When I was a teenager I had a parakeet named Fernando. He was named after the superstar Los Angeles Dodger pitcher of Hispanic descent, Fernando Valenzuela, one of my favorite baseball players at the time. I got the pet from my Grandfather, a large man from Iowa, burly in size and muscle, who in the most endearing, almost Tuesdays With Morrie way, raised these fragile birds in his work room. I hand picked Fernando, a white petite parakeet who made the cutest noise when I was choosing. Fernando was one of my first pets, and still one of my favorites.
A few years in, Fernando seemed to have some health issues. His energy was at an all-time low and he stopped eating all together. I also noticed he had some sort of growth on his head, and it seemed to be getting larger by the day. We immediately took him to the vet, who let us know that Fernando had a brain tumor. His quality of life would only get worse, so he suggested we put Fernando down. I cried and cried, but my Mom agreed and that was the last time I saw Fernando, but sadly, not the last time I saw brain tumors.
A few years ago, when the doctor informed me I had three on my midbrain, an inoperable spot smack dab in the middle of my head, I remembered Fernando. I knew I had more of an immune system than my little flying friend, but I only knew this diagnosis as a death sentence because of him. I assumed eventually a growth would appear on top of my noggin, like a built in dunce cap, and then I would die. Just like the bird. I knew so little about brain tumors and, in turn, so little about my future.
The reason the tumors were detected is even sadder than the story of my first pet. I had a ringing in my ear that wouldn’t go away, so I visited a doctor after hours searching WebMD and deciding I was going to die. He assured me that I wasn’t (yet), and shot me up with cortisone. That made the ringing disappear quickly. But since my doctor knew I couldn’t say no to deal, he set me up with an MRI, because the ringing would allow insurance to pay for it. He explained that it’s important to have your brain scanned, so we can have the results for any future issues, god forbid they appear. Like the before and after pictures you see in Jenny Craig commercials, but for your brain. I didn’t see any harm in saving a few bucks on a procedure, so I went for it. When he called me 5 days later in a somber tone saying I had to go in, I immediately regretted using that coupon.
Fernando or not, I’m doing really well now. Over the past 4 years, the tumors haven’t grown or multiplied. I get them checked every few months, because if anything scary is detected, I’ll be sent in for chemotherapy and radiation, then my blog would get REAL exciting. I’ve learned a whole lot about brain tumors, symptoms to look for and steps to take to get checked - and I try and share them as much as I can with people.
When fellow podcaster Bryan Bishop (known as Bald Bryan from the Adam Carolla Show) reached out to me about our similarities in life, which included brain tumors, I couldn’t have been more excited to hear about the work he was doing with the American Brain Tumor Society. His experiences with the affliction has been more intense than mine, and has turned his story into a NY Times best-seller. He’s been a real inspiration for me. He also brought me on-board as a Committee member for the Society’s annual Brain Tumor Walk and I’m thrilled to be raising money for the event.
The Los Angeles Brian Tumor Walk is on August 24th at Exposition Park here in LA, and we’re raising money for awareness and research. The work that this charity is doing is so impressive, especially as someone who sat and cried for weeks thinking that I had to immediately figure out what was going on my tombstone when I left the Dr’s office (btw it “Zsa Zsa Gabor outlived me”). There are options and treatments and prevention. So many things you should know about, especially since everyone has someone in their life who has battled, or is battling, brain tumors. With the way the world is going, with air pollution and burning hot cell phones placed directly on your brain, we should probably learn more. It can’t hurt. Sorry to scare you.
So here’s the thing: I’m mostly joking about how Phil Collins ruined Hook or baiting Tom Hanks’ kid into a rap battle on Twitter, I know this. But I’m asking you, give money to this cause. Especially if you’re a fan of our podcast. We never ask for dough, so I’m asking for it now. All you have to do, NO MATTER THE AMOUNT YOU CAN GIVE, is go to this site:
…and type in “Team Jensen” under Donate To Participant or Team. Listen, I picked the name before I realized it sounded like we’re all on Wild N’ Crazy Kids together. So, let it slide. Then just click “Donate To Me,” and you can leave WHATEVER you want. It’s tax deductible and it leaves you good karma. That’s a fact.
I never thought I would be in that doctor’s office being told I had brain tumors. It just seemed so impossible. I showed no symptoms or reasons to even think it was in the cards. And now I’m surrounded by an amazing support system of doctors, friends, and now this charity filled other patients and caregivers. Let’s make sure others can have these things. Please try your hardest to donate. Also don’t get a parakeet for a pet. They don’t stop chirping and it’s kind of annoying.
- 3 days ago
- 2 months ago
- 3 months ago
One year ago today, several of my organs were on the outside of my body. Surgeons had split me down the middle and gently removed some vitals in order to scrape out the cancerous lymph nodes still in my abdomen post-chemotherapy. Don’t worry, I didn’t see heaven or anything like that. This isn’t one of those stories. It’s a story about caring about stuff.
If you’re new to the blog, here’s a quick recap: terrible back pain -> me as the guest star in an episode of House -> testicular cancer diagnosis -> goodbye, Rightie -> chemo -> surgery -> eating pudding and watching The West Wing on Netflix while I recovered from surgery. That successful surgery is 365 days in my past and I’ve officially lived one full year as a survivor. There are unspoken responsibilities that come along with being a cancer survivor, and one of them is answering the question “So, did it really give you perspective?” a lot.
Now, that’s not an unfair question, because cancer inevitably affects many aspects of your worldview, many of which I’ve detailed in this very blog. But I also bristle at the question, too, because sometimes people are looking for a specific answer. And that answer is: “It really makes you thankful for what you have.” Sure, I guess you don’t know what you got til it’s gone, but it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, take cancer - or a trip to Africa, or volunteering at a soup kitchen - to make you thankful for what you have. I understand the perception that Americans live inside a bubble of entitlement, but I think it takes a particularly sociopathic kind of blindness to be eternally and wide-rangingly ungrateful.
But watch, audience members, as our author contradicts himself: I am more thankful. It’s just not in the way that’s immediately assumed. I am grateful for the pain, because now I understand it better. I am grateful for the struggle, because I can be of more use to those in the midst of it. Leslie Jamison recently published a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams and I’m eager to read it because the central question is “What’s the relationship between caring and understanding?” I got a hot six months of Rosetta Stone: Cancer and now I “get” most aspects of what those who suffer go through and it’s certainly transformed by ability to empathize. But, I promise, it doesn’t take that specific of an experience to really care.
My generation gets a bad rap. We’re known for conflating Gen X’s world-weary cynicism with the Baby Boomers’ embrace of self-important individualism. We’re supposedly disaffected by tragedy and success, unless we can spin it into an ironic meme. I think it’s an exaggerated generalization, but our selfies aren’t helping. And so, I make a simple plea that I’ve appropriated from a Madonna song: Open your hearts.
Be sensitive. Let yourself be affected by others’ hurt, try to understand their choices, and be an active player in the world around you. It’s the responsibility that’s most defined my first cancer-free year, and, moving forward, I hope to “open my heart” even more. Especially since’s it’s inside my chest for the time being.
- 5 months ago
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.
- 6 months ago
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.
- 8 months ago
"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.
- 10 months ago
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.
- 10 months ago
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.
- 11 months ago
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.
- 12 months ago
Aristocrat Aaron Fullerton takes us behind the curtain:
Street Fighter Programmer #1: “What do you know about Brazil?” SFP #2: “Nothing.” SFP #1: “OK, we’ll just make that guy a monster then.”— Aaron Fullerton (@AaronFullerton) June 2, 2013
I’ve had the motor skills of a three-year…