Opinion: My summer with cancer

Daily Universe Sports Editor Jackson Payne on his third day of chemotherapy treatment in Provo. (Jackson Payne)

Editor’s note: This week’s opinion piece features more of a personal narrative/perspective from our Universe Sports Editor Jackson Payne, who spent the past few months battling cancer prior to his successful end of chemotherapy this week.

I already knew my summer would be different than most.

Unlike the Utah social media expectation, I don’t have a houseboat at Bear Lake or Lake Powell. I wasn’t shipping off to some faraway land to sell pest control or solar panels. Most importantly, I wasn’t getting married this summer. What a relief, right?

My summer plans weren’t too crazy, but I loved how it sounded: All my friends and roommates were staying together in Provo without taking classes, so we would have plenty of free time to relax, blow off some steam and recharge before fall semester. Plus, I’d still be writing at the Universe all summer, and getting paid to talk about sports is always a joy.

I had been taking classes nonstop since returning from my mission last May, so this summer was my first real break from school in over a year. I was eager for the opportunity to take it easy — in my mind, I deserved the break.

It was this “gone fishin'” mentality that made all my doctor visits so annoying.

Throughout winter semester I had been to the doctor’s office far more often than I would have liked. It seemed like there was always something wrong with my body and I never felt 100% right. Sure, I was a college student running on minimal sleep and a terrifying diet, but that had never hurt me before. After all, you’re invincible during college, right?

One of many doctor visits for Jackson Payne over the past few months. He is grateful for the excellent care he has received. (Jackson Payne)

The sporadic doctor visits continued into spring term, where I suddenly couldn’t wake myself up before noon anymore. This was an immediate concern as I had been a morning person my whole life. Early wake up calls for high school seminary and the mission had always been a breeze. Was I just working myself too hard? Could my body not cash the checks my ego was writing?

My friends and I love to play basketball together. We often play pickup at the Richards Building or Smith Fieldhouse throughout the school year, but around the same time that waking up was becoming a struggle I began to realize I was getting too easily winded when we played full court. I couldn’t keep up with anyone if we were running and I definitely couldn’t last for an entire game of hoops. My shot was broken, but that’s nothing new. Basketball used to be therapeutic for me, but now I felt 80 years older when I stepped on the court.

Something clearly wasn’t right with me. With the shape I was in, it seemed as if you could donate my body to science fiction. I was hoping a nice, peaceful summer might solve whatever physical ailments I’d been plagued with.

But then I found something growing on me.

How long should you take before getting a suspicious growth checked out? That’s the game I played for a few days upon my surprising discovery. I finally bit the bullet and went back to see my doctor, albeit slightly embarrassed that one person could rack up so many trips to her office in so short a span. She had to have just been sick of seeing me by that point.

My doctor looked at the growth and almost immediately concluded that “it wasn’t cancer,” but felt that getting some routine tests done would help see a clearer picture.

I’m so grateful for that decision.

The routine tests turned into a visit with another more specialized doctor to observe the growth, following which he ordered further testing, another examination and a third test before reaching an ultimate conclusion.

On June 3, just hours following my final test, I was driving up I-15 to help my former Universe Sports partner in crime, Caleb Turner, move into his new place. As I took the exit to get off in Sandy, my blasting of the Replacements’ “I’ll be you” was interrupted by a phone call.

The phone call.

Other than hearing the piercing “you have cancer,” I don’t remember much else of what my doctor said to me. It’s not news I imagine he enjoys giving, and it definitely wasn’t anything I expected to hear at 21 years old. I was stunned. I tried to keep it together but couldn’t make much sense of it all. I did, however, figure that all my random health problems since winter semester were kinda sorta probably maybe related to this whole cancer thing, so I did find some peace to know that there wasn’t anything THAT wrong with me — aside from the cancer.

That was on June 3, and we had to act fast. My parents flew out from the East coast on June 5, and I underwent intensive emergency surgery to remove a baseball-sized tumor from my body on June 8 — just five days after my initial diagnosis.

I couldn’t have been any more fortunate for how it all worked out. God has been continually aware of me and I feel so blessed.

Recovering from surgery was a grind, especially considering the strange feeling to need near-constant care and supervision after having lived away from home for four years already. It can be humbling to be a patient and to feel so needy. In life I’ve seen that often times we can be so willing to do whatever it takes to minister to others, but we have a hard time knowing when to ask for help and give someone else the chance to be blessed for serving us. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to ask for help. It’s a blessing to serve and it’s a blessing to be served. I’m grateful that surgery helped me learn that lesson early on because I ended up needing much more help as time passed.

