6:05AM EST October 6. 2012 – When USA TODAY‘s Nashville music critic Brian Mansfield was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 48, he figured that a lifetime of Southern-fried foods, extra-large sodas and stress eating on deadline had brought it on. Turned out he had a genetic syndrome that gave him an 80% chance of developing colon cancer. He’ll chronicle his life with the disease — and with only a small part of his colon — in a series of weekly installments.
Working at McDonald’s taught me a lesson that came in handy this year.
My freshman year in college, I worked under the Golden Arches in Cambridge, Mass., halfway between MIT and Harvard. (I attended neither university, but one of the music schools across the Charles River in Boston.) One day, two guys came in and ordered two large fries on one ticket. So I went to the fry bin and picked up the scoop.
The scoop is designed to put the proper amount of fries into each red box, and I filled the first box just right. I must have screwed up my approach angle or something on the second one, because I overstuffed it, way too full. Now, I didn’t want to dump fries out of the box and back into the bin, especially with the guy who ordered them standing just a few feet away. And I was reluctant to compound my mistake by adding more fries to the first box and giving two people more food than I was supposed to. Instead, I tried to make the best of a bad situation and just let the second guy have more fries than he’d actually ordered. Sure, he had more fries than his friend, but they’d put both boxes on the same order, so if the first guy wanted a few more fries, I figured the second guy could share. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Wrong. Oh so wrong.
COLUMN: Last week’s installment
MORE: Follow Brian on Twitter
The first guy was furious that I had shortchanged him on fries. It really didn’t help when I tried to explain that, no, he’d gotten exactly the right amount of fries; he should be happy for his friend, who had received more than he had paid for. I wound up giving him more fries, too, simply to keep the peace, but by then nobody was happy.
That’s when I learned: It’s not that people want life to be fair, they just don’t want to have less than the next guy.
When I got diagnosed with cancer this summer, several people commented to me how unfair life was. This shouldn’t happen to a good guy like me. It shouldn’t happen to a guy my age. It shouldn’t happen to a father with young kids. But I don’t play that game. And I don’t ask the “Why me?” question. I don’t know why me. Figure I won’t ever know for sure. Don’t much care. If I’m going to question life, I’m much more likely to ask, “Why not me?” As far as fairness goes, I’ll take that to the baseline. Fair is dead. That’s the one thing we all wind up with. Anything that keeps me on this side of the dirt, I count that in the plus column.
This year may not have gone the way I would have chosen, but I don’t have to look far to know how good I’ve got it.
A couple of weeks after my surgery, a friend from church landed wrong while diving into a lake in Arkansas, breaking the L1 vertebra in her lower back. She should fully recover, but she’ll spend a year doing it.
A friend of my daughter had her entire family murdered in her home this summer. To escape, she had to pass by her mother’s body. (And, let me tell you, one of the saddest phone calls you’ll ever get is one from your 8-year-old daughter asking if it’s OK for her to go to a funeral home visitation and see her friend.)
The day after my birthday last week, one of my dearest friends — he and his wife were the first people Nancy and I told when she got pregnant with our first child 21 years ago — died suddenly, following 12 years of debilitating headaches that prevented him from working. He would have been 51 on Wednesday.
And of all the people I’ve encountered who got the colon cancer diagnosis around the time I did, I’m the only one who didn’t have to do chemo.
I’ll take my year over any of theirs.
Cancer threw me for a loop. But now, almost three months after surgery, I look better than I have in years, thanks to the weight loss. I’m in better shape than I was before my diagnosis; I’m going to run a 5K in three weeks. I can point to a friend who had a pre-cancerous polyp removed specifically because he got a colonoscopy after learning of my situation. Likewise, my father got his first colonoscopy after my surgery and had a large polyp removed before it could turn cancerous.
This isn’t about somebody else always having it worse. It’s not about lowering expectations. It’s a little bit about appreciating what you have instead of resenting what you don’t. However, I think it has more to do with realizing that, as much as I love to tell my story, the real story isn’t really about me.
And I’m happy just to have a part in that story. Cancer or no, I’ve gotten far more from it than I deserve.
Music that makes me want to live
Cancer has changed the way I hear music, more than any other life event except marriage. Songs I once appreciated only on a surface level now strike deep at the core of my soul. Some inspire me; some terrify me. Others that I might have liked before I’ve got no use for now. I’ve also got more time to listen, whether it’s during my morning exercise time or while lying in a hospital bed. These songs form part of the soundtrack to my cancer story.
1. When It Don’t Come Easy, Michael Stanley
2. Emmylou, First Aid Kit
3. Only God Could Love You More, Jerrod Niemann
4. Till My Body Comes Undone, Charlie Peacock
5. Too Soon to Go, Tift Merritt
- My Semicolon Life: Good news on the cancer front (familyhistorybowelcancer.wordpress.com)
- My Semicolon Life: Tracing my family’s cancer history – by Brian Mansfield (familyhistorybowelcancer.wordpress.com)
- Mom, Dad, Let’s Talk about Colon Cancer (familyhistorybowelcancer.wordpress.com)
- Lynch Syndrome (familyhistorybowelcancer.wordpress.com)
- Variants of Unknown Significance (VUS): A new trial for Lynch Syndrome patients (familyhistorybowelcancer.wordpress.com)