In August 2016, my family and I moved to North Canton, Ohio for me to begin a new job at Kent State University. We had a wonderful final summer in Memphis and arrived in Ohio with high hopes for an exciting new chapter in our lives.
I felt great for our first few weeks in Ohio. By the start of the September, however, I started feeling sick. I had a high fever, felt really tired, and had swelling in my neck and shoulders. After a couple of trips to an urgent care facility and another to the emergency room, I was told that I had some sort of viral infection that would go away in a week or two. It took about three weeks, but I did finally start to feel better. During my initial visit to my new primary care doctor in late September, I told him that I thought I'd finally kicked the viral infection and was feeling like myself again. Unfortunately, that feeling did not last.
In early October, my family and I were scheduled to travel to southern California. I was invited to speak at California State University Channel Islands––where my good friend Jacob Jenkins is a faculty member; Maggie and the boys planned on tagging along so that we could also visit her brother Andy's family. I started feeling sick again in the days leading up to the trip. By the time we reached California, my symptoms had returned and the swelling in my neck was worse than it had been in the prior month. I also noticed that I had dozens of broken blood vessels on my chest. At this point, I knew there was something more serious going on.
The morning we returned to Ohio, I went to visit my doctor. I could tell he was concerned by my symptoms (I am a health communication professor, after all), but he assured me that there was no reason to worry, as it was most likely another viral infection or perhaps walking pneumonia. He sent me to another facility to have a chest x-ray done.
Within a few hours, my doctor called me. He explained that there was a large "opacity" on my chest x-ray and that it was important that I follow up with a CT Scan as soon as possible. The CT scan revealed that I had a large (approximately 10x13 centimeter) mass in my mediastinum. The CT report further indicated that the mass was likely a sign of non-Hodgkin lymphoma; it also showed that the mass was pressing on my superior vena cava, which was causing the swelling in my neck, the broken blood vessels, and making it difficult for me to breathe. A PET scan a few days later confirmed that the mass was cancerous and that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my stomach and shoulder.
A week later, I saw my oncologist for the first time. He immediately referred me to a surgeon to schedule a mediastinoscopy. The tissue samples obtained during this procedure allowed the oncologist to firmly diagnose me with stage 3 primary mediastinal diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The oncologist also did a bone marrow biopsy, which was negative (meaning that the cancer has not spread to the bone marrow); it was the first good news we'd received in a while.
I started chemotherapy on Thursday, November 17 (the week prior to Thanksgiving). I completed the first round of chemo over four days in the hospital; it went very well (minimal side effects), and I should be able to complete the rest of my treatments as an outpatient. The plan, at this point, is to complete five more (six total) chemotherapy sessions during the next 15 weeks and then see how things have progressed. Depending on how things go, there could be more chemo, radiation, or a stem cell transplant. Of course, the best case scenario is that the cancer is gone after the first treatment cycle. Either way, although my cancer is advanced and aggressive, it is also highly treatable and the doctor believes that my prognosis is relatively good.
It was scary to learn that I have a life-threatening illness, but it has also forced me to slow down and reflect on all of the wonderful things in my life. I am grateful for Maggie; her love and support inspire me every day. I am grateful for our two boys, Graham (1 year) and Liam (7 years); they are so full of goodness and life. I am grateful for my work; with each passing year, I am more convinced that being a professor is the best job in the world. Finally, I am grateful for all of you––my family members, friends, and colleagues; your kindness and generosity over the past few weeks has reminded me how many extraordinary people I have in my life. I am so thankful for all of the cards, gifts, visits, calls, and text messages I've received. I am especially grateful to my parents, Tim and Trish Dillon, for being here for every appointment and treatment. They have been a huge help with the kids; I'm not sure what Maggie and I would've done without them.
During this difficult time, I have also been reminded of the important role that suffering plays in our lives. While it is sometimes easier to measure ourselves by the milestones we celebrate or the things that we accomplish, the countless people I've met as a teacher and researcher over the past decade have taught me that the key moments and turning points in our lives are most often tied to difficult, terribly painful experiences. As Rob Bell, one of my favorite writers, once said, "suffering is traumatic and awful and we get angry and shake our fists at the heavens and we vent and rage and weep. But in the process, we discover a new tomorrow, one we never would have imagined otherwise." I know that the next few months will be difficult, but––as I continue this journey––I am determined to find that "new tomorrow," whatever it may be.