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Have you heard of FitBit? I hadn’t until recently, shortly before I got one for Christmas. It’s a super-pedometer, essentially; it tracks your steps, activity, calories, sleep. If I walk five miles and 10,000 steps in a day, a very approving smiley face shows up in the display. I love that smiley face so much. I live for that smiley face.

It’s a good gift because it plays to what motivates me (carrot always beats stick) and, ever since I got my strength back post-chemo, I’ve been trying to whip my body into shape. I joined a gym, I got more selective with my diet, I tried to do weights and cardio everyday. I cut cream from my coffee and stopped dipping Oreos into Jif. (R.I.P.) Part of that was to eliminate the 25 pounds of unwanted chemo weight, but there was also a more basic, psychological need. I wanted the control.

When your body delivers an unwelcome surprise, like cancer, it’s easy to feel betrayed. And the only way I knew how to exert dominion over this mess of cells was to live as healthfully as I could. Turn your body into a machine and it’ll always be predictable and submissive! Your body tried to rebel; now show it who’s boss! It’s such a common response to trauma that it’s a cliche at this point. And, of course, a total lie. 

I’ll continue to embrace good diet and exercise for the rest of my life, but I understand that true control is a facade. (Don’t tell Gwyneth Paltrow.) Healthy choices may indeed help prevent cancer, but it certainly doesn’t offer immunity. I’ve seen how messy and random it can be, how casually it can strike. And being healthy now can’t undo the suffering of my past. Cancer isn’t a punishment, a curse, or a consequence. It’s never deserved and it’s nothing to atone for. It’s just a disease.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my final chemotherapy session and I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal timeline. Chemo can feel like it ended years ago or days ago. It’s like a co-worker you got to know well who abruptly moved away; the basic elements of your life are the same but the personal fabric of your day is intrinsically altered. I never want to see the co-worker again, but I’m also grateful for how he let me see the world.

We get to control very little in life. Get a good sense of what’s in your purview and plan accordingly. Make good choices. For everything else, try to find the freedom that hides in powerlessness. 

Every run I take, with the wind on my face or The View on the gym TV, isn’t a step away from cancer. It’s a step after cancer, a gratifying victory lap. And 10,000 of them earn me a smiley face which, worthless as it may be, feels like a monumental reward.

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When midnight strikes and 2014 officially takes over, I know where I’ll be: singing along to a Bruce Springsteen cover band in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s OK, you’re allowed to be jealous.

I’m eager to celebrate, especially since December 31, 2012 was marked by a car crash and a lengthy chemotherapy session. 2013 offered a much more uplifting narrative, punctuated by successful surgery, my first episode of television, and an engagement. The last few months of this year have seemed, in many ways, to officially close the “Cancer Chapter” of my life.

Well, screw that. I’m more than happy to begin the “Survivor Chapter,” but I certainly don’t want to shove cancer into a box and place it back in my memory’s dusty attic. Cancer is life-changing; going “back to normal” would be a denial and a disappointment.

Cancer taught me about suffering. For the first time in my life, I experienced chronic pain and fatigue. I realized how debilitating it can be, and how rarely we take the time to understand it in others. The experience was humbling and, more than anything, made me much more aware of - and empathetic to - the hurt that we ignore.

This, in particular, is my motivation going into 2014. My resolution (although I hate the word “resolution”; it sounds flimsy and self-obsessed) is to take more time recognizing the pain in others and offering solace whenever possible. One day a month at the chemo center is a good start. Keeping dialogue open with cancer patients, whether online or in-person, is another. If any of you, especially other cancer survivors, have good suggestions for ways you’ve given back, please let me know.

2014 may be full of joy for you. It may be full of challenges. It’ll probably be full of both. However it all plays out, remember that we have each other. Don’t wait to be asked for help; you’re already being beckoned.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Dark to go Dance in.

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"A cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, and three surgeries."

That’s how Sarah measured our year and it’s certainly more descriptive than 525,600 minutes. It’s hard to look back on the space between November 14ths and not see the major challenges, especially the moments of that first night. The memories of collapsing to the floor with back pain, “dancing on snowflakes,” and hustling to the ER are so vivid that they feel more like recurring dreams. I remember the distressed faces in the waiting room, the uncomfortable contours of the hard plastic chair, and the soundless Dancing With the Stars results flashing across the wall-mounted TVs. Kirstie Alley was going home, but I was just checking in.