Despite my recovery, I still wanted to try and live as normally as I could. My job writing for Daily Universe Sports means so much to me. Sportswriting is my passion and all I’ve ever wanted to do. I love sports and I love telling stories. My dream is to be the next Tony Kornheiser — he’s witty, knowledgable, talented in so many fields and someone who everyone listens to and values what he says.

I didn’t want surgery to keep me from getting my Universe Sports work done. I’ve always maintained that writing for the school news network has plenty of advantages over the competition, but there will always be plenty of areas where our limited resources may fall short. My job is to close that gap and keep strengthening our culture and brand. I know I won’t be the most relevant sportswriter in the BYU community, but my goal has forever been to be the hardest-working (although my man Jake Hatch will always have me beat!).

I wrote as much as I could from my bed following surgery along with running our Universe social media platforms. In fact, when I came out from under anesthesia after surgery, one of the first things I was told was that Trent Pratt had gotten the permanent head coaching job for BYU baseball (and deservedly so). Naturally, the first thing I did upon returning from the hospital that day was get a story written and published on the development. My only regret was not having brought my laptop to the hospital to try and write it there and publish sooner — lesson learned for if I ever have surgery again.

Writing was a wonderful distraction from everything. Few things in life are more satisfying to me. After a very tame and unexciting period mostly confined to my bedroom, I finally felt well enough to head into town to report on the filming for new Book of Mormon videos as well as tackle BYU football media day.

Media day was exactly two weeks after my surgery, so being there back in my element felt like a real victory and sign of better days to come. Like any good victory, Caleb and I celebrated with lunch at Burgers Supreme. How much better can a day get?

By the time I was back to “normal” following surgery, it was time to start the whole chemo ordeal. Recovering from surgery was the easy part — chemo is a whole different beast.

Chemotherapy was the hardest and most grueling experience of my life. As a writer, I played around with trying to make that sentence sound better, but ultimately there’s nothing I could say that would sum it up better and more concisely than that. Take that, Longfellow.

These past few weeks I became more sick than I’d ever been and was in constant pain and discomfort. It took a lot of faith to try believing the nurses when they told me that although my daily six hour infusions would give me seemingly every possible side effect short of cancer itself, all those infusions were actually going to HELP me. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I guess sometimes in life you’ve got to tear something down to build something better. God is a better architect than I am, after all.

I’ll be gentle in my descriptions here as I don’t want to make anyone feel too gross while reading this, but chemo wrecks every part of your body. I was tired all the time and would just randomly fall asleep three or four times a day. I would get fevers, lose my voice and have a lot of trouble breathing. My hearing would come and go. I couldn’t ever think straight. My low white blood cell count left me easily susceptible to viruses and infections, so I racked up plenty of those. I got nauseous even thinking about food, often having to force feed myself just so I could have something in my system in order to take medicine.

Oh, the meds.

I’ve been on so many different medications — some of which are solely to counteract the side effects of other meds — that it feels like I’m just chugging a bag of Skittles every day. I’m not used to having so many drugs in my system, but at least the loopy feeling helps me get more out of listening to my Rush albums.

Unfortunately, my “power through” mentality with writing after surgery didn’t mesh well with my new chemo lifestyle. With the poor shape of both my body and brain, I couldn’t write for more than 10 minutes without dozing off and could barely even collect enough thoughts to put on paper before that. It was a challenge to let go, but I had to step farther away from work and just focus on getting better. That was really hard for me to admit and accept, but I needed it.

It wasn’t what I wanted or planned, and I did thankfully get a few major breaking stories published when the situation required it, but I’m grateful that the rest I received from my short break from Universe Sports will help me feel better even sooner. Also, as you can probably tell by reading this, I’m back now, so stay tuned to @dailyunivsports for all the BYU football preseason coverage you need!

I didn’t like chemo at all. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. I know a number of fellow cancer survivors who have also been through chemo, and hearing their words of encouragement and seeing them healthily thrive today brought me a lot of comfort.

