It’s been nearly ten years since that Ear, Nose and Throat doctors’ words slipped into my reality. “You have cancer.” It wasn’t real, or at least it didn’t feel like it. I had no idea how my life was going to change.
It was the Spring of 2008, and I was finishing up my senior year of High School. Graduation was around the corner, and I was planning a backpacking trip in Europe. When I returned I was going to move to Texas and start college. Things were good. I had a plan, and I had my whole life ahead of me.
After graduation, my plan for the future only lasted two weeks and five days. Everything changed on July 1st, 2008, when a lump on the left side of my neck turned out to be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A few nights before, at an IHOP Restaurant with a group of friends, a girl across the table, Rachel, asked me what was wrong with my neck…that it looked funny. I felt the tumor for the first time at an IHOP eating French toast and bacon. My mother made an appointment the following day to have a doctor check it out. The next morning, my future was turned upside down.
The first thing I asked was whether I could still go backpacking in Europe. With a heavy sigh, the doctor replied that I would need to start my treatment immediately and postpone any other plans.
The next week was a whirlwind of tests and doctor’s appointments. I went through scan after scan; they tested everything, from my lung capacity to heart echoes. But I still felt like a passenger. It didn’t feel real. I wasn’t sick…that’s what I told myself because I didn’t feel bad…nothing seemed wrong and cancer was supposed to be the worst thing ever, right?
I think everyone, including my doctors, thought my ignorance was bliss. No one told me how much I was going to suffer, no one told me the amount of negativity that would flood my mentality or how much I would start to question my relationships. They just told me I would be fine.
From July ‘til mid-January was hazy. I was in school a few times a week pretending things were normal, while going to treatment in between classes. I wanted so badly for things to be different. I wanted to go out with my friends because we had just finished high school. I wanted to go on vacations and eat whatever I wanted. I wanted to not throw up every day. I wanted my hair to stop falling out and for everyone in my life to stop telling me I would be “fine.”
I think everyone was pretending that things were normal because they thought that was what I wanted. I couldn’t help but wonder: after months and months of people trying to normalize my situation, what was going to happen when life actually did become normal? Was I supposed to just go back to mid-June and press “play” again on my future? The uncertainty was isolating. Of all of the things that set my life back, the worst was feeling like I was alone. I had plenty of friends and family that were there for me, but they didn’t understand. I didn’t know a single person that understood.
I ran off to live in Texas as soon as my doctor gave me the okay. It was January of 2009. Rather than running towards something, I was running away. I thought that if I escaped the place that I had been stuck in, I could bury that part of my life and move forward as a better person who was grateful to have survived cancer. The opposite happened. I became bitter. I was selfish and treated people who loved me terribly. I poured out my anger in places that didn’t deserve it. I felt like life owed me something. I felt like I could throw out this “I had cancer” excuse and people would feel bad and let me do what I wanted. I should have chased down ways to make others be thankful for their life, and I should have been thankful for my own. I failed my friends, my employers and my teachers – and it didn’t stop anytime soon. I failed at school and at work, and worst of all, I failed myself.
But I came to learn that there is so much power in failure. The sense of understanding and self awareness that follows is truly humbling. Our own vulnerabilities need to be faced from time to time because knowing your limitations can be as important as knowing your abilities. And I learned that If there is one thing failure succeeds in, it’s helping point you in a more refined direction. At 21, I picked up my camera and went to a photography school in North Carolina. It was the only thing I hadn’t really failed at, so I went for it. For the first time since I was diagnosed, I forgot about cancer. Everyone around me had one thing in common: photography. We put everything else aside. I had a community that understood my passion and my art, and we all pushed each other to succeed.
The transition from being angry and bitter about life didn’t happen immediately. I started school with high hopes but little motivation. I was there because I had no idea where else to go. I barely made it through my first semester, and second semester I began hanging on and slowly getting into a groove with classes and college life. But in April of that year, all of my camera equipment was stolen. Everything I owned for photography school was gone, and I really believed at that moment life was telling to be done with it and move on.
So I did. I quit school and got a job high-rise window washing. I got to jump off buildings every day and clean windows, and I got paid really well for a 22-year-old. I also flew for free at the time because of my father’s job, and started taking weekend trips from work to other places in the States, visiting friends and exploring new places. My friend had just gotten a job with the airlines and was flying free too, so he tagged along on a trip to California with me. I woke up on the day we were supposed to fly home, and found a flight to Hawaii that had seats available. I looked at my friend and asked “Want to go to Hawaii? There’s a flight in like two hours that’s open…we need to leave now though if we want to go.”
The next thing I knew we were standing outside the airport in Honolulu wondering what to do. A two-day trip turned into two weeks as every single flight leaving the island was full and we couldn’t get home. We were stuck, but over the course of those two weeks I was shaped in ways that still resonate with me today. Rather than spend every day worrying about what was going to happen, I lived in those moments. I thrived in them. I made countless relationships across two different continents with people who I still see today. I found happiness on that island that I hadn’t felt since before cancer was a word in my head. I think sometimes that is all it takes, finding a place or a group of people that can help reshape your outlook. Whether that is an island in the middle of the ocean or the coffee shop in your community.
When we finally got home I quit my job and went back to photography school. I had to totally start over and that was okay. I learned how my mind worked and knew how to move forward, so when things got hard I could get through it with optimism. There was no “right” path, there was only my path. Cancer taught me how to be okay with that, and to forge ahead intentionally.
Everything I have done over the last 10 years, even the choices I made blindly, has been leading up to this. My here and now. A mindset that has allowed me to travel to 30 countries across 7 continents, creating a sense of fulfillment I had not felt in a very long time. A place I had not lived in a very long time. I had not been present. I had been hoping and searching and finding and living and learning about everywhere but here. I had been in the past with cancer and I had been in the future with travel but now I am here, holding cancer in one hand and travel in the other and realizing that between the two of them I can finally be present in this process called living. I get to use my past as a tool to guide my future.
At one time, cancer held me back. Now it grounds me in the present, and keeps me inspired to seek new adventures in the future. It fuels me to get Out Living It, and to take ownership of what that means.
About the Author:
Daniel Moorefield grew up in Colorado Springs, CO, when he received his diagnosis for Hodgkins Lymphoma in his senior year of high school. Following his diagnosis and treatment, Daniel pursued his passions of photography and travel, having visited all seven continents as a professional photographer. Daniel join First Descents as a Marketing Intern in 2018. He attended his first FD program in Estes Park, CO, after he completed his internship. Daniel has photographed a number of FD events, including the FD Ball and the High West Oyster Fest. This year Daniel joined First Descents as a volunteer photographer on a weeklong whitewater kayaking program in Tarkio, MT.