Cycle of Lives

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Below is an excerpt from the book Cycle of Lives: 15 People’s Stories, 5,000 Miles, and a Journey Through the Emotional Chaos of Cancer by David Richman:

Convincing People to Talk

Since this book is about the emotions related to cancer, it was vital that the participants allowed me a special pass into their thoughts and feelings. I knew I’d be asking a lot of them, so I needed people who would let me explore the hidden truth of their experiences. How were they made up inside? What made them make one choice over another? How were they equipped to deal with the traumas they encountered—or not? How did they come to terms with the difficulties they didn’t dare talk about with anyone? Those types of questions could only be answered if the participants were willing to share the most private and intimate details of their experiences with me.

Our ability to form relationships is often limited by our preconceived notions about others. But people are like icebergs—most of them is hidden away beneath the surface. If we don’t try to understand what’s down there, if we squeeze our eyes shut and plug our ears, if we close our minds and hearts to the things we can’t see, then we will never be able to make sense of it all. I think that deep down inside we are all trying to uncover the meaning of life, evaluate our experiences, and see the human condition for what it is so we can gain perspective on ourselves.

One of the reasons that makes every story in this book unique is that each one proves that we are not always the people others think we are. We may not even be the people we think we are. In truth, we are, each of us, much more than the people we appear to be. Some of the book participants were quick to open up and some were not. Some ended up not being able to talk at all. They wanted to but found that they simply couldn’t.

On long training rides, I spent hours thinking about my talks with the different book participants. I contemplated the more layered thoughts and tried to understand what made these remarkable people think the way they did about things. With my mind largely uncluttered during a multi-hour bike ride each day, I found that I could often solve little problems or develop strategies for future discussions with my book participants. Pedaling for hours and hours also helped me work through the confusion that came hand in hand with some of the heavier issues my book participants shared with me.

If we’re being honest, what’s really exceptional about anyone? It’s an intriguing question to contemplate when evaluating the impact one person might have on others. After all, don’t we all yearn to discover the rarity in others? To be moved by the extraordinary in a largely mundane world? Almost every one of my book participants considers themselves unexceptional. Sure, they might have to admit that some facets of their story, once properly examined, might seem breathtaking for a minute, but it’s fascinating how unmoved they are by their own unimaginably profound journeys. What has come to seem normal to them is anything but, and that’s where the magic of the Cycle of Lives stories lies—in the beautiful and haunting truths revealed to us by otherwise ordinary people.

Bobby

Relationship to cancer: Caregiver and advocate

Age: Forty-six

Family status: Married with no children

Location: Southern California

First encounter with cancer: Thirty-five years old

Cancer summary: Bobby’s wife, Brandi, was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer at thirty-five. The cancer returned and metastasized in an aggressive fashion. She died at forty.

Treatment specifics: Brandi was diagnosed with breast cancer, which metastasized to her lymph nodes, lungs, bones, brain, and kidneys. She tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and underwent radiation therapy, chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, a double oophorectomy, lymph node removal, and various other procedures to extend her life and manage her pain.

Community involvement: Brandi and Bobby were active advocates for the American Cancer Society. Bobby and his current wife, Kirsten, remain active and direct a successful Relay For Life event each year, fundraising for the American Cancer Society in Brandi’s memory.

Strongest positive emotion during cancer experience: Humility

Strongest negative emotion during cancer experience: Anger

How we met: I was out with friends one evening about a year before the bike ride. A bunch of guys had decided to get together for drinks to celebrate someone’s birthday. After a couple of beers, the stories were flowing.

A few of us present that night had taken a vacation to Mexico together seven years before for the purposes of an endurance event I had organized to raise money for cancer care and research. It was an eighty-five-mile solo run along busy Highway 307 that began on a sticky, ninety-degree day in late June. The run took me more than twenty-two hours to complete and tested me both mentally and physically. The few buddies who’d come with me on that trip ran by my side and cheered me on.

That night we met for drinks, the group who’d gone with me to Mexico reminisced about the crazier memories from our ten days there. Afterward, one of my friends pulled me aside.

“You should talk to Bobby about your cancer book,” he said and nodded his head toward the one guy present I didn’t know. Bobby had a broad, genuine smile. He looked cheery and confident but not in a forced way. He had a comfortable, understated aura about him. I approached him, and within minutes we were deep in conversation. Over the next year, Bobby told me his cancer story.

A New Pair of Glasses

Bobby sat in the lobby of his lawyer’s office. It had been another late night, and he was still trying to shake off the fog. When you’ve had more drinks than hours of sleep, the math works against you. Bobby liked his lawyer. Roger was one of the few people he could be around without bracing for impact. Bobby could be just Bobby, not some twisted-up, stressed-out, defensive version of himself. When Bobby was shown into the office, he saw Roger wasn’t waiting at the small round side table where they always sat, but over on the large, tufted-leather sofa on the opposite side of the room.

“Wanna chat?” Roger asked.

Bobby smiled. “On or off the clock?”

“Off, of course,” Roger said with genuine concern. “How you doing? You okay?”

The pounding in Bobby’s head increased. How the hell do you think I’m doing?

He was only a few years past thirty, but his life already felt as if it were coming apart at the seams. He was being sued in the wake of his friend and business partner’s death. He was going through a second divorce. His patent design business was struggling, he was completely broke, and bankruptcy loomed on the horizon. His dad’s heart was wearing down. He didn’t know which friends he could trust. As if that weren’t enough, Bobby had begun hanging out in some pretty rough spots at night.

