The beachfront in front of Aditiya Boutique Hotel - Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
Cancer Updates IRL

The Cycles Of Grief That Followed After Learning I Have Cancer At Age 32

Navigating through the different waves of emotions after finding out I have cancer at the age of 32 has been, to put it simply, much more difficult than I originally thought.

Stage 1: Shit!

My cancer journey first began when I discovered a bump on my neck in early August that led me to visit the hospital for an ultrasound scan of the area. The time between my first ultrasound and the first report of cancer took a solid 2-3 weeks to materialize. While I waited, I carried on with my life as normal and even went on some post lockdown trips out to the beautiful coastlines of Sri Lanka. I had no symptoms and some recent changes to my work schedule improved my overall work-life balance overall. I felt the best that I have been in many months.

After returning from a long weekend spent in Nilaveli (located in Northeast Sri Lanka), I opened a lab report that was finally available after 2 weeks of testing that had the words “Carcinoma” printed on it. ‘That doesn’t sound good’ I distinctly remember telling myself.

I spoke to my GP later in the day after reading that report and he gave it to me straight – I have a cancer of some sort and I need to acted fast to find out where it originated from. This then started a chain reaction of tests to get an official cancer diagnosis.

Sunset sailing with Sail Lanka in Nilaveli, Sri Lanka
Sunset sailing days before my first cancer notification (Nilaveli, Sri Lanka)

In my mind leading up to the test result, I had already planned for the worst with a small chance that the bump in my neck being cancer so the news didn’t sear as bad as it could have when I first heard it. Instead, the only thing that ran through my mind was ‘Shit!’.

My world was officially turning upside down.

Stage 2: Anger

This stage came pretty swiftly as my new reality set in. While I sat in several hospital waiting areas or was laying down on a gurney waiting to be wheeled in for a scan/test, the overwhelming sense of anger swept over me like a force field.

I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. ‘Why me?’, I remember repeating over and over in my mind. ‘I’m a good person, I treat myself and others well, I donated to charity, I keep track of my diet and workouts, I champion Black Lives Matter’ kept echoing over and over in my mind.


My life at this point oscillated between my day-to-day (work, relaxation, socializing) and visits to the hospital for testing and Oncologist consultations. I still felt perfectly healthy so the thought of something growing inside of me that is making me sick poisoned my mind more than anything.

There were definitely days where my thoughts went to a dreadful place – a place that left me devoid of any hope or happiness. It even got to a point where I started becoming jealous of unscrupulous characters in the news seemingly getting away with economic, political, or actual murder but the world/universe chose me, of all people, to have cancer.

Talk about an undeserved bitch slap to the face.

A pivotal point at this juncture that helped me move on to the next stage was a conversation I had with my therapist about all of the anger and resentment I was feeling. She helped me understand that reframing it from ‘Why me?’ to ‘Why not me?’ would help in comprehending it all. She further explained that, in the end, it was a numbers game and life was as random as ever and it would be pointless trying to figure out the cards I was dealt when it was largely fortuitous all along.

This was huge. My mind finally had a tiny semblance of peace. I’m forever grateful to my therapist for this!

Stage 3: Anger with a side of Acceptance

At this stage, it had been 5 weeks since my first scan and I still didn’t have an official diagnosis. My PET scan revealed a mass in my pancreas and a tumor marker test I performed did agree with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. However, what was confusing my Oncologist was why I wasn’t exhibiting any physical symptoms, which included weight loss, jaundice, and abdominal pains.

The only thing that was clear was that chemotherapy was the only viable source of treatment as radiation therapy or surgery was going to be ineffective or risky. This meant that knowing the true source of cancer was paramount since chemotherapy was a bespoke cocktail of drugs tailored to specific cancers. I was glad that there was a bit of clarity on this front. I now knew what my treatment was going to look like.

Since there was still a doubt of the true source, even more tests were required to unequivocally pinpoint the origin. This dragged on for another 5 weeks and during this time, I let my guard down a little and prepared for a battle that would maybe last for 6 – 12 months. I wholly envisioned myself coming out on top, even excited at the fact of adding ‘Cancer Survivor’ to my life’s resume.

My days were a swan song of sorts before heading into treatment. I went out of town and hit the beaches as much as I could, savored every bite and drink, and visited with so many people before I wasn’t going to be able to.

Stage 4: Anger with more Anger on the side

Fast forward to 11 weeks after my first scan, my wife and I were sitting in Oncologist’s office one evening in mid-October going over the latest histology report I had just received. We were getting closer to a diagnosis and the report narrowed the source down to either the Colon or Pancreas and it was to be settled with a colonoscopy and/or endoscopy.

While my Oncologist was explaining the report to us, he let slip that my condition was Stage 4 because of how far it had spread to the lymph nodes in my neck. This was the first time a stage was ever mentioned. I did a double-take and had him elaborate more on this.

He then broke down the news that hit me like a ton of bricks – he was 99% sure that I had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and this condition overall is a chronic one. Furthermore, Chemotherapy will be effective in slowing it down but the chances of it being cured were pretty slim.

My visions of a 6 to 12-month battle and coming out on top as a cancer survivor just went up in a puff of smoke. This was now going to be the rest of my life? My “new normal”?

I was absolutely livid.

Breakfast at Amanwella - Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Breakfast in paradise at Amanwella (Tangalle, Sri Lanka) – 2 weeks before my first chemo session

Stage 5: Acceptance

After wrapping up the endoscopy and colonoscopy, both came back clear which set my treatment plan into gear. I scheduled my first chemotherapy session in a week’s time, got a buzzcut, and tried to wrap things up at work as much as possible before I needed to take off.

I got through my first treatment (more on this later) largely unscathed and feeling really good, in fact. Getting through the first treatment cycle really helped me focus on the reality of the situation and that it was manageable.

My next round of treatment will commence in a few days and I’m already prepared for it to not go as smoothly as the first, but, I’m still highly optimistic that I’ll spring back to my usual self in a few days afterward.

Rinse and repeat. It is what it is. This is my new normal.

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Nico Atienza

Chief Storyteller

An expat remote worker based in Colombo, Sri Lanka with a penchant for window seats on planes, travel, and technology that makes everyone’s lives easier.