The phone call was supposed to provide clarity and closure, but it brought an emotion I never expected three weeks after the death of my friend.
Katy Berteau texted me Wednesday morning and said she would call later with some news. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
She was the fiancee of my friend and former ESPN colleague Edward Aschoff, who passed away at 34 on Dec. 24 — Christmas Eve and his birthday. At the time, pneumonia was thought to be the cause. As I attempted to go through the normal five stages of grief –- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — it was hard to get past denial and anger. Pneumonia shouldn’t have taken his life.
Katy called to let me know it was more complicated than that. The final results of a lung biopsy received after his death showed that he had cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
(2/9) After his passing, the hospital received the final results from his lung biopsy. Unbeknownst to us, Edward had stage 4, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his lungs. This is an aggressive type of cancer that is usually undetectable until it is very advanced. pic.twitter.com/kuPHwrAXuz— Edward Aschoff (@AschoffESPN) January 16, 2020
I was floored.
I don’t know much about other cancers, but I know just about everything there is to know about non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s what happens when you start doing research on a disease that almost took your life twice.
I’m a two-time non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor.
I was first diagnosed, and thought I had beaten it, in 2001 while a student at USC and again in 2005 after I had graduated and moved to New York to work at Sports Illustrated.
A biopsy and PET scan revealed the surprising diagnosis the first time. It confirmed what I already knew the second time. I was certain it had returned when I once again began waking up wearing a shirt that felt like it had been dunked in a pool, chest pains that felt like a pile of bricks on my upper torso and a persistent cough that got progressively worse at night.
It was first treated with chemotherapy and radiation at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, then four years later with high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant that forced me to stay in the hospital for a month as I prayed for the treatment to work this time.
Friends and family called me a “fighter” whenever they visited me. They were trying to comfort me but I simply nodded laying powerless in bed while hooked up to beeping machines. I never really understood the term “fighter” as it relates to cancer. As I remember, the battle was fairly one-sided and I didn’t do much of anything but endure it and hope that there was a way to win. It’s a helpless feeling that’s just as hard on loved ones as the person dealing with the disease.
I remember crying one night alone in the hospital after seeing the look on the faces of my mom and dad as the nurse told them they had to leave the room. There was nothing more they could do for their son but go home, come back in the morning and hope the treatment was working.
It’s easy to forget how fragile life is, especially when you’re young and think you have an endless amount of time do whatever you want. The further I’m removed from the cancer diagnosis, the easier it has gotten to forget that. The shattered notion of a never-ending tomorrow slowly gets pieced back together as I once again find myself worrying about the mundane and stressing over the inane.
This year I hope to celebrate my 40th birthday in March and being cancer free for the past 15 years in August. Edward would have teased me about milking two parties out of those milestones. He loved to tease his friends and we loved teasing him back. We had so much in common, but I never expected non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be one of them.
It’s a part of my life I don’t talk about as often as I probably should. Katy didn’t even know when I told her. Part of me doesn’t want to relive it while another part doesn’t want to be defined by it. It was a big part of my past that became a big part of my present on Wednesday and reminded me once again that nothing in life is guaranteed and to attack every moment with the same passion, hunger and energy Edward did.