I’ve been grateful and blessed to have some really solid cancer heroes to look up to and take inspiration from. Blink-182 has been the soundtrack of my college experience, and their singer/bassist Mark Hoppus dealt with diffuse large B‑cell lymphoma last year, underwent chemo treatments, made a miraculous recovery and is back to looking and sounding great. Blink-182’s music has always meant so much to me, but even more so now throughout my cancer journey.

Washington Redskins/Football Team/Commanders head coach Ron Rivera spent his first season in D.C. receiving infusion treatments for squamous cell carcinoma during halftime of his team’s games — can you get any tougher than that? I could barely walk after some of my treatments, but Coach would finish up and go right back out to a different kind of battle. The NFL is something else, man.

Fueled by the #RiveraStrong mantra, Coach Rivera’s Washington squad overcame tremendous adversity and crashed the playoff party in 2020, nearly throwing a wrench in Tom Brady’s plans for a Super Bowl run. Being a fan of the Redskins/Football Team/whatever they’re called now isn’t often exciting, but those were some of the most special days for the team in years.

My favorite baseball player — Baltimore Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini — was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer after a 2019 campaign where he had hit 35 home runs. Trey missed the entire 2020 season to have chemotherapy and fought all the way back into a Major League lineup within a year, even finishing as the Home Run Derby runner-up in 2021. I’ve seen a lot of incredible sports feats in my time, but Trey’s Derby performance will forever be one of the most inspiring to me. I thought about it at every chemo session.

The Orioles sold “F16HT” t-shirts to help support Trey’s battle, and my parents mailed me one for my birthday in 2020 while I was on my mission. Since my own diagnosis, I’ve worn that shirt as much as I can because I feel strong like Trey when I do. His story is a prime example of why sports means everything to me.

Then-Elder Payne shows off his new Orioles “F16HT” shirt in August 2020 to support Trey Mancini’s cancer battle. Nearly two years later, both the shirt and Mancini’s cancer journey would be more important than ever for Jackson.

Speaking of the Orioles, my cancer story would be criminally incomplete without them. I’ve been a die-hard O’s fan for my entire life, and as I’ve written before, I haven’t had much to show for it. Baltimore hasn’t won a World Series since 1983, has lost the second-most games in all of baseball since my birth in 2000 and has led the league in losses since 2017. In other words, I’ve become far too accustomed to being let down by my O’s.

The Orioles had lost 100-plus games in each of the past three full seasons, and 2022 was expected to be no different. They started the year slow but with signs of life, winning a few tight, extra-inning games here and there. Sure, this year’s team still seemed lousy at first, but at least they were fun to watch for a change.

Just as my summer took a surprising turn, so did the Orioles.

Prior to my cancer diagnosis, the Orioles were a paltry 22-31. Since the phone call that changed everything on June 3, they’ve gone 27-17.

The O’s have played with a proud, contagious underdog intensity. A rag-tag bunch led by hotshot rookie catcher Adley Rutschman, sparkplug outfielders Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, All-Star closer Jorge Lopez (who’s 9-year-old son, Mikael, is fighting his own chronic illnesses as another one of my heroes) and of course the veteran leader Mancini, the Orioles have won with a scrappiness and never-say-die hustle that really gets your heart beating. They’ve rallied for a number of dramatic comeback victories to win games they had no business even hanging around in, much less winning.

They’re a team that’s been at rock bottom for too long and is urgently fighting back to the top. With cancer, there’s something about that I can relate to. It’s emotional for me. I thought baseball would be a distraction from everything, but instead it’s become a source of daily inspiration that keeps me going.

Throughout my chemo, when I’m not watching reruns of “Seinfeld” or “Frasier”, I’m watching every Orioles game from 2,000 miles away. It helps me feel like I’m home again.

I know a lot of people find baseball boring, and plenty of folks have asked me how I can be so obsessed. The answer is simple: for starters, baseball is played every day, so it’s always on TV. You can’t beat that kind of convenience.

More importantly, I love baseball because at any moment in the game, no matter how dire the circumstances may seem, the unexpected can occur that changes everything. It could be a go-ahead three-run homer, an inning-ending strikeout that amps up the entire rest of the team or a savvy defensive play that flips the whole script with a quick flash of leather. Anyone on the roster, whether it be a future hall of famer or the last guy on the bench, can step up and become a hero. It’s chaotic. It’s ridiculous. It’s beautiful.

