Every person has a lowest point: A moment in their life where, whatever the cause, it seems impossible that things could get any worse. These intensely personal experiences come in many different forms, but they all share one thing in common: The question of, how will I ever dig my way out? In this series, we’ll be talking to the people who somehow managed to pull themselves from the deepest depths and once again find steady ground.
Name: Patrick Cauley
City: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Occupation: Cannabis entrepreneur and software engineer
Rock-Bottom Moment: Losing his job, getting diagnosed with cancer the next day, and getting his car smashed the day after that
Leading up to my job loss and testicular cancer two years ago, I’d had two start-ups fail: One had left me homeless in California — although “homeless” is a strong word: I slept at the office basically the entire time. Having it fail really hurt. I always say losing that company was generally more painful than cancer was — it shoved me down into a really bad spot for a year.
I moved back to Michigan and joined another start-up that went really well for about a year. This second one required a lot of funding to get where it needed to be, and it just wasn’t gonna make it. They cut me to cut costs. I kind of knew it was coming.
I’d just gotten back from Tennessee a few weeks earlier, where we’d gone to see the eclipse. We were playing four square on that trip, and after I took a shot to the groin, I noticed there was some pain. It hurt the next day, which I thought was strange, but I didn’t want to think about what it could be. Then it stopped hurting for a couple weeks, but it came back. I could barely walk or sit, and it was definitely swollen.
At the time, I was chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, a pack and a half a day. I was drinking tall-boy Four Lokos almost every night, really, and abusing my Adderall. I was also just staying up for three-day code binges, then finishing them off by binging on drinking and fast food. I was at my heaviest weight of my life at 260 pounds, feeling like garbage, tired all the time. Literally, that’s all I lived off of: fast food, alcohol and cigarettes.
Three Days of Hell
The Sunday before I got fired I was in a lot of pain. I knew I was going to have to work from home the next day, but while I was working, I noticed my accesses and everything were denied. I knew what was happening. So I called and was like, “What’s up?” And they were like, “Hey, yeah, you’re fired.”
The next day, I drove the laptop back to their offices. I thought the pain [I was experiencing] was a hernia. I joked with my old coworkers when I said goodbye: They said they’d keep my insurance on till the end of the month, and I was like, “Good, because I’ve gotta go get a hernia surgery taken care of here.” That night I decided, I’ve really got to go to the doctor. I had a friend drive me to the hospital, they wheeled me back and did an ultrasound. “It’s definitely cancer,” they told me, “so we’re gonna schedule you for surgery. That testicle’s coming out next Monday, so be prepared.”
The next day, someone sideswiped my car. It was parked, and some student sideswiped it, doing a little bit of damage, but I was laying in bed just contemplating things, so I didn’t see it — it was just something to deal with later.
Getting the cancer diagnosis, I realized that I wasn’t gonna have health insurance. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, so I never thought about working for a larger company that offered real benefits that were great. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to figure that one out.”
I moved to Ann Arbor, a place I’d lived for a while. I knew I needed friends and family around me for the next leg of my journey. I randomly chose this great company that I work for now and I started interviewing with them, but that wasn’t until December, so I spent three months twiddling my thumbs trying to figure out what I was gonna do, and basically using what severance I had to make it work.
Diagnosis Can Change Everything
Getting a cancer diagnosis really changes you. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and most of life, I’ve been pretty suicidal. Now you come into a place where the opportunity to die is there — like, it’s officially knocking — and I’m like, “I guess I don’t want to die?” I was terrified of course, but at the same time, I wasn’t. It’s difficult to describe. You spend your life wanting to die, and then, it’s like, you’re going to die, and you’re like, “Well, I don’t know how I feel about that.”
The morning of the surgery I actually quit smoking. My last cigarette. I figured that whether or not it’s related, I’m certainly not helping myself, so that morning I decided — no more.
When the people at my old company that fired me found out that I had cancer (we’re all Facebook friends), I’m fairly certain they paid me about a month extra, because when I thought the checks should have ended, I kept getting them. So I reached out and said, “Hey, there’s money in my account that I don’t think should be there.” But they were like, “No, you’re good.” They ended up being a huge source of help, which was amazing.
