My Cancer was a Chance to See What Really Matters
Matthew Grossman, left, at a Great American Smokeout event at Clark University.
My name is Matthew Grossman, and I survived on February 25, 2005.
No, it didn’t happen in a moment where everything was just all right again, or a day the doctors cheered and said, “Congratulations, you’re cancer-free.” And there definitely were no balloons or cake. I'm talking about the night I was finally taken out of Johns Hopkins Hospital in a wheelchair and allowed to go home. I felt too dizzy to walk, but it was the first drop of rain on my forehead, and the first gust of wind I could remember, because I had been inside for more than a month.
It all started one night in middle school. I was doing my homework in my room, and suddenly my head felt like it was going to crack in two. I hadn’t been getting much sleep because physics class was getting really hard, and I had been headachey for most of the day. I figured it was just stress. It happened again the next night, though, and it was worse. I couldn’t, eat, sleep, or do homework because it was SO painful.
So I did what any kid would do - I told my Mom. Weeks later, on a cold winter night in early January, I found myself sitting in yet another doctor’s office, silent and shaking as he flipped through my scans, stopping over and over on one slide, utterly silent.
Suddenly his voice came out as if it were shackled. “There seems to be something there.” Then it happened; I heard the word “cancer.” Not that I hadn’t heard it before. My grandpa had cancer, and I had heard of other older people getting it, BUT ME? I was 13 years old, this couldn’t be possible! I was supposed to be in school, playing soccer, playing guitar. My life had just started. Was it going to end soon?
I was diagnosed with a non-germinomanous germ cell tumor (NGGCT for short) in my brain. That night, I was driven to Hopkins and my journey began. In the next year and a half, I underwent an initial treatment plan of three months of chemotherapy and an extra month of proton beam radiation. I had a relapse where the cancer started growing again, surgery to remove the tumor, and two bone marrow transplants. But I made it through, partly because of family, partly because of friends, partly because I found a way to make cancer positive or at least authentic, partly because of music, partly because of meditation, and partly because of toxic chemicals injected in my veins, radioactive beams shot at my head, and needles and knives that removed my brain tumor.
Surviving cancer came with light and darkness, just like life. There were a lot of lows: I remember showering in the hospital bathroom a couple of weeks after diagnosis, running shampoo through my thick black hair at one moment, and the next moment grabbing clump after black clump of hair, trying to put it back on my head.
There were highs, too, though: at a certain point, I said I’d had enough of losing my hair, so I shaved it off myself. I’ve been fortunate to be able to pull off the Vin Diesel look pretty well. I even had a long black-haired wig at one time that made me look like a Latin lover. But even then, I chose to go bald again because I wanted to feel the wind blowing across my head.
I remember waking up one morning after a whole night of chemotherapy during my first bone marrow transplant. I turned to my mother. Her voice sounded like it always did, but her words somehow sounded strangely different, like they were just out of reach. I picked up my guitar and started to play. Then I heard, “YOUR GUITAR IS OUT OF TUNE,” and I realized at that moment that I was going deaf.
I tried over and over again to tune it, but the notes were lost. Holding back the tears, I threw my guitar down and blasted some Ben Folds in my ears. “It was pain, sunny days and rain, I knew you’d feel the same way. Everybody knows, it hurts to grow up.”
And that’s what the next year was: a lot of really sunny days and a lot of really rainy days, as my hearing aids became less and less able to make up for my hearing loss.
This darkness lasted for a little over a year.
The light did come in small pieces though: the next year, I came back to school as a deaf individual with hearing aids. Hearing when there was no background noise was easy, but hearing with lots of competing noise became impossible as my hearing continued to deteriorate. I lost some of my friends who couldn’t deal with it, but several of my friends also stuck close, and I started to realize who my true friends were. In short, I had to learn to overcome many small losses, like not catching a conversation, standing out, having some friends “not get it," and cling to the big victories, like finding some of my closest friends (who are still some of my closest friends today), making it to a year cancer-free, doing well in school, and staying happy and healthy.
The greatest light came in 10th grade, when we realized my hearing aids were not helping enough anymore, and my family and I decided that it was a good idea for me to get a cochlear implant. I still remember the night before the surgery, sitting in the car crying with my mom. The surgery would leave me completely deaf in my left ear. What if the device didn’t work? What if I was left in a worse situation?
After the device was implanted, I had to endure a week with absolutely no hearing in my left ear. Then, on January 27, 2007, my activation date, I came in to Hopkins and the doctors literally turned my ear back on. I sat there with my head hung low, and suddenly everything turned on — the whole room, my breathing, the doctor’s voice. I walked out that afternoon and heard birds chirping for the first time in over a year. It was one of the best days of my life!
My cancer was a test of my mind and my body and an opportunity to see how beautiful the simple things really are. My cancer was a chance to see what really matters, to bond with my family, to gain some perspective, to feel alive!
Cancer does not and should not always represent something sad - death, tragedy, loss. Cancer carries with it a struggle as well as a blessing, a life-threatening and life-changing experience for ALL involved, a time to grieve, and a time to raise spirits and inspire those around you, and a time to realize what you've lost as well as what you still have.