By Leonard A. Savala III, PhD
I wouldn’t be writing this letter if it weren’t for countless medical professionals at the University of Chicago Pediatric Cancer Center. There is one physician in particular whom I will never forget: Dr. James B. Nachman. My stage-4 cancer has been in remission for more than 25 years. As I reflect over those years, I have come to realize that the chemotherapy and radiation treatment gave me a second chance at life. Not a day that goes by that I am not very thankful for all the help I received along the way.
I do have to say that the last 25 years have been filled with highs and lows. At times, I still live in fear that my cancer will come back. I also worry about how my body will age, having been exposed to all that chemotherapy and radiation. The scars on my chest and shoulder are a daily reminder of how lucky I am to have made it this far in spite being a Make-A-Wish kid.
A few years ago, I decided to look up Dr. Nachman to share with him how I was doing. I conducted a web search and I came across an article that said he had passed in 2011. As I read the article, I teared up, knowing that I was three years too late. I had tried in previous years to return to the University of Chicago but it was just too painful.
Since meeting him all those years ago, I have never met another doctor like him. I wanted to tell the man that literally saved my life, thank you, and give him a hug. I wanted to tell him how hard I had worked to be a role model, leader and father. I wanted to show him that the young man he treated was now a grown man full of life and smiles. However, it took those 25 years to realize why I needed to smile.
You see, before I arrived at the hospital with stage 4 cancer, I had already experienced years of turmoil. I was raised in a single-parent home on public assistance. My mother and I often had to stay at a shelter for our own safety. So, by the time I arrived at the hospital, I was already broken. I was an angry kid, frustrated with life. I’m sure Dr. Nachman could see the hurt on my face and yet he smiled and provided lots of encouragement.
I wanted to tell Dr. Nachman how hard I fought to get well again. Eventually, I returned home to Grand Rapids to finish up my treatment. There were many occasions that I would check myself out of the hospital and drive to school. There were times when I had just finished chemotherapy and I’d be sitting in class a few hours later. Yes, I broke a few rules. I was determined to graduate high school, so I did. I then went on to earn my associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in 2014. It was a very long road and at times lonely. I was the first in my family to attend college and graduate with a doctorate.
Over the course of my education, those whom I interacted with never understood my passion for education. People would ask, “Why are you still in school? You’ve been in school your entire life.”
They were right. I had been in school my entire life. However, what they didn’t understand was that when you come from the place I came from, there was no turning back. I had no one to catch me if I wasn’t successful, and to this day, there isn’t anyone. I had to succeed because there was no other option. There was no safety net, no moving back in with my mom.
One thing I am nervous about is losing my job and not having health insurance while trying to pay off my student loans. On a job application, there isn’t a box to check for surviving cancer. Again, it’s been a long road, but one of thing that motivated me is the importance of giving back and leading with kindness and humility.
When I was lying in the hospital bed at the University of Chicago I made a commitment to myself. If I could make a full recovery, I would push myself academically to achieve as much as I could. I never shared my experience with cancer with anyone. I wanted it to be my secret. I feared that if told people, they would treat me differently.
Looking back now, as I approach my mid 40’s, I wish I had taken more time to enjoy life. Until recently, I never took vacations or trips. Next to losing my job, I fear not having enough time to watch my daughter grow up. As I stare into my daughter’s eyes, I wonder how long my body will hold up. I’m nervous about how all that chemotherapy and radiation will impact me as I get older.
I am in the process of writing a book that will explore my life so that other childhood cancer survivors can read – and I hope be motivated – to live life to the fullest. I recently gave my first such talk at an inner-city high school in Detroit, Michigan. I teared up during the presentation. Several parents came up to me afterwards to say thank you for the encouraging words. I hope to spend the coming decades inspiring kids like myself who had to overcome a variety of odds. I would also like to sit down with doctors working with kids to offer up some pointers.
In closing: as I think about Dr. Nachman, I wish I had the opportunity to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him and just see his smile again. His treatment saved my body; his kindness healed my heart. This allowed me to accomplish so much more in life. I firmly believe that our paths crossed for a reason. I highly encourage doctors that work with children to please remember to smile; it can make all the difference. I firmly believe that Dr. Nachman’s legacy lives on in me and many of the other patients he treated as well.
Leonard A. Savala III, Ph.D., serves as the director for the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement within Wayne State University. This post was originally published on his blog.