You know the sequence. You’ve read it here. Pain became confusion, confusion became cancer, cancer became treatment, treatment became surgery. Each phase jerked sloppily into the next; cancer provides no smooth transitions or organic moments. It’s long, slow waits punctuated with bouts of whiplash.

Treatment was successful and now I’m cancer-free. The experience left me with only a few physical reminders: a wicked abdominal scar, a low white blood cell count, and some carefully placed silicone. Of course, it deeply and irreversibly altered so much more. My thoughts on suffering, empathy, and community responsibility have been completely re-shaped and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a post-cancer worldview. New convictions will reveal themselves as life gives me opportunities to feel them.

When I began this blog, I said that I was aware of the “comfort in shaping personal experiences into a narrative” and the sense of control - and power - that comes from turning ordeals into narratives. And it’s true; knowing in the back of my mind that each painful moment would be a “plot point” later kept me from feeling rudderless. In this last year, I read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and found that sentiment echoed, although stated with much more poetic depth: “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling… If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.” 

I can’t undersell how much storytelling did for me this year. There was, of course, the distraction of professional storytelling: this was the year that included the writing and airing of my first television episode. But there was also this very blog, an outlet I used to process my feelings on whatever the struggle of the week was. “What are you going to write?” Sarah would often ask when I sat down at the empty Tumblr window. My usual answer was: “I’ll know when I start writing.” The art of shaping each struggle into a narrative helped me understand the way it was affecting me. Sure, on the surface, it seems like a particularly millennial therapy: understanding through oversharing. But pain became words, words became sentences, and sentences gave me distance. Then I’d reach the end and “real life” would return. But real life, upon return, would have extra clarity.

I’m still consistently asked how I’m feeling. There’s always a split second where I resent the question. Uh, I beat cancer, remember? I’m obviously feeling great! But then “How are you feeling?” starts to sound like the kind of question that hovers over a composition box on a social media site. Put the cursor inside. Tell a story.

And that’s what I try to do. Thanks for listening.

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You know how on the internet, people tend to have civil, thoughtful conversations that articulately express varying opinions? Oh wait, whoops! I’m not thinking of the internet. I’m thinking of… nowhere. Nowhere is where those conversations happen.

Earlier, I spotted a tweet from a charity organization that focuses on cancer among young adults. It said “Testicular Cancer [Patients]: avoid the horrors of an orchiectomy” and linked to a story about a fish that’s known to nibble on swimmers’ testicles. To really put a hip, millennial spin on the whole thing, they ended it with the hashtag “#ZOMG.” There was no actual information related to cancer or orchiectomies.

I bristled as I read the tweet, and not just because I don’t know what the hell that “Z” in ZOMG stands for. It frustrates me when, of all places, a youth cancer charity reinforces the stigma that an orchiectomy - or the surgical removal of a testicle - is a “horror.” You know what I remember from my orchiectomy? Getting wheeled into the operating room while the anesthesiologist blasted the new Rihanna album. I had two balls. I fell asleep. I woke up about an hour later. I had one ball. I iced my groin and started this very blog. Nothing about it was a horror.

I know, personally, of young testicular cancer patients who are ashamed of their diagnosis. They feel that losing a testicle is a direct blow to their masculinity. They also worry about the pain; when the surgeon describes the process and uses words like “clip” and “slice,” how can you not? About the latter, I’ll say: it’s kinda sore for like six hours. Granted, that’s my experience, but I haven’t talked to anyone who experienced any kind of extreme or lasting pain from his orchiectomy. 

About the former, I’ll say this: No one cares about what’s in your ball sack. Clint Eastwood could have one ball and McLovin could have four and we’d never know. Because no one asks. Because no one cares. My singular ball doesn’t make me less of a man. If anything makes me less of a man, it’s the four years I spent watching Felicity. 

