Picture this: You’re walking down a road with a friend and see a cyclist. Your friend turns to you and says, “Oh hey, that’s Ralph, he has cancer.” Would your first reaction be that your friend is saying some insensitive quip about cancer? Or would you believe them? A month ago, if I had a friend say that a cyclist was in the midst of his cancer treatment, I would have thought that my friend was being fairly inappropriate. But what I’ve learned after talking to Ralph Aloia about his journey with cancer is that I would have been the one who’s too quick to judge. I can’t speak for everyone, but I do know that I’ve been given one lens to look through when thinking about cancer — it completely takes over the patient’s life making them incapable of living anything close to their lifestyle before cancer. Oh, how wrong I’ve been.
I met Ralph just a handful of times before we sat down and discussed him being a cancer survivor. In fact, I never knew he had cancer until I received an email this September that announced the anniversary of his last chemo treatment on September 11, 2016. After that, Ralph opened his doors to me and we spoke very frankly about his cancer treatment. The experience that he disclosed to me was eye-opening.
Ralph had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and he discovered this in March of 2016 after visiting the doctor for what he believed to be a pulled muscle from a foot race against his then 5th graders at Fairmont Anaheim Hills. Those same 5th graders were soon sending him king-sized “get well soon” cards, emails with their encouragement, and even cat memes to brighten his days while he was receiving treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City — the same hospital his father received his cancer treatments.
While Ralph was going through weeks of chemotherapy and Ventoclax, which was, at the time, a new drug for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, he missed his son dearly. JR was only one and a half at the time, and Ralph knew that he would be missing out on some precious moments in JR’s life. But, with today’s technology, Ralph made it through with FaceTime and keeping the perspective that this short time away from JR would lead to a lifetime with JR — a small sacrifice in the broad scheme of things.
Not only did Ralph focus on his son and his determination to live a long life with him, but Ralph also focused on keeping active, as much as possible, both intellectually and physically. Ralph solved the New York Times crossword puzzle with his mother daily. He walked and eventually cycled nearly daily. He discovered a love for cooking very bland meals (aside from the occasional indulgence in east coast pizza — I mean really can you live in New Jersey and not eat pizza?!). Now you may be thinking how could Ralph eat pizza when he’s going through chemotherapy? I thought one of the worst side effects was nausea? Don’t worry, I thought the same exact thing, but Ralph experienced little to no nausea throughout the duration of his treatment. And this is where I want to circle back to our perspective when interacting with a person who is sick. It’s so easy to assume that each person’s journey through cancer is similar, but Ralph proves that everyone is different, so it’s imperative not to make assumptions about something someone is going through.
If you’ve been on any of the Fairmont campuses this year, you may have noticed the new Fairmont Code posters. These posters are reminders for every person who walks through Fairmont’s halls to show kindness and respect to everyone they meet. Kindness isn’t just holding a door open for someone or saying good morning. Kindness is also showing respect and treating people, especially people who are sick, normally. To clarify, if a friend or loved one has a cold and you make them noodle soup, which is something you normally wouldn’t do, is not what I’m saying — you should still make them the noodle soup because you care about them, want them to get better, and feel the desire to aid them. What I am talking about is including people in normal, everyday activities. For example, while Ralph was going through his treatments, he was back in his hometown: New Jersey. Therefore, he had many friends there who he hadn’t seen in quite a while, and, of course, they wanted to visit him. Ralph’s friends wanted to play a friendly game of poker one evening but weren’t sure if he would feel up to it because, as anyone who’s ever played before knows, a game of poker can easily go into the wee hours of the morning. But Ralph wanted to be included. He wanted to spend a normal evening with his friends who he hadn’t seen in a while. If Ralph was simply visiting New Jersey and didn’t have cancer there wouldn’t have been a second thought on whether to invite him. That is what I mean when I say, “treat people normally.”
Ralph’s advice to the loved ones of cancer patients is to not walk on eggshells around them, and I really think that we can learn a lot from that. Of course, I’m not saying you should ever be mean to someone, but what I am saying is that sick people are still just humans.
Speaking to Ralph about his experience as a cancer patient taught me so much about making what could be an uncomfortable situation normal. And if we stay true to the Fairmont Code by being respectful and kind to every person no matter what their circumstance, we may find that the world will become a better place.