My first real job in Cleveland was working at Jakprints. The custom print shop was also the de facto landing place for most of the population of Cleveland under the age of 35, especially people with tattoos or unnatural hair color.
I had both, and fit right in. My first day went just as expected, with frequent introductions to new co-workers and supervisors. Without fail, every time someone heard I was from Chicago, they asked me the same question.
“What the hell are you doing in Cleveland?”
Moving to Northeast Ohio was an incredibly strange and surreal cultural adjustment, especially to a lifelong Chicagoan. The lack of a massive public transit service here forced me to rely on a car. The lack of an NHL team made me scout the right hangouts to catch Blackhawks games, and I have yet to comprehend this city’s ongoing battle between styles of pizza. In truth, these adjustments were supposed to be temporary. Cleveland was going to be a quick stop in my life’s journey.
But five years after landing, I’m still hanging around, another tattooed millennial asking myself the perennial question: “What the hell are you doing in Cleveland?”
I wish I had a fun reason, like being recruited by the Rock Hall to wax poetic about hair metal. But, no. Nothing like that.
When I was 23, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
At the time of my diagnosis, in 2014, the estimated life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients was four percent after five years. There was a 96 percent chance I came to Cleveland to die.
Being sick in Cleveland is actually a pretty sweet deal. In the strip between Chester and Euclid avenues, we might as well rename an entire neighborhood of the city “Hospital Highway.” I was fortunate enough to stop beside that highway, at the Seidman Cancer Center at University Hospitals. I underwent an invasive surgery at that particularly sanitary pit stop.
Surgeons there removed half of my pancreas, my entire spleen, 22 lymph nodes and a tumor the size of a tennis ball. I lived in that hospital for longer than any human should ever have to, and there was still no guarantee that I was going to survive.
Shortly after I began the recovery process, a dangerous fluid collection was discovered. My organs weren’t behaving how they were supposed to. I had to get a second surgery.
After going under the knife again, I began recovery. Again. Only this time, it included remaining “emotionally neutral.” The stress of muscle contractions during laughter or crying could, apparently, cause severe irritation and possibly reopen internal seams.
I have a degree in theater, suffer from bipolar disorder, come from an old-school Italian family and had just managed to survive cancer. The probability that I could resist the urge to physically express myself and keep my emotions in check is as likely as a Browns Super Bowl win in the next 10 years.
Doubly unfortunate, the Seidman Center staff let me watch Broad City. I laughed so hard that I developed frequent bouts of pancreatitis (which, let me tell you, is far more excruciating than cancer). The cancer didn’t kill me, but Abbi and Ilana almost did.
Embarrassed, I tried to explain myself to my nurse only to be told, “I don’t think I can put ‘laughed too hard at a sex toy in a dishwasher scene on TV’ as a cause of injury on your chart.”
Since my surgeries, I have tried my best to maintain a positive attitude, typically covering up my anxieties and fears with self-deprecating humor about my own mortality. When my girlfriend asks me to take out the garbage, my usual response is, “I can’t, I have cancer.” But when you are going to die, no matter how badass you think you are, it is the most terrifying experience imaginable.
I have spent nearly the last five years in recovery, impatiently awaiting the day I can finally be declared cancer-free definitively. A nagging fear simmers on the back burner of my mind, wondering if today is the day they tell me they were wrong. Is today the day I join the 96 percent of pancreatic cancer patients who die?
Under that pressure, going home to Chicago was tempting. I even had the opportunity to undergo treatment there. But something kept me in Cleveland.
Perhaps it’s because the city feels like it’s in a perpetual state of recovery. Clevelanders are fighters. This is a city of moxie, and a city that refuses to stay down. It’s a city built on clawing at that four percent chance, even while the 96 percent closes in. Every single person I’ve met in Cleveland exudes an energy that says, We’re all fighting for something. Don’t give up. That’s inspiring. Especially for someone trying literally not to die.
At the time of this publication, I will hopefully have received the final declaration that I’ve successfully beaten pancreatic cancer. I honestly have no idea how I’m going to react. I couldn’t predict how I would respond when I was told I had cancer. I went into shock and said nothing. So there is no possible way for me to fathom how I’ll process the news. However, in the last year, I’ve begun taking the steps to start a life anew in Cleveland, one without illness.
I have an extremely fulfilling career in theater education, where I make a difference with the youth of Cleveland. My girlfriend and I finally took the plunge and moved in together. I meet people on a daily basis that have no idea how close I was to dying.
I defied all logic and expectation against a disease that is often described as a death sentence. I want to live in a city that fights just as hard as I have.
Cleveland is that city.