I wrote an episode of television and watched it air. I proposed to my girlfriend. I can now bench press more than ever before in my life. And I did it all with ONE BALL. We can’t keep enforcing the idea that losing a ball is some deeply painful, emasculating process. That’s no different than telling the cancer it’s winning. An orchiectomy is a simple procedure that saves your life. We - testicular cancer patients and our loved ones - should feel lucky that it’s so easy.

I tried, in 140 characters or less, to express all these thoughts to the person behind the organization’s twitter account. They told me it was just a joke and that I should be able to laugh at myself. I got semi-justifiably defensive. I had to simplify my thoughts so they’d fit in tweets. So did they, I’m sure. Everything was poorly communicated. Stupid internet.

I have no doubt that good-hearted, smart, sensitive people run the organization’s account and I commend them for the good work they do. Removing the stigma from testicular cancer, though, is a topic about which I’m very passionate. Sorry if I came across as testy.

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This started as a “cancer blog.” I wanted to share my experiences, from diagnosis to chemo to surgery to recovery. I wanted to share memories and thoughts, personal anecdotes that I found humorous and lofty ideas about paradigm shifts in cancer culture.

But the cancer’s been gone for a while. Shrunken to nothing and disposed of in a medical waste bag. The PET Scans are fewer and farther between. Cancer and its effects are no longer a daily hurdle. Sure, there’s my new, stricter diet/exercise regime (a common lifestyle change among survivors) and the application of zinc oxide to my scar when I hit the pool, but I’m not trapped in the echo chamber of concern I was six months ago.

I’ll never forget how thankful I was during that time for the messages I received from people online - from survivors, supporters, and strangers. Those messages helped remind me of the longterm game as well as how to struggle through and even, sometimes, appreciate chemo. If this blog can inspire or help someone the way that others helped me, then it’s worth keeping it going.

But what to blog about? Well, that’s where you come in. I’m opening this thing up to questions. Feel free to tweet or tumbl me any questions you have about what I’ve discussed on this blog. I’ll use those questions at jumping-off points for many of my future posts.

Keep in mind that I am not an oncologist or a therapist. I have only my own thoughts and experiences to pull from. But I promise to be honest. Cross my ball.

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Tonight, for the first time since I began my screenwriting journey in a windowless USC classroom ten years ago, I get to see the words “Written by Aaron Fullerton” up on the screen. The credit means a lot to me but I also know that, at best, it’s a half truth.

The November night that I went to the ER with back pain, we were a few weeks out from breaking my episode. (For those unversed in writers’ room nomenclature, “breaking” means figuring out the scene-by-scene structure of an episode.) The Monday after the doctor gave me the diagnosis - “It’s a cancer of testicular origin" - we were scheduled to dive into episode number 9. 

I wasn’t there. I was meeting with my oncologist, learning about just how much work I’d be missing. I missed hours, days, giant chunks of the creative process. And I certainly mean both definitions of “miss”: I was absent from the room and, more than anything, I longed to be there. I wanted to be around the family of writers that inspired me, a group of guys that always seemed to have a new joke about my ball(s). And I wanted to be more involved in discussing the episode I would write, something I had dreamed of for nearly a decade. When I did make it into the office, I was often drowsy and chemo-brained and constantly playing games of catch-up. But have I mentioned that I lucked out by being on the best writing staff in television?

There’s not a whole lot about the chemo process that I vividly remember, but I’ll never forget lying in bed, trying to force myself to stay awake as I wrote an outline for the episode. When I relayed my fears about completing it, other writers jumped in without hesitation. This was a weekend, by the way. When my episode needed a rewrite while I was in the middle of a bleomycin drip, the other writers helped flesh out my scenes and address network notes for me. One morning, I burst into tears over breakfast, convinced that chemo had drained me of my creative abilities. Even in that dark moment, though, I knew my co-workers wouldn’t let me fail. And it wasn’t just picking up the baton when I dropped it; they knew how much writing an episode meant to me and wouldn’t let me fall short. They motivated and encouraged me through periods of lucidity to craft the best scenes I could. I’m so damn lucky.

I’ve waxed semi-poetically about my gratitude for the other writers and the way they propped me up. On this Day of First Credit, though, I want to give credit where credit’s due. I couldn’t have written “Smoke Alarm” without those guys… or, as they’d likely point out, a Uniball pen.

