“I Was Grateful Just to Be Hungry”: One Man’s Stirring Tale of Overcoming Cancer

Getting his appetite back was a sure sign he was heading toward remission.

cancer-survivor-last-mealiStock/g-stockstudio

I’ve never been on death row, but I’ve thought about my last meal. When you do the last-meal thought exercise, you go back in time to all your happiest culinary moments. You gather them together—a spectrum of your tastes—for the epic finale. It’s like your life flashing before your tongue.

I’d have shrimp tempura and jerk chicken. I’d have my mom’s sweet-and-sour meatballs, my favorite memory. Then I’d have my own macaroni and cheese, which is the best.

After six weeks of chemo, I dropped from 168 pounds to 152. It’s not that extreme given the circumstances. But I’d always calculate how far I was from my previous health when I would walk to the corner store and not feel like I just got off a treadmill.

I was so tired; I had aches and grogginess. I was always hungry, and I thought I wanted to eat, but my body didn’t. Eating was like trying to swallow sand.

All I wanted was a cheeseburger and not even to actually eat it. I just wanted to want a cheeseburger, to feel my body processing that hunger, to thrive and not just shuffle off quietly.

I wanted to remember what it felt like to salivate over something.

When the oncologist called, the lilt in his voice hinted at good news. The tumor had shrunk to an operable size. I had the surgery, and I began to be weaned off the treatments. I could start eating again. Soups, bananas, and then I could eat a real meal again.

My closest friends said they would take me anywhere I wanted to eat. I didn’t have shrimp tempura or jerk chicken. I ended up getting comfort food—Thai, Americanized and sugary.

I’ll never have a last meal. I’d like to think that my death will be less predictable. But as I was sitting there with all my closest friends, looking down at the menu like it was a list of wishes, I was grateful just to be hungry.

All that mattered was the chance to have a first meal, a meal I could point to and say, “That’s when I came back to life.”

*Told live at a Moth show at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago, IL

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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Alvin Lau
Alvin Lau is a three-time international poetry slam champion. He has performed on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, among other shows.