This past June marked 4 years since I was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 26.  I’ll never forget that day.  My wife, mom, dad, sister and I all went to the neurosurgeon’s office to get the staples out of my head and find out if any follow up was needed.

The week before, the doctors had to cut a walnut-sized brain tumor out of my head during a 45 minute surgery (is that some kind of record for brain surgery?).  Apparently it takes a longer amount of time to get an oil change on your car than it does to get brain surgery.  You don’t want anyone digging around in your brain for much longer than that – trust me.  We thought it was just a benign tumor they were cutting out, and we thought we’d never have to deal with it again following the surgery.  It turned out we were wrong.

After pulling the staples out of my head, the doctor opened the door, pathology results in hand.  It turned out that it wasn’t just a benign tumor they removed from my head.  It was brain cancer.  The good news was they were able to remove all of it.  The bad news was, apparently these things like to come back with a vengeance.  We left the doctors office that day with heavy hearts, packets of information about cancer, and referrals to set up radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Now what?

As I sit here today, healed, married, dog in my lap, no sign of brain cancer (thank God), I can’t help but reflect on those first few days following my diagnosis.  What did I do?  How did I react?  What came next?  This year 1.6 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer.  I hope my words of wisdom will bring comfort to the recently diagnosed.  I want you to know that you’re not alone, and there’s hope.  What did I do when I found out I had cancer?

I bawled like a baby.

I went home that night and I remember going to the bathroom to brush my teeth.  I was looking in the mirror and it hit me like a ton of bricks.  “Holy crap I have BRAIN CANCER!”  I think I actually screamed and hit the floor sobbing.  I was a mess!  Remember that scene in Anchorman, when Ron Burgundy is in the telephone booth wailing on the phone about how the man punted Baxter?  It was like that.   Guys, it’s okay to cry – even if it’s for something as simple as brain cancer 🙂  But seriously, a good cry every now and then never hurt anybody.  Follow that up with a soothing candle-lit bubble bath and you are golden.

Ron Burgundy in a glass cage of emotion

I called (almost) everyone I knew.

Okay, so this one may have been a bit dramatic, but I’m a bit of a drama queen (just ask my wife), so this one came really naturally for me.  I got on my cell phone and started going down the list.  I called people I hadn’t talked to in years.  I told them something like “I just found out I had cancer and I just wanted you to hear it from me.”  What I really meant was, “I just found out I had cancer, and I’m really scared, and I need all the support and love I can get right now.”  Don’t be afraid to rally up your troops.  Cancer is tough.  You need good people around you to help get you through it.

I accepted my diagnosis.

There’s a famous story about a woman who was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, but she literally refused her diagnosis.  She never sought treatment, and completely ignored what the doctors told her.  The story is, her cancer disappeared.  I don’t buy it.  Even if it is true, I personally prefer to take a more realistic approach.  Upon diagnosis, I accepted the fact that yes, this may actually kill me.  Cancer may kill me, but it doesn’t have to beat me.  I accepted my diagnosis of cancer, but instead of focusing on the fact that it may kill me, I chose to focus on what I could learn from cancer, and what I could teach the world about the disease.

Justin Anderson speaking at Hope Lodge Gala Marriott, Coralville, IA

I told my story.

This one is easy if you’re like me and you love being in the limelight, but I think it’s important advice for anyone diagnosed with cancer.  Get out there and tell your story.  People will get more involved with the cause when they have a personal story to attach to the disease.  Don’t be shy about your cancer.  You have nothing to be ashamed of.  The more noise you make, the more awareness you raise, the sooner we put an end to cancer.  Talk to your family, your friends, the local newspaper, your legislators, and don’t stop there – keep talking about it, and keep advocating for a world with no cancer.  We’ve eradicated smallpox, we’ve sent men to the moon, and now we have robots that live inside our phones and talk to us.  We live in the future.  We can certainly cure cancer.

Justin Anderson with Hindu Priests in Kathmandu

I reached outside of my comfort zone.

Before cancer, I lived my life a little differently than I do now.  I played in a band, and I worked at a bar. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but when cancer came, new opportunities came with it.  In 2011, shortly after completing my chemotherapy treatments, I joined a team of cancer survivors on a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp with Above + Beyond Cancer.  Before the trip, I was never a mountain climber, and I never dreamed of traveling to Nepal.  I know not every cancer survivor will get a chance to do something like this, but the point is to seize incredible opportunities when they are presented to you.  My journey with Above + Beyond Cancer not only taught me that cancer doesn’t have to define me, but it gave me the confidence to reach even higher than I could have ever imagined.  The best part?  My cancer story wasn’t even about me.  My journey inspired others to get involved with the cause.  It put a smile on the face of a few cancer patients, and it gave a kick in the butt to a few more.  Cancer or not, life is short.  Live yours with passion.  Don’t be afraid to seek adventure.  A cancer diagnosis is no doubt terrifying, but it can be the catalyst for great things.

So what’s holding you back?  Cancer doesn’t have to mean the end.  In fact, I would argue that upon a cancer diagnosis –  #LifeBeginsAgain.


5 Responses to “5 things I did when I found out I had cancer.”

  1. Ryan Ytzen


    You are a true inspiration, I admire your courage and desire to live life to the fullest no matter the circumstance!

  2. Ang Freese

    I’m so glad that you chose to share your story. Your story inspired me to take that leap and my life is so much better because if it. You are one of my heros Justin!! Thank you for all you have done & continue to do!

  3. Michelle Rosa


    We just celebrated my mother’s one year anniversary cancer free of leukemia. I’ve been following Heather’s posts and this one struck me as one to be commented on and shared. What a great affirmation to those still in the fight. I’m so very happy for your remission and overjoyed for your contributions to the world with your positive words and your zest for living.

    Keep it up and may everyday teach you something and give you the opportunity to give back.

    Say hi to your folks for me,
    Michelle Rosa
    Mason City, IA

  4. Missy Nicholson

    I loved reading this, and I just love ya Justin! Praise God for all he has done!!! You are such an inspiration, keep it up 🙂

  5. Toni Lorber

    A Very inspiring story. You have touched many hearts with coming out and talking about not being affraid but to face your biggest fears with open arms and ask for the support from millions to fight not only for themselves but for everyone else trying to find a cure… Way to go!


Leave a Reply