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WitStream: Behind the Joke: @AaronFullerton

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Aristocrat Aaron Fullerton takes us behind the curtain:

I’ve had the motor skills of a three-year…

Source: witstream
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After three weeks of traveling through seven different states, Sarah and I finally returned to Los Angeles last Tuesday. I half-expected Phil Keoghan to greet us at the door. Our trek through the South, the Midwest, and an unexpected stop in Seattle, was a series of bouncy encounters with friends, family, and the recently betrothed. We showed off the ring and, for many, my new curly hair. These locks so luscious, they belong on a bagel. (Check out my rap album, it drops never.)

I saw many new cities, made many new friends, and fell in love with an awesome new board game (someone play Pandemic with me!), but one encounter, in Bloomington, Indiana, keeps replaying in my head. Sarah and I visited congregants from the church she went to during college; this lively group fostered student involvement in the church and it was immediately easy to see why Sarah lights up at the mention of their names.

Since Sarah last saw them, one of the men, Jim, was diagnosed with cancer and began intensive treatment. The moment I walked into the door of his home, he stood up and shook my hand. “Now there’s a cancer survivor!” he beamed. His unexpected reverence sent a jolt through me. I’ve been out of chemo for a while now, and I forgot how much comfort I found in connecting with people who came out the other side. I had forgotten, essentially, what my responsibilities are as a survivor.

Jim and I discussed the touch points of treatment: chemo brain, rogue tastebuds, the caregiver relationship. When I described something to which he could relate - or vice versa - he’d punctuate the conversation with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Jim’s eagerness to discuss everything, along with his faithful outlook and strength of character, reinvigorated me. 

I became acutely aware of what I needed to do: I needed to remind him that cancer is not a “battle” that you either “win” or “lose.” The popular nomenclature that treats cancer like a soccer match is unfair and defeating. The real battle one fights during cancer isn’t with the disease itself, but with one’s own fears and worries. I was often able to vanquish any mental demons by clinging to the hopeful stories of survivors, people who had reached out through phone calls, emails, and tweets. Hope is a critical component in one’s cancer journey and, often, survivors could provide it. So now it’s my turn.

I’m so thankful I met Jim; his smile is unforgettable and I look forward to seeing it again next summer. And thanks to him, I’ve added “cancer survivor” to my Twitter bio. (Apparently, editing my social media profile still feels vaguely important at 28 years old.) I’m finally ready to wear the label proudly. Not because I was lucky enough to survive, but because you never know when seeing those two words together will give someone a little more strength.

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In my favorite Shakespearean work - Fast and Furious 6 - Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez stare shallowly into each other’s eyes and tell the stories behind the scars on their muscled bodies. It’s a perfectly dumb, cheesy, obvious, and hilariously entertaining scene. And, apparently, it’s not as unrealistic as I thought.

I’m in South Carolina with Sarah this week and we’ve spent hours on the beach. Right before we left, my doctor give me permission to expose my surgery scar to sunlight; before then, I’d been FatKid-ing it (wearing a T-shirt in the water.) Only in the past few days has my scar been on display to the public, a red raised vertical line down the middle of my abdomen. Family and friends have commented on it briefly - “It’s really not so bad” is the usual commentary.

And it’s true. It’s really not so bad. But it’s clear to any passerby with halfway decent vision that I’ve recently been “opened like drapes” by a surgeon. I’m still adjusting to the fact that the beach, for now and for awhile, is a place for me to show off my doctor’s suturing handiwork. 

On Saturday, an 8-year-old girl - a friend of a friend of a future uncle-in-law - walked right up to me with an inquisitive, concerned look on her face.

"What happened to your stomach?" she asked. The straightforward question, stripped of societal niceties, came from a place of pure curiosity. And so I told my story. I knew my audience, of course. The word "balls" was never mentioned. But I said that I had had cancer, there was a tumor in my abdomen, and the doctors had to cut me open and pull it out. 

"And now he’s all better," Sarah added. The girl shouted "Yay!" and ran off into the ocean. (An easily placated one, she was.) The scene was so obvious and cheesy that it felt fake. If my story ever gets turned into a bad TV movie, this would have been the final scene.

