Normal Life – Peter’s Story
This is Peter. Peter is a fellow Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor like me. He also deals with late effects from the treatments he received decades ago.
Peter Fox is a contemporary artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally. Diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at age 17, he was treated with mantle radiation and cured. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, Cibele; son, Sam; and their dog, Nikki. When not in his studio, he loves being with family and growing giant sunflowers in his garden and pineapples on the windowsill at home.
Recently, he published his story in a quarterly newsletter, “Bridges”, published through Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (as I have done also). I asked Peter if I could share his story on “Paul’s Heart”, and he said yes. So, here is Peter’s story, “Normal Life.”
Normal Life by Peter Fox
“A branch which has been partner of the tree’s growth since the beginning, and has never ceased to share its life, is a different thing from one that has been grafted in after a severance. As the gardeners say, it is of the same tree but not of the same mind.” — Marcus Aurelius
Ten years after treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma as a high school senior, I was told I was cured and to go live a normal life. I took it to heart and did my best to live from that moment as if nothing had really transpired at all. I accepted no physical, emotional, or psychological limitations and rarely told the story except to those who encountered scars. I was embarrassed to mention it, like complaining about a skinned knee. In hindsight, the normal life advice and my response to it were both pretty absurd. I’ve struggled tremendously with alienation, anxiety, and depression from the experience but never sought real help. While I was more health conscious than others and had many false alarms about lumps, infections, etc., I always suspected it was hypochondria and a personal failing. It never occurred to me in the 35 years following radiation treatment that my skinny neck and bony torso signified more than a regrettable, congenital laziness regarding the gym.
I didn’t make a clear connection between cause and effect until a few years ago, when long-term physical side effects of treatment (stooped posture, dizzy spells) began to impact my life. It was after a scary episode of double vision at the playground with my son — I thought I was having a stroke — that I first searched the words “radiation treatment long-term effects.” Google led me to the sudden awareness that there were a whole raft of health issues associated with radiation treatment, and then to Hodgkin survivorship groups, which in turn directed me to the late effects clinic at MSK.
I have difficulty thinking of myself as a survivor. We all survive every day, and others face greater obstacles daily than I ever have, regardless of health. Though in denial about the physical side effects of my treatment, I always knew that my entire adult awareness and engagement with reality was shaped, for better and worse, by my cancer experience. Confrontation with mortality creates its own focus and set of priorities. Mine took place on the cusp of adulthood and thus was foundational. Pursuing art as a serious career followed from the news that I was cured and had a future to prepare for, something I hadn’t allowed myself to expect. I’d drifted until then, directionless, commitment averse, bags packed, waiting to fall. But I didn’t fall, and my truth is that the view from the edge is more wondrous, sublime, and beautiful than I can begin to describe. I’m lucky every day. Even if I could erase the rest, I’d never give that back.