rather than a few close friends saying "Nah man it’s all good, you sound like Batman!" I had an entire dining hall filled with guest who must have thought I was a pack-a-day smoker who had been on a weeklong bender! This was ultimately the catalyst that made me get checked out.

I went to the doctor and they saw some lumps but told me it should be nothing to worry about. They did a biopsy and called me back into the room the next day. Five minutes of small talk go by then we (my partner and I) hear: “I’m really sorry kid, but you’ve got cancer.”

By this stage I had just spent a year recovering from a very near-death motorcycle accident, so when I heard this, all I could think was: “Get f*k*d, you’ve gotta be kidding me."

Well, I accidentally said this aloud. I quickly apologized for my profanity. Meanwhile I looked over to see that my partner already had a stream of tears running down her cheeks resembling the consistency of Niagara Falls. Fast forward 20 minutes and we were back outside. Trying to work out, WTF were we supposed to feel and do next? I suddenly thought: “F**k, I have to tell my mum, don’t I? She’s not going to be happy about this one!”

She didn’t take it well. Nor did anyone. I seemed to be the only one unaffected by the news -- on the surface.

“Just bloody calm down everyone would ya!” I thought to myself as I hid my own anxiety, panic and fear behind the mask of a cool, calm and collected individual. I bottle up those “negative” emotions until I would detonate in a massive mental breakdown, shake it off, put my mask back on and repeat.

Something I learned from the challenges that came with facing cancer is I SUCK at expressing my feelings properly (relatively common behavior in men). It took some time, but eventually through my healing journey (combined with some excellent counseling) I felt enabled to finally take off that mask. Slowly but surely the tightly woven layers of my hard exterior came and I was able to feel and express those more vulnerable aspects of myself.

It was a beautiful period of growth, but it didn’t come without its challenges.

As things regressed and the chances of a laryngectomy (total removal of the larynx) became more real, things got scary. Not an ideal situation for a young fitness instructor who never shuts up! I tried every alternative medicine you could think of. Herbal tinctures, vitamin C infusions, and everything in between. I also embarked on a three-week fast (with doctors' monitoring it), followed with a strict whole-food-plant-based diet.

I ended up getting my six-pack back and feeling stronger than ever, but I also still had cancer. It was time to do radiotherapy. The last thing between me and that dreaded laryngectomy.

Radiotherapy anywhere must suck, but on your throat area it sucks extra bad. The cancer on my larynx was the target but the whole throat is in the firing line. My saliva glands went into overdrive and I even got a chest infection. So, I had an endless flow of green goop oozing from my face nonstop. My gullet got so sore I could barely swallow water let alone any decent food. I went from a plant-based super charged health guru to consuming nothing but ice cubes and cold, unseasoned two-minute noodles and pain killers for a good two to three months. I labeled myself as the neighborhood swamp monster -- Just for fun.

There were many sleepless nights, mental breakdowns and a whole lot of personal development during that time. Two months after radiotherapy was complete, I was finally declared in remission. It seems cancer has a funny way of changing how we define ourselves. It takes all the little bits of your identity, throws them into the pressure cooker, adds a few other ingredients, turns up the heat and presto: You’re a new person!

How that new person looks at life is your choice. You get to decide whether cancer defines or empowers you. I choose the latter.

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