But it was my first time using the scar to tell my story. Remember how I was nervous about its size and its permanence, the way it would always remind me of my sickness? Turns out that, by the ocean, it’s just a way into my narrative, a narrative that ends with hope, humor, and gratitude. I think I’ll nickname it “Prologue.”

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"Will he beep at the airport?" my dad wanted to know. The surgeon had just told him that, after scraping my insides clean of lymph nodes (in the way one scrapes a pumpkin clean for a jack-o-lantern), he used metal clamps to hold and seal the open tissues together. Those clamps are inside me for the rest of my life. Have you ever spilled a box of binder clips across the floor? That’s what an x-ray of my abdomen looks like. I’m essentially Iron Man, except inside out.

Before there was any metal, before there was any cancer, there was Sarah. Three years ago, I met Sarah at a poker party and was immediately charmed by her exuberant personality. She is a composer and pianist and, although I know less about music than someone who’s watched one Baby Einstein video, it was incredibly easy to connect with her. We may use different languages, but we’re operating from the same creative place.

An admiration for the other’s work was one of the three pillars on which our courtship was founded, along with faith, and incessant laughter. We realized that Parks & Recreation helped calm us after a fight, so we’d leave them on the DVR. I told Sarah once that I liked listening to her practice piano while I’m writing and I don’t think, as far as she’s concerned, that I could have made a more moving declaration of love. It’s an understatement to say we’re compatible.

The night my back pain sent me to the ER, I was with Sarah at her apartment. I had, ironically, come over to give her a back rub after a long day on the piano bench. Shortly after walking through the door, I crumpled to her carpet. We didn’t know it yet, but the tumor was wedged between my aorta and vena cava, which creates a sensation of continuously getting beaned in the back with a Nolan Ryan (or Brandon McCarthy) fastball. Why I love Sarah: even though she was clearly very concerned about me, she was also visibly amused by the rhythmic way I was bouncing my legs against the floor. We quickly named the move “Dancing on Snowflakes” and, even when overcome by pain, the term was always enough to make me smile. 

As question marks turned into diagnoses and diagnoses turned into treatment regimens, Sarah was right beside me, never wavering. A doctoratal student, she put off a class so that she could drive me to chemo every day… and sit next to me for all six hours of it. She would rifle through every cupboard and corner of the fridge until she found something I was willing to eat. She would memorize my blood work results so she could keep track of my progress. Even when we were in the murky dregs of chemo, she found ways to make me laugh. And even though I was often unconscious for most of Thursday through Sunday, she never watched a new Parks & Rec without me.

To say that Sarah was an amazing girlfriend during treatment diminishes the level of care she provided and the self-sacrifice she made. To say she was an amazing caregiver diminishes the absolute necessity of the light-hearted and intimate moments that made cancer so bearable. When I woke up after the jack-o-lantern surgery, my first words were: “Where’s Sarah?” I needn’t have asked. She was, unsurprisingly, right there the whole time. 

Cancer didn’t make me love Sarah. Our relationship isn’t defined by adversity. I was in love with her long before I danced on snowflakes. But our romance has been tested and strengthened and board certified by adversity. The pressure didn’t make us crack, it irreversibly sealed us together. We’ve been through one of the bigger challenges life can present; we’re ready to take on whatever else it’s got.

On the night of June 14, I offered Sarah her own piece of metal, one that fits snugly around the fourth finger on her left hand. It’s a commitment, a declaration, a celebration. It’s an excuse to show the world how lucky I am. (And she doesn’t have to do the “Single Ladies” dance at weddings anymore, either.) Like the gold in the ring, our relationship’s strength and beauty was forged in the fire. You’re really starting to see what I meant when I said that “compatible” is an understatement, huh?

This isn’t The Bachelor or a Disney princess movie. The love story doesn’t end with a diamond. Sarah and I have many more chapters to write (and compose). But this is certainly - and I know I’ve overused this, so bear with me - an exclamation point in the middle of the narrative. 

Tomorrow, we board a plane to visit her family. We won’t beep at the airport, but you better believe that, in our delirious joy, we will be making a lot of noise.