My Cancer Birthday


I am 42 years old. And I have malignant pleural mesothelioma. I am told I am Stage 3. Although I have probably survived with this disease for five years or so, I am officially three years out from awareness of the disease. I have a wife, one child, four cats, two cars, and six drum kits. I have one lung. I have three cancer dates.

And I cannot decide which one to celebrate.

I am told I have time, that my cancer is not active, that I am NED (i.e., no evidence of disease), that I should live my life vibrantly, that I should cherish every moment, that I should “make new memories” with my wife and child, that I should keep working, that I should continue being me. And despite the grim prognosis for those with mesothelioma — the five-year survival rate is around 5% — I live a vibrant and pleasurable life, without complaining or mourning or self-loathing. In fact, I am often told I do too much. But I was told this before I found out I have cancer, so I consider this concern of no concern.

But one thing challenges me: a date. A number, a block on the calendar, a 24-hour period that is part of the 8,760 hours that make up a year, a number. As I sit here three years out from diagnosis, I struggle with the very notion of what three years means. I struggle with my cancer date. Yes, a lot of people have cancer. I am by no means unique. But my date is unique. It is mine. I just don’t know which date it is. The numbers, usually so absolute, fail me.

So as I sit here considering my 36 or so months since diagnosis I also struggle with something that seems benign but carries with it great meaning in my now hyper-focused life: What day is my “cancer anniversary.” That is, what day truly is my official day to mark the beginning of a new, NED year? When I celebrate my new life, what date should that be? Because people want to know how long I have survived mesothelioma, I must choose a grim unbirthday to appease them.

My date deficiency differs from the struggle I have with dates when I stumble over them while teaching, a result of chemotherapy and, my doctor assures me, being 40+ years old. No, the date I struggle with is the one that should be carved on my psyche: the day that defines my cancer, the one that defines my survival.

Like an unholy cancer trinity, I have three dates. June 1 is the day I was awoken from blackness by my surgeon and told, “I’m sorry, John. It’s cancer.” Then there is June 4, the day I watched my wife, usually stoical, crumble when in my surgeon’s office we were told that it was definitely mesothelioma and that the average survival rate is 18 months. And then there is September 4, the day I underwent a surgery that removed the patches of cancer along with my lung, my pleura, half my diaphragm, the pericardium from my heart, and my sixth rib. This after three rounds of chemo, each nine hours in length. Then there were the 27 radiation sessions that began in haste and put me back in the hospital three more times in three months.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, numbers become guides to your health or lack thereof. They define you. Statistics, survival rates, CCs of fluid, number of radiation treatments, number of days in the hospital, the number of tubes emerging from your sides, the number of pills you consume each day, the phone numbers for the local emergency clinic, your child’s age and birthday, the years you have been happily married, the sum totals on the medical bills. Your acute awareness of numbers becomes a kind of drunken numerology that belches up your destiny. Numbers swim in your head and give you that feeling when you’ve had too many despite your now sobered reality.

One number makes you taller. One number makes you smaller. Even if you hated math in school, you are now a numbers expert.

When a person dies, we look at life dates as definitive. He was born on a day. He died on a day. But that individual was biologically “birthed” way before the birth date carved into that tombstone, and that individual might have died inside days, months, or years before the end date on the coroner’s report. The dates on a gravestone are constructs. They give us, the survivors, structure. We are born. We die. Numbers rule. And those who remain behind take solace in the numbers being conclusive.

But when you live with cancer, especially an insidious, incurable one, the numbers are indefinite. And the struggle is not just with the disease and the way it has impacted those around you, but with the very notion of what survival means. Yes, having some control over numbers helps you bolster your tax refund, win at poker, save money on gas for your car, even assist your child as she navigates her math homework, but your personal cancer numerology is not so easy to fathom. It is by no means carved in stone.

I am told I am young, that the average age of diagnosis for my cancer is 70. I am a rarity, an oddity, that my cancer is itself rarefied. “The numbers don’t apply to you,” I have been told by more than one oncologist. One even told me, “You are weird.”

I was never a numbers guy. I teach in the Liberal Arts and my subject area is literature, the most numerically anemic space within the academic world. While acknowledging that the skies here in Cleveland are often gray in a depressing way, I encourage my students to embrace the grayness of life, to feel empowered when they realize that black and white are constructs. Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

So this year I will celebrate all three dates. I will embrace the inexplicable world into which I have stumbled. I will drink some beer and wine, eat out with my family, play some drums, read a bit, watch some baseball. Each of my three unbirthdays deserve my complete attention.

