The Ground Zero experience of a Cancer Survivor.
The term “Ground Zero” has a very special meaning to someone who has survived a life-changing event such as Cancer — it represents both the end and the beginning, the death and the re-birth, or the storm before the calm.
It was a cool overcast morning in Dublin, Ireland when I experienced my Ground Zero moment.
I sat there politely listening to the Doctor in the small little office that no one wanted to go into. With a look of concern and empathy on her face, she went through a familiar ritual she no doubt repeated most days.
“Christopher, we believe we have found an issue during your scan.” (in my case a Colonoscopy).
She looked at me and asked if I would like to know more details or wait for a confirmation.
“Yes, I would like to know more, I said.”
“Unfortunately Christopher, Based upon my professional opinion on what I have just seen, I am fairly certain you have Cancer, and it is advanced.”
Of course, I had the confirmation tests — but the little beast in my backside had really made itself at home.
So much so that the doctor at least saved me some misery and delivered a fairly certain likelihood of Advanced Rectal Cancer. (She was in fact correct, and to this day I am grateful for her directness).
The question now was just how advanced it was — I could have easily been terminal at this point and not even known it.
And so, my Ground Zero experience had begun.
I believe we all have a Ground Zero moment; we are destined for it as part of our human experience. It may be through loss, illness or some great event in our life that shakes us to our very core, and leaves us questioning our very existence.
It is why I want to share it with you, and to do so I will revert to a common definition:
The centre or origin of rapid, intense, or violent activity or change.
Sounds drastic, doesn’t it? But that is how a Cancer diagnosis can feel. As my wife drove me home from the hospital that day — I felt like a ghost. As if everything I knew about my life had been taken away. My hopes, dreams, plans, everything. The image always comes to mind of the old Hydrogen Bomb tests, where the trees are violently stripped bare from the blast: that is how I felt.
I stood in my children’s doorway that night and watched them sleep. A great sense of sadness overwhelmed me as I realised these beautiful little humans may grow up without me. There was daddy, who they so depended on, standing there, reduced to tears and no idea what to do.
It takes a bit of time to move through the first part of Ground Zero. As I absorbed the grief, confusion, anger, and sadness of a life-changing event.
In hindsight, it’s all normal, understandable, powerful, and deeply human to feel the way we do.
Very few plan for it, so we all just respond the best we can, and in accordance with whom we are.
Some of us search for answers, googling our days away and losing much needed sleep at night.
Some retreat into themselves, while many seek comfort in others.
As the shock wave ripples through our life, we absorb the blast as best we can.
The first part of my ground zero experience lasted about a week. My results still hadn’t come through and I was sitting on the couch during another typically rainy Irish day.
Many of us have turning points in our life, and mine came quite unexpectedly. I have always been an obsessive runner, but I never felt an urge to run as strong as I did at that very moment.
I got up and put my runners on, said goodbye to my wife and kids and ran out the door.
I ran like an obsessed Forrest Gump — I felt the need to just keep running, and run I did. Something inside of me wanted to keep going; I had to catch the train home.
For me the first chapter of Ground Zero went as quick as it came: Like a rolling wave crashing onto the beach, before retreating into the ocean leaving nothing but the sand.
The very Beginning: Square One.
Something had clicked over deep inside of me, and I decided it was game on.
Soon after the confirmation came through, I was given a plan and my Cancer journey began.
A great sense of relief came over me, as the seeds of certainty began to take hold on my new blank canvas. I had something to grab onto, a sequence of steps, tasks, and activities. Yes, I was in a life or death situation at this point, but quite simply I chose life; and off I went.
My seeds of certainty grew into mindsets of curiosity, hope and determination.
I realised my children were watching their father respond to a great challenge in his life. This was no longer just about me anymore: we decided to bring our children them into the experience. We would pull together as a family and lean into the challenge.
The long-distance runner in me returned, and I planned my running right through my Cancer journey. My life would not revolve around Cancer: Cancer would revolve around my life.
My great opportunity had begun, and Cancer would not be my death: it was my birth.
Ground zero can strip away the good, in doing so it can take away the bad. Before my diagnosis I was stressed out of my mind. Existing in a corporate world of worry, anxiety, and late-night panic attacks. It’s as if something had pressed the pause button on my life, and now I had all the time in the world. Ironically given the time, when before I had none.
The complexity in my life disappeared, replaced by the most primal human desire to survive. To hold my children, to cherish each day with my amazing wife: to live like I have never lived before.
And live I did….
This is the beauty of Ground Zero, a term that conjures up images of mushroom clouds and Armageddon: Instead replaced with a beautiful starting point, and a new beginning.
I am still painting on my new canvas, the dark colours of my once stressed-out mind are now replaced with a kaleidoscope of colour, experiences, and life.
After all, it took a Ground-Zero event, for me to learn how to not just live — but to THRIVE.