What Mike Lang Learned From Cancer
Mike Lang is the survivorship program coordinator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and is completing his master’s in health services research at the University of Calgary. Lang is a documentary filmmaker and adventure guide and, with his wife, Bonnie, runs Survive & Thrive Expeditions, an outdoor adventure program for young-adult cancer survivors. His full-length documentary Wrong Way to Hope was filmed in the summer of 2009 after his own treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008. Lang was one of Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40 class of 2013. Here is his story as told to Meredith Bailey:
When I first got sick, I was living in my van in Parking Lot 4 at Whistler ski hill. In the wintertime, I was a ski patroller, and, in the summers, I ran adventure trips with my wife, Bonnie, for inner-city kids in Seattle and Tacoma. My goal was to be an adventure guide.
I spent 300 days a year being active, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t keep up with my buddies. I had a hard time breathing and I would wheeze. The first doctor I went to said it was probably asthma.
About a year and a half later, I got a chest X-ray, and there was a tumour the size of a grapefruit in the middle of my chest. My lung capacity was at about 50 per cent. I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma Stage 3. It hadn’t spread to my organs yet, so they could treat it. I was 25 years old.
Three days later, we moved back to Calgary from Washington and into my parents’ basement so I could start treatment. I had just over six months of chemotherapy and then a month and a half of radiation.
I had significant trauma to my lungs, so I’d probably never climb big mountains or do anything at a high altitude again. I couldn’t connect with my friends or do the things I loved. I felt like I’d lost everything.
I tried pretending cancer wasn’t happening. I felt a sense of injustice that made me really angry and bitter. It was a downward spiral that ultimately led to despair.
Three months into treatment, I was lying on the floor punching the carpet. I was so angry, my knuckles were bloody. All of a sudden, I felt this unexplainable peace, and this idea popped into my head: “You have to engage with what’s happening to you.”
The biggest thing that I’ve learned from all of this is that I’m not afraid of suffering or people who are suffering.
I thought, okay, cancer is here; I think there’s a bigger reason for this.
The next day, Bonnie and I brainstormed how to combine our lives before cancer with our lives now. We decided to do adventure trips for young people with cancer and call them Survive & Thrive.
From that point on, my treatments got easier because it didn’t feel like purposeless suffering. My purpose was to raise awareness about the challenges for young adults with cancer. We’ve led seven trips with 86 survivors. I’ve learned so much from hearing all of their stories. There’s so much power in shared experience.
The biggest thing that I’ve learned from all of this is that I’m not afraid of suffering or people who are suffering. I know what it’s like to have your life completely derailed but still be living well despite that.
I skied 15 times this year, and I loved every day. I’m still able to climb those big mountains, if I want, but it’s not as important to me anymore. A lot of young people feel pressured to get on the same path they were following before cancer. I thought I should be a ski patroller. I realize now that if I had gone back to that life I wouldn’t have been happy. With Survive & Thrive, we want to give other cancer survivors the opportunity to stop, reflect, refocus and rebuild in a way that’s meaningful to them, because that’s going to help them to live the rest of their lives well.