Born and raised in Cleveland, OH, John Panza was diagnosed in 2012 at 38 years old with Stage 3 malignant pleural mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos exposure. After undergoing radical treatment for the disease at the Cleveland Clinic to prolong his life, he continues to live each day as a husband, father, professional musician, and college professor.

12 Comments on "My Cancer Birthday"

  1. My Heavenly Father ( God ) is above mans time table. Enjoy what He has given you take one second then another and another. Don’t look at mans time table God is sovereign and is watching over you. Trust Him with every breath you take.

  2. Absolutely outstanding article! I applaud you for the way you were able to paint such a vibrant picture of your cancer journey and your birthdays. A lot of what you said resonates very true especially the numbers. I am a fellow cancer survivor, 3 and a half years out from a bone marrow transplant for leukemia. Happy Birthdays!

  3. Thank you for your testimony it significantly matches my own except for the te of cancer, mine is pancreatic and to date I have undergone 2 Whipple procedures within one year from the onset. Again, numbers that are arbitrary at best. Basically having little significance to anyone other than myself. I have already gone past the original life expectancy date, again a date/number that I try to ignore. God bless you and continue to live life to it’s fullest of potentialities, I am.

  4. Jonathan Smith | January 16, 2016 at 11:27 pm | Reply

    I would love to talk to John becouse I was diagnosed with this cancer in February 8 2012 and I’m have been through what he has and would just like to talk and share stories

  5. Susana "Tuty" Yombalakian | January 18, 2016 at 9:55 am | Reply

    Hello John ….. I must say “I am also weird” 🙂 I was diagnosed with Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma when I was 36 – 10 years ago!! I have gone thru 2 operations (2006 & 2012) and 4 chemo session (2006) plus everything in between. Numbers DO matter, I find myself with the same question as you “which one to celebrate” so in my mind and heart I celebrate New Year and birth-date – both these dates give me a sense of longevity – the New Year allows me to see the world at a “new beginning” and my birthday allows me to add a year to my life …. I wish you good days, happiness with your loved ones and smiles just because …. Blessings to you and your family…… Susy

    • I have recently been told that my scans show mesothelioma..I have not been biopsied yet…but reading all these post gives e hope…Thanks to all of you.

  6. I had no idea you’d been through the hell you describe in this piece. Have never known anyone with this disease. What I do know is you’ve always been the ‘best’ kind of weird to me and if I was the kind of person to bet on a friend’s longevity—I’d definitely bet on you. Keeping you as always, in my thoughts and prayers…Mary

  7. Taylor Jenkins | January 29, 2016 at 9:31 pm | Reply

    Thanks for sharing John, I enjoyed your post, and I can relate.
    I was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2012 at age 42. I went through 6 rounds of chemo and 4 surgeries in the first year and a half, before being pronounced NED. I have since undergone 4 more surgeries and several hospitalizations just due to complications from the treatment. I have another surgery coming up shortly. Like you, I struggle to remember dates, and even my own history — doctors call it chemo brain. In a way, I view that as a blessing, because I think it makes it easier for me to remain focused on the present. I have no clear idea what the future might look like for me, or when I might regain somewhat of a normal state of health, (who really does?), so I just let everyone else worry about the numbers and take life a day at a time. Although I think it’s a little impractical, and a bit cliche to celebrate ‘every’ day, I do try to make the most of each day, and I have found success and peace in celebrating and being grateful for life each weekend when my family are around me.

  8. I totally sympathized with you. I’m Michelle 39y old. Was told in Nov 25 2015 that I have pleural mesothelioma. I’m undergoing immunotherapy and like you I’m trying to live life and enjoy at it fullest.
    Wish you the best to you and your family.
    We need to keep positive trust God and science.

  9. You are truly one of the LUCKY ones true . Most of our loved ones who are diagnosed with this vicious disease show us what statistics are all about. They fall all too true. My husband had the Chemos- 7 in all- and one horrible operation, all for his family. He wanted to be one of the ones to shoot a hole in the statistics. But no such luck. Just short of his one year anniversary he scummed to the disease. He was a man diagnosed by his G.P.20 days before his first symptom, a man in perfect health for his age. 62. So good luck and live every day to the fullest. Meso teaches you that, every day is a presen and most of us don’t realize that.

  10. Great writing and awesome expression. Tomorrow we celebrate my daughter’s 26th birthday. She was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma 11-14, when she was 24. 2015 was a hellish year – 7 weeks in the hospital (including her 25th birthday) with surgery, HIPEC, and complications. Then months of recovery. I’m celebrating tomorrow with gusto. Somehow I think her birthday will always be the numeric marker for me. Stay healthy and well! Give and receive the best medicine = love, love, love! <3

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