Four-time lymphoma survivor Scott Baker has spent 2 years out of work and more than 100 days in the hospital, so he’s had a lot of time to think. He’s thought about how he wanted to not just endure treatment, but also to survive. He’s thought about how he wanted to change and become a better person, let go of his anger, and be nicer to people.
“My wife says I’m a different person now, and boy am I glad to hear that,” said Baker. “I don’t get angry. I don’t have any sense of entitlement. I don’t think anyone owes me anything. If someone cuts me off while driving, I just let them go ahead. If my son puts a hole in the wall, I stay calm. In the past, I was a yeller. I was wound up too tight.”
Cancer a ‘wake-up call’
Baker was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999 at the age of 29. It’s a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system. He’d gone to the doctor because of pain that got worse and didn’t go away. Eventually, a CT scan found a tumor. The doctor told Baker the cancer was treatable, and that he’d be OK.
“I didn’t panic at all; I trusted him,” said Baker, now 44. “I really felt like immediately God tapped me on the shoulder to give me a wake-up call. I knew I needed to straighten up a little bit. I thought, ‘I am going to learn from this.’”
Baker had chemotherapy and radiation, and wound up spending a lot of time with other people in clinics along the way. He found he had tremendous empathy for the other patients, many of whom seemed to be having a harder time than he was. “I didn’t mind that I was going through it,” said Baker. “But I didn’t like seeing other people going through it.”
‘Perspective, patience, and gratitude’
Baker recovered and got back on his feet. He got married and he and his wife had a son, and then another son. Then in 2006, his cancer came back. The treatment was harsher this time – more aggressive chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and a stem cell transplant. Baker continued to work at his job as a bridge engineer, but felt tired and nauseated much of the time. He developed a greater appreciation for his wife, who took on most of the responsibility for their young boys, while also caring for Baker and working full time. “Cancer really gave me perspective, patience, and gratitude,” said Baker. “Being able to see someone else’s perspective means your life gets a lot better.”
In 2012, Baker began experiencing stroke-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma, a type of lymphoma that involves the brain. He got the cancer under control with chemotherapy and immunotherapy, but it came back. He had even more chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and a second stem cell transplant.
While recovering, Baker thought for the first time that he might die, and shared his fears with a nurse. She insisted that he was too strong to die. “That was all I needed to hear because she believed it,” said Baker. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get through this.’ And it got way worse, but I could do it because of her.” It was then, Baker said, that he realized he needed other people to survive. In the hospital, he needed medical care to live, but – he realized – he’s also needed people his whole life.
Baker spent the rest of his recovery reaching out to everyone he met. “I changed my life one person at a time,” said Baker. “I began by being nice to everyone. I started in the hospital. With every nurse that came in, I was nice and I was grateful. It kind of snowballed. When you respond to the world in a grateful way, people respond to you.”
During his second stem cell transplant, Baker stayed at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in New York City and became close with other patients and caregivers there. He found that even though people come from all different walks of life, at the Hope Lodge they were all in the same boat. They all want the same thing, he said – to recover and get back home. Baker said the Hope Lodge is a beautiful facility, but it’s the people who really make it special.
When he was well enough to return home, Baker got online and began searching for other survivors of his cancer type. He found a 28-year survivor, and then a 10-year survivor, who started an online support group called Braintrust – which Baker promptly joined. He found the American Cancer Society Stories of Hope, which provide inspiration through the stories of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. He also found and joined WhatNext, an online support network developed with the participation of the American Cancer Society that matches users with peers and resources.
‘The man I’ve always wanted to become’
Today, Baker is back at work. In his spare time, he coaches youth baseball for his two boys and mentors a cancer support group at his local YMCA. He says he is enjoying life and is happier than he’s ever been.
“I’ve become the man I’ve always wanted to become,” said Baker. “I’m treating my wife and boys differently. I decided if I’m going to survive and find inner peace, the most important thing I’m ever going to do is be the best husband and father I can be. I have to be the man to my wife that I want her to be the woman to me. I have to treat her the way I want her to treat me. I try really hard never to yell anymore or get angry. I never achieved my goal by responding to something with anger.”
“Life is better now because I don’t judge anyone,” said Baker. “I don’t walk around angry and mad. I now see that other people are angry at nothing. They’re angry at everyone else for their own unhappiness. That’s a cool thing to understand and realize. I wouldn’t have understood that without the cancer.”