Surgery was smooth — they take out a testicle then ship you on your way. You’re in and out in four to five hours. Living without a testicle is normal, honestly. It visually looks the same. I thought maybe I’d get a prosthetic, but they’re like, no — if you want one you can get one afterward. It’s functionally the same. Frankly, one of my biggest fears is that there’s a possibility of it coming back in the other testicle — that would be a huge change, because then you need hormones. But we’re not there, and knock on wood, we won’t be.
Recovery was easy, but my situation was complicated by the lack of health insurance, which is a requirement for chemo. So once I got a job again, I scheduled chemo for January, as fast as I could.
Chemo is definitely a thing. I joke that it was three months of crying, smoking weed and napping. Luckily, work gave me a great position where I could work remotely a lot, so I just brought my laptop to the doctor’s office. I had long sessions: five days in the doctor’s office for eight hours a day getting an infusion. Often, I felt incredibly helpless, scared and alone — really alone.
One of the things I was excited for was being able to lose a bunch of weight, but no — they pump you full of steroids, so I actually gained weight during chemo.
After I finished chemo, one of the check-ins determined I still had cancer in my lymph nodes, and that I’d need another surgery. And this surgery would be far, far more risky.
When I woke up from lymph-node surgery, which all went well, the first thing I said — which is wild, because I’ve never done opiates — was, “Where’s the heroin?” Maybe I thought it was gonna be funny? But if you say that in a hospital setting, they don’t give you medication; they give you Tylenol. And I was in incredible pain.
One of the risks is that I didn’t know if I’d be able to ejaculate. Apparently lymph node surgery can fuck with a nerve along the lymph nodes if they nick it, and if they nick it, you can’t cum anymore. Some people can orgasm but not ejaculate. That’s not where I ended up, but it was a risk, so sitting in the hospital for three or four days was a huge hassle. And honestly, I was a dick to my poor nurses from just being in pain and being miserable. They said, “We can’t release you till you walk for an hour,” so I got up and powered though five or six laps through the hospital. I was like, “There, I walked — let me fuckin’ go.” They released me, which was the biggest relief.
When I left, I had to eat less than 15 or 20 grams of fat a day — that’s nothing. I had to eat egg whites and whatnot for an entire month. If I didn’t, then the lipids could eventually build up around my spine and I’d have back pain for the rest of my life. So I was like, “Okay, I can reduce the fat content for a month.” I started losing a good amount of weight from that, and losing became my big goal. I’ve since lost 90 pounds.
New Habits, New Person
The whole ordeal was a chance to develop habits and such, so I figured I’d take it. I decided to start running and walking — I was walking downtown every day because they told me to walk for an hour, and I realized an hour walk is about a 5K. So I thought, I can probably do this, but a little bit faster. I decided every day I was gonna do a 5K, whether I ran it or walked it. I picked up some running shoes and tried to run downtown and back to my house before work. In the winter, I went to the treadmill and elliptical, so I did an hour of cardio every day. I have ADHD, and I found it really helped my focus. Also, one thing I thought to myself was, if you spent five minutes smoking a cigarette, and there’s 20 in a pack, you were doing an hour of smoking every single day. So do the opposite, do an hour of cardio.
As a programmer, I was the kind who’d do these marathon-coding binges, and I’d be kind of an asshole to people I worked with. I’d rewrite all their code, and ultimately, they’d be like, “Wow, you made this better, but you didn’t need to rewrite this. It was good enough.” Chemo actually helped with this. There were a number of times where I was kind of out of it and it gave me the best opportunity I’d ever had to delegate and trust other people, to know they’ll do good work. It changed how I was as a leader. That was a huge thing, maybe more than the weight loss.
Looking back at those three days now, they were kind of a blur. My perspective is that it was ultimately a good event. It cured me of myself, basically: It was painful, and it was horrible, but I don’t think I would’ve addressed the issues I addressed if it wasn’t for it. It really allowed me the opportunity to rein in many of the horrible habits I’d developed over time and become the person I was genuinely meant to be.