On a very hot day Dan and I met at The Market at The Cheshire. After ordering we pulled out chairs at a corner table and took seats opposite each other. As condensation from our cold drinks left dark circles on the wood table, he told me about being diagnosed with cancer at 29, how he knew he would marry Stephanie, and why he started a nonprofit.
At the age of 29, intense back pain had become a normal part of Dan’s life, but one that he just couldn’t get used to. He dreaded waking up in the morning because sleep was his only relief. Even the 16 Advil he popped everyday weren’t enough to dull the excruciating ache. Suicide was never an option, but Dan certainly prayed that he wouldn’t have to live another 40 years this way.
After trying injections and everything else he could think of, Dan’s chiropractor friend recommended that he lay on his back and slowly bring his knees to his chest. Ok, no problem. He started with the right leg and that was just fine, but when he tried to lift the left leg he realized something was seriously wrong. Gently touching his abdomen he located a golf ball sized lump and thought, “Wait, that shouldn’t be there...”
Immediately he consulted with a doctor and learned that he actually had a tumor the size of an NFL football. It had atrophied his left kidney and was pushing sideways on his spine. Within 8 days of locating the tumor, Dan was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Not a happy diagnosis by any stretch, but one of the most curable types.
The Number Four
One fateful night just four months before he got the news, Dan joined a group of friends at a bar. It was here that he was introduced to Stephanie, another member of the group and they danced together most of the evening. As the night wore on they shared their first kiss and connected over their twin four leaf clover tattoos.
Just four months later Dan picked up the phone to tell her about his diagnosis. When he finished there was silence on the other end of the line. “If you don‘t want to be here for this, I understand,” he told her, trying not to hope. Her response took him by surprise, “No. We’re going to fight this every step of the way together.”
When he hung up the phone, he looked at his parents for a moment before telling them. “I’m going to marry that girl. I’m going to the jewelers this weekend and getting her a ring and I’m going to marry that girl.” On St. Patrick’s day he popped the question and started chemo the following Monday.
Imagine (or remember) telling someone for the first time that you have cancer. The anticipation of their reaction, the ‘I’m so sorry’ look they’ll give you, and even worse the tears. Dan coached me on the best way to react when you get news like this.
“There’s not a single platitude you can say that’s going to make a cancer person feel better, but if you can diffuse it… believe it or not, that helps.” Rather than the ‘I’m so sorry’ that comes naturally, he advises asking more questions. “If you’ve never had cancer, no one close to you has had cancer and the elephant in the room comes out, usually a person’s first reaction is ‘oh my god, I’m so sorry’. You know and that’s… that’s nice. But if someone ever lets it out of the bag, ‘Oh I had cancer’ or ‘I have cancer’, I never say I’m sorry. My first question is, ‘what kind?’”
The questions that follow aren’t easy, but he explains that they really help diffuse the situation. Do you have to have chemo? And, are you going to lose a part? He smiled, “I lost lefty. Shit happens.”
The Friends Who Weren’t There
“Some friends… and they’re true friends, I’m not saying they’re not true friends because it does affect everybody, but some of my friends kind of disappeared when I got diagnosed. And I’m ok with that because everybody handles stuff differently.”
It’s unfortunate that some of his friendships went away, but he wants to educate cancer patients and the public that just because you don’t know how to handle it, you don’t have to hide from it. So, he started a nonprofit called The Half Fund.
“After cancer, I found that I made a lot of really stupid mistakes. And I mean there were some things I could have avoided and there were some things I really should have avoided. I even saw them coming and I still couldn’t get out of the way of my idiocy, so I wanted to help others to not make the same mistakes.”
The Half Fund
The idea was initially born because a screenplay was the only way Dan could think of to share his experiences. But… the first version “sucked ass”. He didn’t give up, though and eventually wrote something that cleared the entire bureaucracy of the American Cancer Society in 2 hours. The national office called him and agreed to let him use their name and logo and help with the marketing of the film once it’s made.
The ACS also suggested that Dan create his own nonprofit to generate money for filming and thus The Half Fund was born. The way it works is any artistic project (art, film, literature, etc.) that gets funding from The Half Fund, must split their profits in half. One half must go to a cancer charity and the other half goes to back to the Half Fund. Every year they’ve raised between 10 and 15 thousand dollars this way.
Cancer is definitely not something you ask for, but in a way Dan is thankful because it gave him his life purpose. “The whole reason why we’re doing this is, we HAVE to tell our stories. They honor the people who come before us and they help the people who come after us.”