“Will you marry me?”
“You got the job.”
“Your mortgage has been approved.”
These are the life-changing phrases young adults may not expect to hear every day, but they are within the scope of possibility. They are part of the lexicon of the generation, a generation brimming with excitement and hope, making career and family choices, and establishing a unique identity in the community.
Photographed by Brittany Merrifield
“You’ve got cancer” is a phrase that doesn’t fit into that worldview. But it’s one that slapped Mike Lang in the face three years ago. An athlete with a love of the outdoors, Lang was concerned that his shortness of breath might be asthma and that it would slow him down. It turned out to be a cancerous tumour the size of a baseball. Within days a variety of other tumours were discovered throughout his body. Lang was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and began aggressive chemotherapy almost immediately.
He was 25 years old.
Lang, a native Albertan who lives in Calgary, was a graduate of Trinity Western University with a Bachelor of Human Kinetics in recreation. He had been working as an adventure guide with at-risk youth. He’d married Bonnie only a few months earlier and the two loved nothing more than skiing, rock-climbing, kayaking and mountaineering.
“I’d been working with at-risk youth, doing something good with my life and it was taken away from me. I felt my life was worthwhile,” he says. “It was so difficult for me and I was mad at God for putting me through it. I was mad at the injustice.”
It’s never fair and nobody expects cancer. But the odds of Lang having cancer were low. He was the picture of health and youthful vitality. Ironically, that’s one of the barriers to earlier detection among young people. Lang’s age, health and overall strength were factors that meant neither he nor his doctors considered him particularly vulnerable to the disease.
“A delayed diagnosis is one of the biggest issues for young adults with cancer,” says Lang. “It’s not supposed to happen to people my age.”
Bonnie Lang, Mike’s wife and a professional personal trainer, agrees. “Cancer is more expected when you’re older. Doctors check it out faster, and survivors have the thought of it at the back of their brains,” she says. “When you’re younger, it’s just not what you expect to hear.”
However, according to Young Adult Cancer Canada, nearly 7,000 people between 15 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer every year. While survivorship rates for paediatric patients and adults over 40 years old are steadily improving, rates for young adults with cancer have not changed since the mid-1970s.
Anyone living with cancer faces difficulties both physical and mental, but there are certain concerns that are unique to younger people. “Financial issues are big. At this age you are unstable. There are student loans. Car loans. Maybe a mortgage. We were lucky the chemo was covered, but the nausea meds were $30 per pill,” Lang says. “It’s not ideal to be married for five months and move back in with the parents. But I didn’t qualify for EI, so without them, we would have been homeless.” He says there are the issues of peer acceptance, perhaps young children at home and isolation within a health system geared to older patients.
“All the young adult cancer survivors I’ve met say isolation is one of the biggest things,” says Lang. He recalls sitting in the waiting room at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary awaiting chemotherapy treatment. His sense of isolation grew when he looked at the faces surrounding him. “I was the only young person in that waiting room; everyone else was at least 30 years older than me. You feel like you’re the only person your age to ever get cancer.”
Despite this, very little support, resources or research funds are invested in this specific demographic. In fact, less than 0.1% of all research spending in Canada in 2006 was targeted at young adults with cancer.
The first few months after diagnosis were dark and painful times for Lang. “I was in an angry place.” Aside from the emotional trauma, the physical pain was extremely difficult to bear. “Chemo drugs are really hard. One drug in particular was like fire in your veins. It took almost two hours each time to drip into my veins. Toe-clenching pain.”
Although he lost most of his hair (except, oddly, for his beard) and felt off-balance all the time, Lang tried to ignore the disease. He refused to accept what was going on inside his body, and simply grew more and more bitter. He could see what was happening to him and felt helpless, but he knew he didn’t want cancer to define his life.
Take it Easy: Lang and his wife Bonnie take advantage of life, never taking anything for granted.
Photograph by Brittany Merrifield
“My wife Bonnie and I were sort of pretending it wasn’t happening, and using that as a coping mechanism,” says Lang. “But it wasn’t working.” Eventually, he realized that the cancer may not kill him physically, but it might do so emotionally and spiritually. That’s when they “started to talk about how we could engage with it instead of closing our eyes to it.”
One day, after a brutal few hours of chemotherapy spent attached to an IV at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Lang was preparing to face the rest of his day. On his way out of the hospital, he noticed a poster lying on the floor. It had fallen off a wall, and required a Herculean effort simply to bend down and pick it up. The poster advertised a retreat sponsored by Young Adult Cancer Canada. Lang had never heard of the organization, but a voice inside him told him he must attend. He and his wife packed their bags and headed to Lake Louise where they encountered and immediately bonded with other young adults with cancer. Right away, he saw how powerful it was to be with other young adult cancer survivors, to connect, and to share stories. Lang knew it was community and connections that would help him heal.
“When you meet other people your age who have cancer and who really understand what you’re dealing with, it’s very powerful.”
