My 2 years with cancer and what I learned from Steve Jobs

Exactly two years ago today, I was lying in a hospital bed literally across the street from lab here at UC Davis. It seems unreal in a way, but painfully real it was and still is.

On November 30, 2009, I had surgery for prostate cancer.

Two years ago, things seemed pretty bleak.

Now on November 30, 2011, exactly 2 years later, the world seems a lot different to me both from that time 2 years ago and also from my life before I knew I had cancer.

As unlucky as it is to get any cancer and especially prostate cancer at the unexpected age of just 42, in some ways I feel lucky in my new life after cancer. I’m happy to report that just this past week I had my latest PSA test and it was as good as it gets: undetectable. So two years out from surgery, I’m in what they call long-term remission. Many men are not so lucky.

One of my doctors told me a few days before the surgery that after it was done that I was to assume I’m cured until proven otherwise. I don’t like to use that word cure as it somehow feels like tempting fate, but I do have hope. Still, I can’t forget the guy who was sitting near me in the waiting room at the cancer surgeon’s office who told some other guy that his prostate cancer had come back after 14 years….14 years is a long time. It is difficult to ever really know a cure when you think you see one.

Earlier this year I did a post on what my cancer had taught me that you might find interesting reading. I also did a post on where I was at after 1 year out from surgery in which I first publicly said I had cancer and talked about how it has inspired me to be a patient advocate and I also wrote a perspectives piece for Nature about this as well that has gotten a lot of feedback. That was a big step for me.

Now at 2 years out, I think despite everything that my vision of the world is somewhat better than before I ever knew I had cancer or had surgery. I am less likely to take life for granted and I am more committed than ever to making a difference. Cancer was the kick in the pants that I needed to become a patient advocate and to do this blog in a manner where I say what I think.

My cancer has also led me to meet and be inspired by some extraordinary people. I never knew that much about Steve Jobs and I never met him even though we both went to Reed College, but after his death I watched his 2005 commencement address to Stanford (see video at top). I found it very inspirational and with my own experience with cancer, it resonated deeply with me.

You can also read the text here.

In addition to his mantra of “stay hungry, stay foolish”, one passage stands out for me:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

For me cancer taught me some of these lessons in a way that simply hearing someone else say it never could have. But whether you have cancer or not, Jobs’ words are true.

Tomorrow I start day 1 of year 3 post-cancer surgery. I am going to continue to do my best to not forget those words and to live for what is truly important. You who are reading this may never get cancer, but you will die just like everybody else so I say live focusing on what is truly important.

2 Comments


  1. I got it at 47. I’m now 55 it came just back and I’m undergoing Hormones and start Radiation next month. I got tested every 4 months the last 8 years and a few months ago they caught it at above 1.?? So I strongly support testing unlike you most of us I have no idea we have cancer until it’s too late. For me I assume I should have been able to connect low urination pressure to a serious problem. I never thought it was a sign of cancer. I read your comment in the LA Times.

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