“I’m fine, I guess,” Bobby said.

“I know you’re going through a lot.”

Ain’t that the truth, brother.

Bobby shrugged. “Hey, nobody’s giving me a medal for ‘Toughest Life Ever.’”

“Talk to me,” Roger said. “What’s going on?”

Bobby let out a deep sigh and sunk deeper into the sofa. After a short pause, he answered. Letting his guard down, he described the despondency he felt, how he struggled to stay positive. He didn’t go into too much detail about his failings, because who wants to describe the full scope of their bad behavior? But he did touch on the more painful events that were affecting his life.

“You can’t go around getting in fights, Bobby.”

Bobby nodded. So that’s what this is about, he thought. The onslaught of dark times had brought out equally dark things in Bobby. He felt he was ruined, financially and otherwise, so he began to act as if he had nothing left to lose. Hard times had come hard, and Bobby wanted to fight back against what was happening to him. He knew he could climb into his own head and engage in a mental boxing match against it all, but even when he did, he left the scuffle needing more. He could only find satisfaction in the primitive pleasure that a flesh-to-flesh punch can sometimes bring.

“I’m like that gunslinger in the movie Shane,” Bobby said. “I’ll take it and take it, but if you hit me, if you purposely try to harm me—you’ll unleash a monster.” Bobby gestured toward the stack of papers he needed to sign. “It’s getting to the point that I can’t take it anymore. You see how ruined I am. Everything’s ruined.”

“I understand,” Robert said. “It seems that way.”

It is that way, Bobby thought. No matter how much he tried to hold on to his optimism and confidence, they were disappearing. In the past, he’d never thought of himself as a failure. Bad times were usually no match for his competence and drive, but everything in his life had become an exercise in failure.

“Look. I’ve been doing this a long time, Bobby. It will all pass. Really,” Robert said. “I mean, you’re a bright guy. You’re young. You have plenty of sand in the hourglass. I know it seems like a lot right now, but you’ll get through it all.”

That’s easy for you to say. Try living my life for a day.

“Maybe,” Bobby said. “But it sure doesn’t look like it from where I’m sitting.”

“Bobby, trust me. The sun’s coming up tomorrow.”

Bobby closed his eyes. He wanted to cry and scream, anything to get away from the pain and difficulty and bullshit. He wanted to believe Roger, but he didn’t.

“I appreciate the thought,” Bobby said. It was a lie.

A few weeks later, Bobby got a phone call that would prove his lawyer right.

Spending late nights drinking whiskey and looking for fights helped Bobby cope with his situation, but music is what gave him a less destructive way of releasing his daily accumulated stresses. In particular, dark, heavy rap music offered Bobby the reprieve from life he needed to keep things together.

The night he got the phone call that would change his life, Bobby was blasting “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and loudly singing along.

As Bobby hunched over his drafting board, immersed in the lyrics of the song and the lines of his drawing, the phone rang, causing him to turn down the one thing that drowned out all the dark noise in his head.

“Bobby here,” he answered.

“Bobby? It’s Christine.”

He hadn’t talked with his ex-wife’s friend since the split, so he was wary about what she might want from him.

Although Bobby’s two marriages failed in part due to his wives’ bad behavior—the first was addicted to drugs, the second cheated with one of his best friends—he accepted his share of the blame. If it took two people to make a relationship work, then it took two to let it fail. Bobby was aware that he could’ve earned the label of “world’s worst communicator,” both in terms of his self-awareness and his communication with others. Bobby didn’t speak about his failures, about all the bad things that were going on in his life. He didn’t talk about thoughts and feelings in general. His stoic attitude and deftness at avoiding interpersonal connection left him alone to wallow in the tumult that came his way. Since Bobby kept his pain behind closed doors, to outsiders like Christine, he probably appeared unaffected.

“I know this is really awkward,” Christine said. “I mean, I know the divorce isn’t final yet, but there’s someone I think you should meet. She’s a friend of mine, and honestly I think she might be someone you’d like.”

“Someone he might like” was the last thing Bobby wanted. He was losing faith in the goodness of others and in his ability to direct his life as he desired. He was barely able to sift through the rubble of his destroyed life—let alone think of introducing anybody into it.

“I don’t think so,” he told her.

“Well, I think you would really be perfect for each other,” Christine insisted. “She’s leaving to move back home to Missouri soon—real soon. What could it hurt?”

He demurred a few more times, but she persisted. Bobby thought it was pointless. He was in no place to think about dating. But Christine was a decent person, and she wouldn’t have called unless she had put some thought into it. After a while, Bobby relented. After all, maybe it was time for him to try lighting the darkness in a healthier way for one night.

Meeting Brandi

A few nights later, Bobby met Brandi at a small Italian restaurant for dinner. He arrived with enough emotional baggage for a world tour, but Bobby hid it under the table as he sat waiting for her to arrive. He was determined to be his best self. What did he have to lose?

When she finally came through the door, his face flushed with hot blood. She was stunning. Long, dark, loose curls flowed down her back. Her shoulders were that special blend of feminine—soft, smooth, and strong. She scanned the tables, and Bobby stood. She burst into a huge smile that crinkled her piercing eyes, holding Bobby in place with an intense and deep look. Her smile was a lavish, beautiful, swath of white. Bobby felt paralyzed by her undeniable aura of self-confidence.

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