Cancer didn’t stop me from finishing my degree, starting a charity and running a triathlon

Jake Teitelbaum is clear from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and in his final year at Wake Forest

Jake Teitelbaum had just finished his junior year when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. While he tried to continue his studies at Wake Forest, he had to take a year out for a punishing round of chemotherapy that saw him lose 23 pounds in 25 days, and push him "as close to death as possible without killing him," as his doctor said.

Stem cell treatment brought him through and now he's on the road to recovery, having started Resilience – a project that custom-makes socks for cancer patients which has already raised thousands of dollars. Here Jake explains how he pushed through his treatment to recovery – he ran a triathlon before getting his final clear scan – and how much his friends and family helped him get there.

Is it tough having cancer and feeling like you have to put on a really brave face on everything?

As part of who I am, I'm someone who takes a lot of pride in my persistence and my ability to persevere. I went back to school while I was first doing chemotherapy and was running this food business. It was insane, I was putting way too much pressure on myself. I think for me as an individual, I definitely don’t think there was any external pressure – it was a matter of putting my head down. What I realized was that at some point perseverance doesn't work. When I found out that despite what I was doing, the cancer was continuing to grow and that I had to drop everything and go down to Florida for treatment. I thought: “Shit I've been giving this all I have, and now I have to give it more.”

Then, for the first time, I had difficulty getting out of bed. Over the course of 25 days, I lost 23 pounds. I was the most pathetic version of myself I've ever seen. I had this realization that all this time, I was vulnerable – I was a sick cancer patient. I had tried to persevere through it.

I remember standing in front of the mirror and crying at the look of myself, what I had become. I was sick and I couldn't deny it. I was weak. When I was discharged from stem cell treatment, I felt warm Florida sun, and the very next thing I did was throw up. I thought: “Crap, it was going to be a long recovery.” Even after you've broken, you have to put yourself back together.

Is it lonely to have cancer?

There's a sense of irony that we're so connected, but as a patient who was away from school for the entirety of my senior year, I was essentially watching college happen through my phone. I was checking social media every day because I had nothing better to do. And I was watching my friends do things that I would normally be doing with them. Here I was on the outside looking in, a one man audience.

Something I struggled with as a patient was that I used to being active and taking on responsibility – I'm someone who likes to be doing things, exercising, being with friends. But I was cooped up in a hospital, or stuck at home, unable to go outside. For me, it was a very lonely experience. I was out of touch with normality.

How much did your friends and family help you? Did they do anything in solidarity with you?

Yeah, they did. When I was growing up, my nickname given to me was Bocaj – Jacob spelled backwards. As a little kid I hated it, so of course Bocaj stuck, and I've embraced it since. My mom had 200 or 300 shirts printed with “Beat it Bocaj.” She had my family members and friends who I had grown up with make little videos and send them to my sister, who created a mashup of these people rooting for me.

On Thanksgiving, when I normally would have been in the Northeast with my family, I was in Florida with my dad, and my two siblings came down to visit me and show me the video. And I can't express what that was like. To be in Florida having just come home from chemo, and here I was, fresh out of hospital watching this video. In that moment, I realized how much love there was from all these different people. It was just an incredible feeling of support of knowing that people love you. And that they're thinking about you.

How did it feel when you heard you were in remission?

It was such a weight lifted off my shoulders. I remember talking with the doctor and seeing her come in with the biggest smile on her face. Afterwards I had to call my family members and tell them the good news. But I was just crying. I couldn't muster any words.

The biggest sensation was the sensation of relief. Us cancer patients, we really stress and overplay the big scan day. Every scan, there's so much anxiety. There's a lot of fear. It's important to note that as good as I felt that day and now, there’s a 30 to 50 percent chance it’s going to return. Different cancers have different recurrence rates. As much as I celebrate being in remission, I'm a little cautious.

Edited for length and clarity.

All photos credit to Resilience Project, Inc.

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