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When $#*! Really Gets Real With Cancer

04/17/2014 04:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2014
  • Dan Duffy Filmmaker; Author; Speaker; Co-founder, The Half Fund

I almost fell down, my legs not giving me the strength to stand. I didn't trust myself. I didn't want to walk. I didn't even want to open my eyes. It felt like the wind was blowing me from side to side, and at any moment, I was going to fall... possibly to my death. The terror got the better of me. I slowly lowered my body and I simply sat...

... on the shingles of the Antennas Direct building in Chesterfield, MO yesterday. Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

I'm not kidding... with the wind blowing about 20mph out of the west, and while standing on the roof of a building for a video shoot, I went into full on panic mode. I seriously almost ceased to function.

It all started about three weeks ago. I got a call from Christine, who works for a company called Antennas Direct. They make these amazing HD antennas that pluck Blu-Ray quality signals out of the air and bring them directly to your TV. They're very powerful, and in cities like LA, you can pull in as much as seventy channels or more for free.

Needless to say, in a not-so-hot economy, these things have been selling like crazy. Christine called to let me know that the Antennas Direct folks wanted to shoot some new "How to Install" videos of their most popular antennas, some of which need to be installed on a roof.

Well it just so happens that the company has their own building, which is built like a gigantic one story house. The roof just has standard shingles, and the pitch is not even that much to write home about. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, quite a lot, though I didn't know this as I was climbing the ladder.

As I cleared the last rung, I started walking up towards the top of the roof line to get a better view of where we were going to shoot the installation of these antennas. As I peered over the top of the peak, I noticed that the side where we would shoot overlooked a valley. I also noticed that I couldn't see the ground anymore, and that we were higher than the tops of some of the tall pine trees below. And it might have just been an optical illusion, but when you literally can't see the ground, you soon realize that in your own mind, and I'm preemptively apologizing for my language...

... shit just got real.

So not only did I start to freak out over the fact that I can no longer see terra firma on one side, but when I turned back to the other side, the side where I had initially walked, it was a scene straight out of Vertigo. The seemingly benign pitch of the roof now looked like the side of a mountain. I started to slowly make my way down to where my camera and tripod were waiting near the ladder. However, about halfway to my gear, I felt the sudden urge to sit down before I fell down. So sat I did, and to get my camera, I dragged my butt across the shingles like a dog with a rectal issue. Our main cameraman, Jack, simply asked, "Dude, you okay?"

"Of course," I muttered. But then when I picked up my gear to shoot, I realized that I could not stand up... at all. So I just shy of tore myself a new one making my way across the roof on my feet and my now very sore bum.

But then something changed. After I had finally made it to my feet, and I got into the position of where the camera was going to be, my friend Christine (now on the roof) told me, "Well, even if you fall, it's less than seven feet down."

She was only half-kidding, but she instantaneously brought me back to two very significant moments in my life.

It was July of 1998. Three months prior to that day, three friends, my brother, and I sat around a table and decided that we were going to go get our skydiving licenses. Two friends dropped out after jump one. My bro finished level three before deciding, "I think I'm just too big a fan of the earth."

This left my friend Richard and I, and we were going to finish no matter what. So it was my level four jump, and this would be the first one with just a single "jumpmaster" holding on to me. It is a really big step because all prior jumps had a jumpmaster on either side. If things ever got out of control, you knew there were two really good skydivers right there to help support you. Now I was going to be a little bit more on my own, and I wasn't feeling it. In fact, I was paralyzed by my own fear.

So on the flight up to 14,000 feet, I couldn't stop hyperventilating. I was sweating like Ted Stryker trying to land a plane. There was no way I was going to be able to jump, and I came very close to telling my jumpmaster this. My skydiving career looked like it was going to come to an end. I just kept lying to myself, "You can do this, you can do this."

No, I couldn't.

So my jumpmaster and I were going to be the last ones out of the plane, as I was the only student jumper of the load. As I watched all of the groups go out ahead of me, I became more and more rigid. I was just about in full "making a fist with my ass" mode when the pilot said, "Okay, you're ready."

It was an act of Almighty God that got me to stand up. I walked over to the door, and the fear was consuming me fully. My eyes had to be glassed over at this point. As far as I was concerned, I was preparing myself to die.

All of a sudden, the pilot yells out, "Whoa... wave off... passed the jump run... coming back around."

When jumping out of a plane, you go on a jump run which runs parallel to the runway. It gives you a finite amount of time to actually get out of the plane. If they let you out too far from the airport, you may not make it back to the airport under canopy, so you have to jump within a reasonable proximity. Plus, you are only allowed to fly perpendicular with a runway, so that you don't run into jumpers who went out before or after you.

We had passed our jump run. I took it as a sign from God, and so while making the turn around, I asked Him a question: "What am I so afraid of?"

I immediately thought about falling and hurting myself. Well that didn't make any sense. I was jumping from 14k. I wasn't going to hit the ground any time soon.

So then I thought about getting unstable when jumping out. Well that didn't make any sense either, as I would have a solid minute to get stable, and it only ever took me about seven seconds at the most.

And then I thought, "What if I fail the jump?" I would have to re-test, and re-take the jump. Yes, it would hurt my wallet a little, but would it be the worst thing in the world?

By then, the plane had turned around, and we were now on our jump run, part deux...

... and I could not wait to get out of that plane. I felt so good and so confident, and nothing was going to keep me from passing my jump, especially not something as useless as fear.

But Christine's "seven feet down" also brought me back to March of 2002. I had been diagnosed with cancer, and I was coldly embraced by the familiar paralysis that gripped me in '98. While I'm always a fan of knowledge is power, it didn't really help me this time. I wanted to know all that I could find out about what I was going to go through, but when I read about the chemo drugs that I would be infused with, I recognized that just like jump run part one...

... shit just got real.

Cisplatin, the number one nausea-causing chemotherapy drug ever conceived, was going to be my main culprit. Probably could've done without reading that. And then I was worried about hair loss. And when I couldn't complete the task at hand at the sperm bank, I was almost inconsolable.

And then of course, there's that whole "possibly dying" thing to think about.

But a funny thing happened on the way to losing lefty: I gradually stopped giving into my fear. As I realized that the cancer hadn't killed me yet, I started asking that one question that tends to be the death knell of all fear:

"What am I afraid of?"

I'm not going to say that everything went 100 percent smoothly yesterday. There was that whole "having to get down from the roof onto the ladder" fiasco which I won't bore you with. But needless to say, once again, it made a huge difference to simply ask the question, "What am I afraid of?"

Once it is out in the open, and you have a rational conversation with yourself about the answers you come up with, you realize that what you make up in your own mind is usually way worse than reality will ever be.

In other words, FDR had it absolutely right when he said those immortal words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself." Once people bought into those words, and realized the power they gained by buying in, well...

... shit just got real.

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