“Cancer is a terrible disease. Heck, I’d be much happier if life handed me lemons. Life handed me cancer and I can’t really squeeze cancer to make canceraid. And if I could, I would highly recommend no one drink it. But after being handed cancer, what can I make from it?”
It’s a question that Andrew Fleming has to ask a lot.
His mom, Peggy, was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was a freshman in college. While his mom was going through chemotherapy and radiation, his dad, Brian, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Shortly thereafter, his aunt (and godmother) lost her life to breast cancer and then cancer took the family dog. His aunt’s sister, Judith, was next. She was diagnosed with colon cancer.
By the time Andrew was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 24, he had already been working as a cancer advocate for six years at a summer camp for kids with cancer. He went to the hospital after experiencing unusual fatigue. An x-ray showed that tumors took up almost a third of his chest.
“I knew I was going to fight and make it,” Andrew said. “Now it was my turn to take on cancer.”
Andrew says that he found the strength to overcome his diagnosis by “living for something bigger than myself.” He wanted to live his life with passion and purpose, while striving to be the best possible version of himself.
“I am aware that I have the choice to thrive in every aspect of my life. This sometimes can feel like a lot of pressure; to be happy all the time, to get the most out of life all the time, to be there for others all the time, and to live with passion all the time. There are days that are difficult. Fortunately these are the minority of days and focusing on the 99.9% of the great days makes life amazing and gives me the strength to thrive. I find great passion in advocacy and working on solutions.”
Andrew works as a high school counselor and spends his summer volunteering for cancer organizations including Camp Good Days and Special Times, First Descents, and Teens Living with Cancer. In all of these roles, he teaches his students and campers that “life is not always fair and what defines us is how we react to our current situation.”
Some days finding the silver lining can be tougher than others.
In late 2009, Peggy (Andrew’s mom and Brian’s wife of 46 years) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She battled the disease with grace and dignity for more than a year and passed away on April 1, 2011.
Andrew is now 35 and Brian is 72. Both are dealing with the loss of a woman they describe as being the center of their family.
“Living as a survivor of my wife’s death has been my greatest challenge,” said Brian. “Peggy had a great deal of equanimity in changing circumstances. She was courageous and an example in the art of living and the art of dying. She saw dying as a challenge and opportunity, and desired to do it with dignity. Honoring her memory is an exemplary task.”
The two men decided to embark on this exemplary task by participating in our Imja Tse program. They hope the experience will give them the opportunity to begin rebuilding their family while creating a new foundation from which their advocacy work can grow.
“We’re both continuing to find our path in life,” said Andy.
“We’re at a turning point,” said Brian.
Yesterday the two men hiked together through a field of boulders above the village of Dingboche. The path is very difficult to follow here because there are so many rocks blocking the way. As the two men hiked, they became separated. As the distance between them grew, they stopped and reunited.
Then, they began to work their way through the boulders together.