Truly recognizing support after your cancer journey

Truly recognizing support after your cancer journey

By Alex Mandarino

As a self-proclaimed sports aficionado, I often dabble in old videos of athletes describing a moment in the final game of a playoff series where they ended up doing the impossible whether it be the last shot, the pinnacle swing of the bat, the final seconds — the moment when an entire city and fan base rested on their shoulders.

These are the moments us sports fans live for, and right after that moment of transcendence to near euphoria hits, all we want to know is “how did they pull that off?” But so often, when the reporters shove the microphone into the face of the sweating, exhausted — but satisfied — athlete, and ask “what was going through your mind when you won the championship for your team,” the highly anticipated response comes, “I don’t know; I blacked out.”

Although there is a significant difference in time between the final minutes of a championship game and the time spent undergoing treatment, surgeries, and post-treatment side effects, there is merit in comparing the mind-set of the protagonists in both scenarios. More specifically, us cancer thrivers often don’t dwell in all of the factors that help us conquer what we go through, especially those around us who push us — day in and day out — and those who are right there if we need a hug or a partner to cry with.

A few months after a championship game, many sports production companies will put together a feature on the prolific athlete and ask them about the season as a whole — how the team performed, what motivated them, etc. Quite often, even the star athletes have to admit they wouldn’t be holding the trophy without each teammate, their families, friends, coaches, and thousands of fans. Although the level of support and who it’s received from differs among us in the cancer community, support is paramount in providing us strength, courage, and positivity.

I spoke with a fellow thriver about this a few weeks back. Of course all of us are grateful for our loved ones and supporters throughout our cancer experience, but to what extent do we reminisce about how much they actually did for us and what they truly meant and how much of a burden they truly carried?

As a form of catharsis and gratitude to the people in my life at this difficult time, I am going to describe my most valued supporters through my cancer journey, and how each one of them affected me. I encourage everyone to follow this practice as it brings about love and kindness, realizing the amount of people in your life that truly make it worth living.

Valerie (mom)

Role: Essential caregiver, friend, partner-in-crime for watching shows
Characteristics: Strong, courageous, loving

My mom wore many hats throughout my cancer journey, and she wore each one of them without any asking or prompting. Any time I needed food, a drive to the hospital, someone to talk to, or just relax and watch a show with, she was there before I even had to ask. She was a bull in a china shop if it came to getting things done. She pulled off some things I couldn’t even dream of, and put together some extremely surreal experiences that I will never forget.

I will never be able to give my mom back everything she gave me, but now that I realize how much she gave up, and how she dedicated her time, love, and every possible strain of effort possible to see me smile, I will spend my life trying to make her proud.

2019, LLSC’s Light The Night Walk. I hate taking pictures, but this event is special and I am glad I captured it with my mom.
2018, my mother’s birthday. A more accurate description of our relationship and my family. Did someone say cake?

Fernando (father)

Role: Essential caregiver, comedian, best friend
Characteristics: Selfless, funny, wise

My dad has always been the first person I want to share exciting news with, the person I seek highest approval from, and whom I know will always be proud to see me happy and encourage the best for me.

It was really tough seeing his only son go through such a rough patch, but he handled it like a champ. He always made me laugh, provided me with whatever I needed, and made sure I felt as good about myself as possible at all times.

I’ve learned so much about how to handle myself as a man, and what to do when times are tough. I think a big part of how I was able to put my head down and truck through two years of mental and physical pain was owed to his lessons about being strong and doing whatever it takes to move forward.

2018, my cousins wedding, showcasing a couple of sharply-dressed gentlemen. This could come right out of a scene from The Godfather! Don’t worry, one of those drinks is for someone else.

 

2019, nothing has ever been the same since my dad discovered the filters on Snapchat. This is one of many moments where I need to stand up and walk because of how hard I was laughing. There are some more unflattering pictures, but we’ll save them for a later edition.

 

The best friends

Jordan (friend)

Role: Companion, motivational coach
Characteristics: Smart, honest, caring

Stefan (friend)

Role: Companion, rock of solidarity
Characteristics: Bold, understanding, welcoming

Colin (friend)

Role: Companion, idea-seeker
Characteristics: Loyal, dependent, funny

Tyler (friend)

Role: Companion, reality check specialist
Characteristics: Calming, kind, willing and able

These four guys kept me grounded and strong throughout my entire battle with my treatment and played a significant role at the beginning of my survivorship and beyond. These four are my best friends, far and away, and define who I am and what I want to do with my life. We all go way back to high school, our friendships and camaraderie strengthening through university even though all five of us took different career studies at different schools.

The night before I was admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital back in December 2014 to begin my first induction phase of treatment, they all came over to set up one of our ongoing poker nights. I don’t remember who won or what we talked about, but that’s not what mattered. I felt at home, like nothing had changed. That means more to be than anything else.

Each one of these clowns holds a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.

2014, Toronto. Jordan visits me at PMH midway through my first induction phase.
2017, Barbados. Stefan and I enjoying some balcony time after a week of beaches, dancing, and fish.
2018, Stefan, Colin, Tyler, Jordan and I amidst an annual holiday poker night.

