The Tumor That Changed Me

By Immelman, Trevor | Newsweek International, May 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Tumor That Changed Me


Immelman, Trevor, Newsweek International


Byline: Trevor Immelman

Can your outlook change, even if your day-to-day actions don't? In my experience, it definitely can.

I'm a professional athlete, so when I woke up on December 14 with a little twinge in the front of my ribcage, on the right-hand side, it just felt like par for the course. I did the usual and took some anti-inflammatories, thinking I'd tweaked something. But the next morning, I was struggling to take deep breaths, and I only felt comfortable hunched over. As soon as I stood up, I couldn't get enough air. What kind of injury was this?

It wasn't. The MRI and the ultrasound taken by my GP were clear as daylight: I had a tumor the size (fittingly) of a golf ball in between my lungs and my diaphragm. By the afternoon, I'd seen a cardiothoracic specialist. "This can't stay in you. We've got to take it out," he said. As if I wasn't already having trouble catching my breath, we scheduled surgery for two days later.

At 28 years old, you really can't comprehend your own mortality until it's staring you down. I did my best to stare back--and, with my wife and 2-year-old son, as well as both our families, I had all the support I could have wanted. My doctors didn't panic, my family stayed calm. And I never let myself believe I was going to die. But still. It's impossible not to wonder how you've used your life.

This isn't a story about radical transformation. I didn't abandon the folly of my youth, reinvent myself, see the light. That's a cliche. For a survivor, the question--"Have I taken things for granted?"--is perfectly obvious. But the answer is trickier.

What I knew for sure was this: even if I recognized the serendipities in my life, I was still just cruising along. I may have known in the back of my mind that I'd always been in the right place at the right time. That I'd been fortunate as a boy to meet successful people, particularly golfers, and to learn from them. That every tournament I won, including one just a few days before the pain started, was a blessing. But knowing it is different than feeling it.

It's strange that a feeling of such pain--cystic fibrosis, we discovered--is what made me feel those other things, but life is full of contradictions. …

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