Health & Fitness

My Turn: A teen's brush with death

MoviesEntertainmentDiseases and IllnessesSeth RogenJoseph Gordon-Levitt50-50 (movie)

There are very few specific details I remember about my experience with lung cancer, though it was just eight years ago. But there are some moments I will never forget. It has been difficult for me to put those into words; now, my words are needed only to point out a handful of scenes from the new movie "50/50" that artfully convey situations and emotions I could never quite express.

It all started the summer before my senior year of high school and what seemed, at first, like a case of pneumonia that would not go away. I had about half a dozen appointments with three different doctors before a chest X-ray revealed a blockage in my lung.

After a CT scan and a PET scan, the blockage was known to be a tumor. A biopsy came back inconclusive and I was passed along to a surgeon. He sat me down with my parents to explain the options. First option: Remove the passageway where the tumor was located, between the upper and middle lobes of my right lung. Second option: Remove the passageway along with the entire middle lobe of my right lung.

While the surgeon was explaining how the latter would be safest, especially if the tumor turned out to be cancer, his voice seemed to trail off into mumbles and everybody around me became blurry. Unconsciously, I blocked everybody else out while I worked out the basic math to estimate the percentage of lung capacity I'd retain. Simple division was now inexplicably challenging.

I hadn't thought about this for years, but it came rushing back when I watched an eerily similar moment play out on the big screen. Warning: Plot developments will be revealed.

The main character, Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), gets the same blurred vision and hears the same mumbled voice before he walks toward a window and gazes out into the distance. The camera cuts to an exterior shot of the building, and you can easily visualize the isolation that he is feeling.

There were four or five more moments throughout the rest of the movie that caused the hair on my arms to stand at attention because the scenes so closely matched my experience as a young man struggling to comprehend the full meaning of a cancer diagnosis. The final two were enough to bring tears to my eyes. It was the first movie with (spoiler alert!) a dog that survives that made me cry.

There was a bridge on the outskirts of the town where I grew up where you could park your car on the overpass and be alone with only your thoughts (or your significant other if you were feeling frisky). The night before my surgery I went out there to clear my head. A confused and frustrated version of myself could only think to scream and to shake and punch anything that was near me.

Adam has the same reaction in the movie. After narrowly avoiding a horrific traffic accident, he orders his friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) to get out of the car. Once alone in the confined space, Adam lets out a scream that comes from being so mentally exhausted and helpless that you no longer know what to do — it just comes out the only way you know how to let it out.

Twelve hours after my outburst on the bridge, there wasn't time for confusion or frustration — just fear. While the anesthesiologist explained what would happen in the operating room, I could only stare at the fearful expressions on the faces of my parents, sister and grandmother that they had tried their best to hide. I couldn't quite fake a grin. The sarcasm that had been my traveling buddy throughout this experience took a back seat to the terrified child who had been in there all along. There was nothing left to laugh about as they wheeled me away from my comfort zone.

This too was mirrored in the movie. As Adam watches the anesthesiologist prepare the medication that will put him under, reality finally sets in. Adam fears he will get too little anesthesia and wake up in the middle of surgery, or that he will get too much and not wake up at all. He screams and reaches out for his mother.

Watching these two moments play out on the big screen made me regret the wasted moments in the years after the surgery that gave me a second chance. Was dealing with the agony of this fight really worth it if I'm going to just dawdle my days away?

But as the credits are about to roll, Adam isn't in the mood to reflect. Instead, he looks onward to the rest of his life and asks, "Now what?"

Perhaps it's time for me to do the same.

Robinson, now 25, is a web producer at the Times. He was declared cancer-free six years ago. michael.robinson@latimes.com

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be 500 words or fewer, are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Email health@latimes.com. Read more at latimes.com/myturn.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesEntertainmentDiseases and IllnessesSeth RogenJoseph Gordon-Levitt50-50 (movie)
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