At the Lake Louise retreat, Lang had an epiphany. He decided to use his skills and experience as an adventure guide and find purpose to his suffering. He put the word out, and found seven other young adult cancer survivors from across Canada who wanted to take on a new challenge, something he called “adventure therapy.”
The idea was to gather other young adult cancer survivors together for a journey of a lifetime: an eight-day trip down Oregon’s Owyhee River, a waterway that winds through the third deepest canyon in North America. The goal was to raise awareness of specific issues and challenges of young adults facing cancer. Lang had some buddies with a small film company, Hands On Films, and they jumped on board to document the experience.
So, after six months of chemotherapy and 60 days of radiation treatment, Mike devoted himself to another challenge: he poured his energy into the planning, promotion and financing of the project he called The Wrong Way to Hope. (Arrange a screening or buy the DVD at wrongwaytohope.com.)
The result is a deeply moving film that follows the participants as they navigate class-three rapids in single-passenger kayaks, jump off towering cliffs into cool canyon water, hike, star-gaze, laugh, cry and dance. The group shares intimate moments of fear, revelation, courage and compassion; their bravery is truly inspirational. Most participants had never even been in a kayak, let alone navigated rapids. Everyone, obviously, had health concerns. And they were all virtually strangers when they set out.
“An adventure like this helps to build bonds quickly, quicker than if you’re sitting around in a room sharing your feelings. By the second day, people were sharing stories they hadn’t even shared with their own families,” Lang says. “You’re able to get to those deep levels of sharing that are needed for healing.”
As the driving force, Lang was worried that participants might not be strong enough to handle the river.
“It was a risk,” he says. “But now that we’ve done a few of them, (his third guided trip set out in June) we know that survivors are strong. For the past number of years, their world has shrunk down to this little bubble. We let people burst the bubbles.”
Lang’s film, The Wrong Way to Hope, introduces viewers to Laurie Hinsperger from Ottawa, who was diagnosed with colon cancer at 28 (after first being misdiagnosed with mononucleosis.) Aside from the sudden fear of her own mortality, Laurie was faced with financial challenges (her student loans), dietary challenges and social isolation.
Another participant, Winnipeg’s Cheryl Roby, was diagnosed with cervical cancer just before her 30th birthday. Her greatest fear was not being around to see her then-five-month-old daughter grow up. She says her river trip served as a metaphor for her life and her cancer journey. “It taught me that, in my path through life, I may not always be able to see what dangers may lurk around the corner,” she says. “But I am strong, capable, and surrounded by good friends who will pull me to shore when the river of life threatens to overwhelm me.”
Alston Adams, from Montreal, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at age 32 just after landing his dream job. In the film, he jumps off a cliff into a river after repeated hesitation. He faces a fear of heights, but we know he’s already overcome worse than most of us can imagine.
Share the Adventure: Mike Lang and wife Bonnie are a couple whose relationship grew rather than deteriorated after his diagnosis.
Photograph by Brittany Merrifield
Sadly, Adams died last year from cancer. The film immortalizes his friendly spirit, optimistic attitude and courage. Viewers are hit with the glaring reality that one in seven young adults who are diagnosed with cancer will die from the disease.
Mike and Bonnie are currently driving across Canada in an RV, showing the film to oncologists, psycho-social and other allied health-care practitioners, cancer patients (and former ones) and their support networks. Many others are simply film-lovers keen to watch a great story of strength and adventure.
But Lang says that when friends and family members see the movie they often ask the cancer patient or former patient in their lives: “Did you go through all that emotional stuff?” And the survivors answer, “Yes, but I didn’t know how to tell you.” The film changes both the patients’ and their friends’ and families’ experiences of cancer.
The Langs have met countless cancer survivors and their partners, and they have seen the devastating effects the disease can have on young relationships. Bonnie says that many couples going through cancer don’t stay together. However, those couples whose relationships do make it through can have deeper bonds than ever. “Our mariage has been 100 per cent strengthened,” says the effervescent blonde woman. “We’ve grown so much, as individuals and as a couple. We communicate even better than before. We have a new perspective.”
Mike Lang’s hair is back and so is his athletic form. Looking at the pair of them, you’d almost think nothing bad had ever happened to them. They could have simply curled up together and got on with their lives now that Lang is in remission. Instead, the disease has changed the course of their lives. “To me, this film is about redemption. It has brought abundant good out of a painful journey that almost destroyed me,” Lang says. “Now, everywhere I turn, I can’t help but see meaning and purpose.” The experience has turned Lang into not just a young adult who made it through cancer, but also documentary filmmaker, fundraiser, public-speaker, promoter and inspiration. On his website and in his presentation, Lang likes to quote Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, an American specialist in the mind/body health field: “Facts bring us to knowledge, but stories lead to wisdom.”
“Stuff happens to you, you know, that you can’t control,” he says in the film. “But you can choose where you go from there.