I’ve felt that chemo can be the same way. I’ve had a lot of hard days over the past few months. All good days, but some much harder than others. Sometimes a kind visit or text from a friend, an Orioles win, hearing a good song on the radio, being able to eat something without getting violently ill afterward or just seeing sunshine is all it takes to make a hard day feel better. Blink-182 was right, it really is all about “all the small things.” I’m so grateful for that.

Here’s an example: upon completing my first week of treatment, I was absolutely gassed. The six hour infusions were taking their toll on me with increased vigor. My body felt like it was trying to kill me.

I began treatment with five straight days of chemo before getting a day off. It was a Saturday, and I was feeling especially broken and lonely. The Orioles were playing in Tampa Bay and having a frustrating night at the plate. They couldn’t hit anything. The game seemed as bleak as I felt.

In the eighth inning, Adley Rutschman stepped to the plate. Prior to this season he was the top prospect in all of baseball, and his debut in late May has coincided with the Orioles’ recent surge and my cancer timeline. Adley is who I esteem to be the “savior” of the franchise, and such hope was merited as the switch-hitter cranked an inside fastball deep to right field for a game-tying home run.

I began to weep as Adley rounded the bases. That day had been so hard for me, and with just one swing of the bat Adley Rustchman had given me a reason to smile and believe again. Spurred by Adley’s blast, the O’s went on to win in extra-innings, by which point my day had gotten so much better.

In these June and July months dominated by cancer, the Orioles clinched consecutive winning months for the first time since 2016. They went on a 10-game winning streak that overlapped with both my birthday and the beginning of chemotherapy. Those 10 games marked the the team’s longest unbeaten run in my lifetime. After 22 years of fandom — with the last five drudging through a painful rebuild — what are the chances that the Orioles would play some of their most exciting and prolific baseball of my lifetime at the exact time I was going through the most difficult trial of my life?

Elder Neal A. Maxwell didn’t believe in “coincidences.” Master Obi-Wan Kenobi said there was “no such thing as luck.” I agree with both of them. I believe in “Orioles magic”, but most importantly I believe in a God who is perfectly aware of His children and knows exactly how to show His influence in our lives. Do I think God makes the Orioles win every game? Absolutely not, but I do know that He knows me personally, knows what I love and what makes me happy, and that’s one of the greatest blessings anyone can have. The Orioles just help me see that even more clearly.

Yesterday I finally finished my last chemo treatment, and it was one of the happiest days of my life. I got to ring the bell (it was a lot louder than it looked) which just glued a smile on my face that I couldn’t get rid of all day. I felt well enough to eat and was able to enjoy a celebratory Canes three finger combo before heading home to respond to all of the kind messages from friends near and far. I finished the night by watching another Orioles comeback victory and popping open some sparkling cider with my best friend Derek — a perfect way to cap off a joyous day.

Jackson Payne rings the bell upon concluding his chemotherapy treatments on July 26. (Jackson Payne)

As my mom and I drove home from yesterday’s final infusion, I couldn’t stop crying. I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it was over. Chemo was so hard, but I was so grateful that it happened. God had been so good to me, and despite how difficult it had been, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I can’t begin to describe how many miracles I’ve seen since June 3 — with many originating even earlier than that.

From a scheduling perspective, this has been the best possible time for me to get cancer. It definitely turned my world upside down, but since I had already taken the summer off for classes and didn’t have any BYU games to report on, my world didn’t really have a lot in it to shake up. I can’t imagine how much harder and more stressful treatment would have been if I had to navigate it all during a full load of classes or the thick of football or basketball season. The timing of this has been a miracle.

Last November, I was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety. It was a long time coming, and once I began taking those meds it was as if someone had flipped a switch for my mental health. I was already quite grateful for my prescription, but having the courage to have hard conversations about mental health and get medicated months beforehand ended up ensuring that I would be in the best possible head space to receive a ridiculous amount of surprising, upsetting, scary and life-changing news this summer — all while looking for the bright side in every circumstance. Once again, another miracle in timing.

Thanks to cancer, my family was able to come out and spend time with me this summer that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. We haven’t been on a real family vacation since before I started at BYU, and while chemotherapy is far from a vacation, the time we’ve spent together has meant the world to me — especially with my angel mother who has taken such wonderful care of me through it all.

