Brian’s Journey: In An Instant
“With the snap of a finger, my world changed back. Now I was ok.” ~ Brian Hersh
One day, 21-year-old Brian Hersh was sitting in class at the University of Delaware; the next, he was undergoing a CT scan for testicular cancer; and the third day, he was in surgery to remove the aggressive stage 2 tumor which had spread to four abdominal lymph nodes.
“It was shocking,” he says matter-of-factly, clothed in a cherry-colored polo shirt. “When the oncologist gave the diagnosis to my parents and me, my dad fainted, my mom cried, and I couldn’t even talk. But when I got home, I started crying.” He stops a moment, then draws a breath. “I was unsure about the future—and scared.”
That was 17 years ago.
Brian began nine weeks of chemo, six hours a day. His mom accompanied him daily, and his dad would leave his job at lunch to sit with him, too.
“By the end of the full week of chemo, I felt sick and disgusting, like I was in a coma. Then, I’d stop for two weeks. My body would come back, and I’d start again.” He runs his hand across his short brown beard.
“I buzzed off my hair because I knew what would happen.” He adds dryly, “Sure enough. I took a shower one day, and I lost all my hair. I wore a hat for a few months.”
Somehow, despite feeling so awfully sick, Brian managed to achieve his goal: to graduate with his friends the following year. For during the chemo off-weeks, he completed two classes from home and drove down to school for exams. He took the remaining classes during the winter semester. “Graduating with my friends was emotional and awesome,” he smiles.
The CT scan following chemo showed no evidence of disease; chemo had worked. “With the snap of a finger, my world changed back. Now I was ok…I didn’t even know how to process it all,” Brian says. The specter of cancer had been with him for so long. And now it wasn’t.
He returned to school for his senior year. But he’d changed. “I was bitter for a while. The ‘why-me’ thing. Also, I wanted to tell people to stop complaining and taking things for granted. Appreciate everything.”
Brian glances at the photos of dogs on the wall of the small room. “A year or two after chemo, something popped up in my chest X ray. For most people, the doctors would have overlooked it, but, given my history, they wanted to do more testing. I freaked out. I was at work, and called my parents after the doctor called me.” He hurries on, “But it wasn’t anything.” In an instant, everything could change back again. But it hadn’t.
He underwent CT scans, first monthly, then quarterly, half-yearly, and then yearly. He was fine, but he never stopped thinking about cancer. By 2007, he was finished with scans. Five years had passed.
“Now,” Brian nods, “I could seriously move on with my life.”
But then a few months later, the same symptoms–pain and swelling–he’d had during his first bout of cancer recurred, but on the other side. He went to the oncologist alone, since—to him—it was inconceivable that he would have another bout with testicular cancer. But he did.
In a wink, everything changed again, for Brian had developed a completely new occurrence of testicular cancer.
“I lost my mind. The same type of cancer, the same stage 2. I had thought my life could move on, and now I was starting all over again.” He was stupefied; was he really so unlucky? “My mind would drive me crazy. But if you haven’t been through this, you don’t get it.”
He was no longer a student when he could take time off from classes and hope for accommodating professors. He’d just started a new job selling commercial insurance. In fact, he hadn’t even started it; he’d only just accepted it. “I called my new manager. I think I was crying.” Brian stops. “But they were awesome. They paid my salary, and told me to get the insurance credentials I needed when I could.” He slowly lets out a breath.
But his new health insurance was not accepted at the hospital where his surgeon had last operated on him, so the surgeon who had privileges at a hospital that did accept his insurance, operated elsewhere.
His voice has a touch of resignation. “I did the surgery, I had 12 weeks of chemo, I lost my hair—just like last time.” Too sick to continue living in his own home, he moved back to his parents’ during the weeks of chemo. By now his father had retired, so both parents sat with him during chemo, and his older sister visited from Maryland as often as she could. “This process aged my parents so much. I can’t imagine what they went through, but they never broke down in front of me. Having them sit with me for five or six hours a day was great support,” Brian says simply.
And his dog Cami, a collie-chow mix, was with him. “She knew when I was so sick. She sat next to me, and was so protective when people came over to the house.”
The CT scan midway through chemo indicated that the treatment was working; the lymph nodes had responded.
“It was a good feeling.” Brian crosses one brown loafered foot over the other. “I didn’t read a lot about chemo. I just viewed the treatment as a job. I’d do it, and then invite my friends over, if I felt ok, to talk about something else.”
He returned to his own home, grew his third head of hair—which got darker and spikier each time; picked up his daily life; and began dating and ultimately married a woman, now a vet, he’d known at college. Three years later, he was again released from yearly CT scans.
Now he plays golf and basketball, kayaks, hikes, works on his four-acre yard and his home. “My dad and I added a deck to the house and finished the basement. My wife and I have a new puppy, too, a coon hound.” His other dog—the friend during chemo—had died. For awhile Brian couldn’t even look at other dogs.
The experience has its after-effects. “Although I really try to be happy about the tiniest things, I still stress,” he notes. “I am forever left with white-coat syndrome; anything freaks me out.
“And now that I am older,” he muses, “I’m starting to have weird survivor’s guilt. My wife’s best friend lost her battle to breast cancer at 33. It’s hard to process. Sometimes, I think, ‘Why me? How did I get a treatable cancer?’ I could drive myself crazy if I keep thinking this way.”
Brian has spent a lot of time thinking about many aspects of cancer, and has developed a fine sense of what should matter. He sits upright. “I’m happy to talk to others and give them hope, so they don’t dwell on the ‘what if’s’ and ‘why me’s.’” He continues, “During treatment, I would’ve loved to talk to someone who’d gone through cancer, to help me put things in perspective. I spoke at two Relay for Life events and I’ve visited five or six younger men during their chemo.”
Poof. In an instant, he could change someone’s world for the better.
Brian is a member of the Ambassadors of Hope, a group which supports the Cancer Support Community’s program development.