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How I Survived … Cancer’s Relentless Grind
UC Irvine alum Ben Teller, 24, talks about beating the disease and helping other young adults who are still fighting
I’ve been diagnosed three times—when I was 18, 20, and 22. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, every time.
The first time was just before I started college. I had a recurring fever and the antibiotics weren’t working. So I went to the doctor just to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia. I got a chest X-ray and they found an 8-centimeter mass sitting on the left side of my heart.
I was told I wouldn’t be able to go to college, which was devastating. But I went through chemotherapy and went into remission.
The second time, when I was 20, it was just a routine PET scan. They found a little piece of what they thought was lymphoma, but they weren’t sure. It was small, and my doctor said, “Eh, let’s wait.” After three months it was still there so we decided to go ahead with a biopsy, and then chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant using my own stem cells.
Then I was in remission again. I turned 22. Another routine PET scan, and another bad phone call, and another bone marrow transplant.
For the second transplant, I thought I knew what was coming. But it was a whole different ballgame. I didn’t understand what it could mean if your body didn’t accept a donor’s marrow.
For three to four months I had to take massive amounts of steroids, and with that came hallucinations and 30 pounds of weight gain. I was having nightmares and night sweats. I was susceptible to infection, so I was on a low-bacteria diet and had to wear a mask if I left the house. I thought it would never end—and I’m so happy it did.
Now they’re weaning me off of immunosuppressants. I’m 100 percent in remission. I have hair, and I am so proud to have it! I go weeks without shaving my beard.
For several years I donated money to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, and Stand Up to Cancer. Then I thought, “I have a cause, too. I’ve been through this a few times, and I know what it’s like to experience this as a young adult.” When I was first diagnosed in 2007, my oncologist put a hat on my head that said—sorry—“Fuck Cancer.” So when I started my nonprofit in 2011—opened a 501c3, got the license, put up a website, and wrote a mission statement—I chose the name Cuck Fancer.
Our mission is simple: We do whatever it takes to help young adults affected by cancer get back on their feet. It can be a car bill, a medical bill, rent, or a suit for a job. It’s a difficult time to be sick because a lot of young adults don’t have health insurance, jobs, or families of their own, and they’re trying to be independent.
This year we gave out $12,000 in grants to young people with cancer. Next year my goal is $30,000. But my dream—and I don’t know how I would do this—I would love, love, love to set up young-adult cancer survivors with job interviews. That would be the ultimate.
Want to Help?
Go to cuckfancer.com to see how you can help young survivors get their lives back on track.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.