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 doctor 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 from my childhood. 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