That’s the only word April Conyers, 33, remembers hearing in the hospital on Oct. 10.
She was sitting with her fiance of two months, Drew Olanoff. She knows the doctor said a lot of other things, about oncologists and chemotherapy and staying positive, but it’s all a blur.
Olanoff, 34, had gone to the hospital at Conyers’ urging. He was running a 102-degree fever and had stomach pains. They thought he might have appendicitis. Instead, he had diverticulitis, a pesky but curable infection.
But the CAT scan also revealed tumors lining Olanoff’s gut. After five years in remission, his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had returned.
Olanoff was shocked. He had a physical the week prior, and had been told he was in perfect health.
The first time Olanoff had cancer, the signs were more obvious. At age 29, he discovered a lump the size of a softball on his neck — stage 3 lymphoma. This time, he mostly felt fine.
He had been feeling tired, but he assumed that was from flying to Berlin from San Francisco frequently for his job. He had some back pain, like most people experience on occasion. That turned out to be a tumour pressing on a nerve.
“I think after you have a diagnosis like cancer it follows you around for the rest of your life,” he says. “I’ve always carried [the fear it would return] with me. I go in for something like taking out my appendix out then they tell me they found tumors. It’s like, ‘No, that’s to what I wanted to hear thank you, can you take that back?'”
For Olanoff and his soon-to-be bride, it’s been a wild few months of accomplishments in both work and life — but that’s all been interrupted by cancer.
The couple met over email a few years ago, when Olanoff was a writer for technology site The Next Web, and Conyers pitched him her startup clients at Brew PR. They officially met during TechCrunch Disrupt in New York at the Ace Hotel. Olanoff says he fell in love right there. “I told her, ‘Sorry, I can’t write about your companies anymore [due to conflict of love interest],'” he says.
Conyers moved to San Francisco for Olanoff. She began a new job in September as head of communications at a delivery startup, Postmates. Olanoff also began a new job in June, as Global Communications Director for an Instagram-like startup, EyeEm. He had been working at Yahoo when a mentor left to join EyeEm and asked Olanoff to come with him.
Conyers and Olanoff got engaged on Aug. 27, a Wednesday — the same day Conyers resigned from her job at Brew PR to join Postmates. She remembers preparing a taco dinner when their dog, Apollo, trotted over. A small box was nestled in his tiny shirt pocket along with a scribbled note. When Conyers looked up, Olanoff was on one knee.
After just two weeks at Postmates, Conyers and Olanoff received the news at the hospital, and their worlds turned upside down. Both of their employers offered to help Olanoff however they could.
Since then, Olanoff estimates he’s had 25 doctor appointments. Every day he has chemotherapy, Conyers writes him a note in a card and organizes dinner dates at the hospital. His last round ended on Christmas Eve. On one particularly rough day, Olanoff told Conyers he wouldn’t blame her if she left him. She told him to shut the hell up.
For a cancer patient — or anyone for that matter — Olanoff is upbeat. He radiates positivity, a natural glow which has won him high-up friends in the tech and celebrity circuits. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, personally asked him to join her company. She had worked with him during her Google days when he was a TechCrunch reporter. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams gave Olanoff the handles @drew and @yoda. Celebrity Drew Carey helped Olanoff raise more than $US1 million for cancer research the last time he was diagnosed, thanks to a Twitter interaction Olanoff instigated.
(In 2009, Olanoff created a Twitter movement for charity, #blamedrewscancer, which encouraged people to complain about life’s small annoyances; Ryan Seacrest, Drew Carey, Alyssa Milano and Lance Armstrong all participated. He also auctioned off his Twitter handle, @drew, to Drew Carey, which Carey ultimately let him keep.)
Being so public about his cancer last time was exhausting for Olanoff. He didn’t want to go through that again. But when the doctors told Olanoff he needed a stem cell transplant, Olanoff changed his mind.
This time, instead of using Twitter to raise money, Olanoff wants to raise awareness for the bone marrow registry. If he can use his influence in Silicon Valley to persuade even a few people to sign up, he can save lives — maybe even his own.
“April and I talked about [me going public with cancer again],” Olanoff says. “I felt guilty not talking about it. I felt selfish…This time there’s a clear action and I can educate people.”
The concept of giving blood is well known. Donating bone marrow seems scarier. Olanoff hopes re-launching his website, BlameDrewsCancer.com, and writing about his situation will make bone marrow donations less taboo.
“People understand giving blood. They prick your arm, give you a cookie and you leave. You never know if your blood gets used or not. [Bone marrow] is a situation where, if you get that call, you can talk to the person who needs it. If you want you can get to know them. You don’t have to say yes. You don’t have to do the donation.”
Olanoff’s efforts to educate the world about bone marrow and stem cell transplants have already helped. The last time he had cancer, he held a “blameathon” to raise money for charity with live bands and mouth swabs. Four years later, he got a call from an attendee who told Olanoff, “I’m a match for somebody.”
When Olanoff was re-diagnosed, Conyers promptly signed herself up for the registry. She was sent cotton swabs in the mail and rubbed all four corners of her mouth in under five minutes. One week later, her DNA was added to the online database.
If there is one good thing about having cancer, it’s that it puts life in rather harsh perspective.
“Things that annoyed you don’t annoy you anymore,” Olanoff says. “Things you get stressed out about aren’t stressful anymore. You refocus on family and friends.
“The perspective on life,” he adds, “is a reward.”
Conyers and Olanoff are still planning their wedding. They hope to get married in late 2015 or 2016, once Olanoff has beaten his cancer.
If you are interested in becoming a bone marrow donor or joining the registry to see if you could be someone’s match, visit BeTheMatch.com.
Here’s more on the process, but definitely read more on the website and/or ask your physician before you decide to sign up:
- You should be between the ages of 18 and 44, although people between ages 45 and 60 can still apply to get registered online. If you register, your DNA information will remain in the bone marrow registry until you turn 61 or call to opt out.
- Getting swabbed takes about five minutes and you can get a kit sent to you in the mail.
- According to Be The Match, only one in forty people who join the registry get asked for additional testing (a blood test). One in 300 gets matched with a patient. One in 500 actually donates bone marrow.
- If you are matched with a patient, the process takes about 20 to 30 hours over a 4- to 6-week period, during which you’ll have doctors appointments then go under anesthesia and donate your bone marrow. You may also need injections before your stem cells are donated.