After having my tumor removed, my mom and I went to visit with the surgeon to discuss the best path forward with chemo. Since we had elected to do treatments in Utah rather than back home in Virginia, we weren’t familiar with any of the doctors here, so we asked the surgeon if there were any oncologists he recommended. He responded that there was only one oncologist in the area that he ever referred his patients to, and by complete coincidence it turned out to be the uncle of my favorite mission companion.

There’s that word “coincidence” again. Don’t believe in coincidences — believe in God. I was told that my mission would bless my life forever, and because of a truly inspired transfer board two years ago (shoutout President Meredith), my mission may have helped save my life thanks to Elder Sibbett and Dr. Chipman. I’m so grateful for that.

Speaking of my mission, I’m so grateful for everything I learned as a missionary years ago that helped push me through cancer. So often returned missionaries come home and grow frustrated with the adjustment back to real life. It’s not always easy to apply mission principles back in the “real world.” I get it. I’ve been there.

While I’m still clearly a work in progress, my mission taught me a great deal about patience, faith, remaining optimistic in tough circumstances, finding joy in the little things, caring for others and trusting in God. All of those things defined my mission and have helped to define my cancer journey. Those attributes and habits have turned what could have been a turbulent past few months into one of the most sacred and blessed times of my life. God has had a perfect plan for me throughout it all, and I’m so grateful for that.

The only true negative that came from this whole cancer thing was that my last treatment prevented me from going to see the Goo Goo Dolls concert in West Valley Tuesday night, which I had been planning to go to since they rescheduled it from last summer. Oh well. I’m sure they’ll come to town again on another “back for more cash” tour like every other 90’s band.

Until now, I had decided to keep my cancer diagnosis private aside from my closest circles. I only did this because it was so heart-wrenching to tell the people I did and watch them struggle with the news. I figured that I’d rather share the good news with the world at the end of the road than announce something frightening at the beginning. I’m so grateful that I finally get to write about the good news now.

Honestly, the hardest part of this entire cancer saga has been watching people I care about worry about me. Seeing people you love in pain far outweighs the sting of any other physical ailment. I decided early on that I wanted to be the happiest, most positive and funniest cancer patient of all time so that my friends and family wouldn’t worry so much about me. Sure, sometimes my sense of humor crosses into a dangerous, deadpan Norm Macdonald territory which can cause concern when I joke about my health, but trying to help ease the tension and make other people feel better about my cancer has helped cure my own blues as well. There’s nothing I love more than making people laugh. I’m grateful that cancer gave me an opportunity to keep doing that rather than take it away from me.

Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve tried to look for inspiration and motivation everywhere I go in order to try and maintain my “happiest, most positive and funniest cancer patient” goal. It’s been refreshing and humbling to see so much around me that makes me want to be better and helps me get through my own challenges. Why does seeing Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz wearing a Ted Lasso “believe” shirt give me goosebumps? Why do the lyrics to “Everything’s Magic” by Angels and Airwaves bring tears to my eyes now? Why does every text, call or visit from a friend feel so much deeper and mean so much more? Cancer has helped me see the good everywhere I go and in everything I see, which I hope to do for as long as I live.

It was less than two months between my initial diagnosis to ringing the bell yesterday — quite a whirlwind for sure, but I’m so grateful that this whole process didn’t have to drag on much longer than that (and not just because I finished in time to hop on the BYU football beat for fall camp next week).

So many other people will deal with cancer and other sicknesses for far longer than I did. Some are and will be younger than I was. Some may not have the same amount of support and care that I did. Some may never get better.

I believe my relatively brief fight with cancer ended when it did so that I could have more time afterward to be a support, an advocate, a minister, a friend or whatever else may be needed for those who are going through hard things, whether they be health-related or otherwise. A charge like that gives me so much more to live for. It gives me an opportunity to understand the gospel even better. It gives me more of a reason to look for and see the good around me. I’m so grateful for that.

My favorite writer, Paul Westerberg, once wrote that “a good day is any day that you’re alive.” That has been my mantra since high school and especially during this summer of cancer. I’ve had a lot of hard days since June 3, but they’ve never been bad days. I’ve been far too blessed to complain or be upset. Just as the prophet Lehi said, my “afflictions.. have been consecrated for (my) gain.” I just hope that my experience (and sharing about it) can be a blessing for someone else’s affliction now. Because I have been given much, I too must give.

Cancer may have been a trial for me, but it became an even greater blessing. I’m so grateful for that.

— Jackson Payne

Sports Editor

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