Here I am, roughly twenty-six years out from being told with a deadpan face that I had a 20% chance of surviving my bone cancer. My first reaction was a feeling of despair. How could this happen to me? I was a good person and was healthy and fit. After a couple of days that despair turned to anger, not a passive anger, but a desire to beat that damned thing. Two things went through my head over and over: first, at nineteen years old, I was too young to die, and second, there was so much I hadn’t done and seen.
The doctors diagnosed me with a rare pediatric cancer, pelvic Ewing’s Sarcoma, and because it was rare, oncologists had not developed a gold standard for the best treatment. I researched the best doctors in the country to treat this disease (there were few) and went to visit them. One recommended a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, with some experimental chemotherapy on an outpatient basis. Another suggested just chemotherapy with a different cocktail. A third suggested a combination of chemotherapy and a radical new limb-salvage surgery, called an internal hemipelvectomy, which I was told would put me either in a wheelchair or using a cane for the rest of my life. After doing some more research in medical libraries (this was pre-Internet), I picked the third option.
I knew at the time that any day I might wake up with a metastasis or another sign of escalation of my disease, so I lived the year of my treatment and the subsequent ten years or so in fear. However, I also resolved to travel as much as I possibly could with my girlfriend at the time. I also convinced Stanford to let me remotely take a quarter of classes over a year (basically one class every three months), since continuing college would give me the hope that I would beat my illness.
After my surgery, I lay infirmed in a hospital bed for two months. The surgeons had removed a large part of my right pelvis, which, as a junction point of muscles between the back and the leg was required for walking, so I couldn’t move. I began physical therapy in the long journey of learning to walk again, but using different muscles. Having not seen the outside of the hospital for two months, I will never forget the day I walked out the hospital, heavily assisted and on crutches, and saw the sunlight and my car. At the time, these two things represented the ultimate manifestation of my freedom. I couldn’t stop crying for the beauty of the moment.
I read a number of books such as those by Bernie Siegel that addressed the topic of mind-over-matter when fighting cancer. I convinced myself that I had contributed to my cancer (from stress and lack of sleep) and that I could cure it (with the right attitude and a determination not to give up). Whether or not that was true, I was determined to enjoy every moment left in my life.
In hindsight, I have always said, often to the bewilderment of those I have told, that if I had a chance to go back and relive my Ewing’s Sarcoma, I would do it again. Of course, I can only say that having survived and being relatively unaffected over the long-term, so it’s a bit of an unfair statement in that many are not so fortunate. When I say that, though, what I mean is that going through the experience taught me that every moment must be savored as if it is your last. This had dramatic implications on my life. The very act of breathing air became beautiful. I saw flowers in a new light. Most important, I stopped doing all things I wasn’t passionate about, and resolved to myself that I would only spend my time in areas where I would be able to look back and say I was glad I did that.
My illness instilled a crazy drive in me. I completed a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in four years, excluding my year of infirmary, because I was angry that cancer had taken a year from me. From there, I travelled all over to find the best career opportunities, as I was driven to enact positive change on companies, and ended up running my first company at twenty-six, finding a way to savor life through deep friendships and new experiences on weekends and evenings. I have run technology companies ever since, and also am blessed with a wonderful wife, three amazing children, and a happy home in the Bay Area.
I feel so fortunate to have learned what I learned when I was young, as it has allowed me to experience life to the fullest ever since. Thank you, Cancer.
Jason Donahue survived a challenging bout of pelvic Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnosed in 1990. Jason has since run ten technology companies for venture capital and private equity. He lives with his wife and three wonderful children in the Bay Area.