 

The McMaster crew

Mario (friend)

Role: Companion, pillar of strength
Characteristics: Genuine, strong, encouraging

Andrew (friend)

Role: Companion, facilitator of ideas
Characteristics: Confident, welcoming, kind

Raminder (Mindy) (friend)

Role: Companion, conversation specialist
Characteristics: Easy-going, loyal, caring

Daryl (friend)

Role: Companion, provider of good spirits and intentions
Characteristics: Genuine, selfless, empathetic

Taher (friend)

Role: Companion, grounder for self-esteem
Characteristics: Courageous, funny, kind

Devan (friend)

Role: Companion, comedian
Characteristics: Smart, understanding, inviting

Sam (friend)

Role: Companion, floormate, spiritual provider
Characteristics: Bold, spontaneous, kind

I transferred schools from my first to second year of university, marking my first time truly living away from home. I put a great deal of trust in myself and the new group of people I was to call roommates for the next year in the small house just outside the McMaster University campus. I was a little apprehensive and nervous, somewhat out of my comfort zone. I can say with absolute certainly that I moved in with the best roommates a guy could ask for.

I lived with these seven guys for the better part of my university career. They provided laughs, deep conversations, a ton of lessons learned, and a set of memories that are engrained in me long past old age. When I was diagnosed, I understandably took some time away from my studies and therefore the house, but when I returned eight months later, it was like I never left.

The thing I’m most grateful for is that they took my condition in stride. They stayed in with me most Friday and Saturday nights when I wasn’t feeling great, and those times produced some of the brightest moments not only in university, but my life.

This group has established themselves as lifelong friends, and as our crew grows, my love for each new member grows with it. Broad Street Bullies for life!

2020, Mario, Nicki, Raminder, Harky, Daryl, Taher, and Andrew celebrate Taher’s new job and throw him a going away party.
2016, Mario, Sam, Mindy, Andrew and Devan and I visit an Escape Room by McMaster (we escaped with 12 seconds remaining, what a rush!)

 

Shivani (friend)

Role: Companion, motivational speaker, dreamer
Characteristics: Compassionate, loyal, caring

There have been times where I have stopped and thought about how caring and genuine a single human being can be. Shivani represents the upper portion of this limit.

She and I have been close since our sophomore year in high school. We had a similar group of friends, and we often had similar senses of humour. We remained good friends through our first few years of university, and saw each other when we had an opportunity, less so as we were farther away and growing as people.

Now, we all know about the effect cancer can have on our social network. Many people are uncomfortable and begin to fade away. Shivani became even closer. She truly cared about my health, my wellbeing, and continues to be someone I can count on for absolutely anything. Beavis and Butthead still standing strong!

2012, Shivani and I take a picture prior to Mayfield Secondary School prom.
2016, I visited Shivani in Waterloo for a night out with friends.

 

Laura (friend)

Role: Companion, Role model, breaker of tension
Characteristics: Bold, intelligent, confident

As someone who underwent cancer, we often think of ourselves as the most interesting person we know, or at least the most unique. I am the second most interesting person I know, behind Laura McLauchlan.

I met Laura on the first day of high school and never looked back. She is one of the most sophisticated people I know, and yet also extremely down to earth. She is the one person in this world other than my parents that I could probably hold a conversation with for an entire day if need be. She has provided me with incredibly in-depth conversations, great advice, hilarious experiences, and tends to be someone who will never cease to surprise me.

She was always there when needed, even from all the way east in Nova Scotia whilst completing school. She and I will always have a strong bond that will hold us together as we grow into our adult lives, and I’m extremely grateful to have such a strong, passionate, and encouraging young woman to call one of my best friends.

2017, Laura and I reunited after about a year’s time.
2016, Montana’s BBQ & Bar. Just enjoying a casual three hour chat to catch up on a myriad of information in our lives.

 

The Mandarino family

Role: Family, everything I could ask for
Characteristics: Loving, empathetic, encouraging, selfless

Everyone’s family is a little crazy, but never once did I assume that I would be the source of all the insane activity rooted in the family history! I have always considered myself to be a part of a family who I feel connected with, and I feel so special and lucky to be a member of the Mandarino clan.

When I fell ill, my family was there every single step of the way. They joined in fundraisers, put together special calendars, sent encouraging messages, and visited me in and out of the hospital. I felt like I mattered, like I belonged.

Our annual tradition on Christmas Eve is to host dinner at my Nonno and Nonna’s house, with each family attending and bringing food, dessert, and presents for our Secret Santa activity. The year I was diagnosed, I wasn’t in shape to attend Christmas Eve, so my entire family pushed it back a week so that I could be a part of it. A small act of selfless and loving energy will never be forgotten, and I am eternally grateful to have such a loving and present family.

2016, my cousin Michael’s and fiancée Nina’s wedding. The entire Mandarino clan of cousins celebrate a joyous occasion.
2014, right before New Year’s Day. A set of us cousins clowning around during our postponed Christmas Eve celebration.

 

I could go on for hours about each person who has made a significant impact on my life by keeping me honest and focused during my peak periods with cancer, and I could not be more thankful for that fact. There are a group of people within the cancer community who have done a great deal for me as well, and I plan to reserve another piece of writing dedicated towards just that topic. However, I’d be remiss to not mention these names above.

In order to figure out my future, I think it’s important I recognize my wonderful past, and the people that make me smile today.


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