Overcoming the Unexpected: Sarcoma Survivor Tells His Story

By Carl Granum,

Carl Granum in a blue suit
Summary

Carl Granum was a college athlete in Iowa when he was diagnosed with a desmoplastic small round cell tumor, a type of sarcoma that typically begins in the abdomen or pelvis. In general, sarcomas are cancers in bones, muscles, and connective tissue throughout the body. Here, he tells the story of his diagnosis and treatment.

My cancer journey began in January 2009. I was 21 and in the best health of my life, or so I thought. An award-winning athlete throughout high school in Brooklyn, I had received a football and track scholarship to Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and I had just returned to my dorm room. I jokingly told my girlfriend she had put on a few pounds, and she playfully hit me in the stomach. The pain was sharp though she barely hit me, and it continued to hurt the next morning. Thinking it could be my appendix, we went to the hospital, where doctors did a CT scan and discovered a tumor between my stomach and bladder. They informed me that I had a rare and very aggressive cancer called sarcoma and would need to have surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. My jaw dropped, and tears poured down my cheeks. I called my parents, and with both despair and strength, my mom told me, “Son, I love you. God is watching over you, and everything is going to be OK.” They braved a heavy snowstorm and survived a car accident rushing to my side — my mom said that the angels must have been watching over them.

Getting Through Treatment and Its Side Effects

On January 20 — the day my country inaugurated its first black president — I underwent an eight-hour surgery to remove a tumor the size of a football from my abdomen. The doctors recommended Memorial Sloan Kettering for my remaining treatment. So many things were running through my mind. On one hand, I had a very rare and aggressive cancer, and on the other hand, I learned that my girlfriend was three months pregnant.

All I could do was try to stay positive and pray that I would live to see my child’s birth. Knowing that I was going to become a father gave me a powerful desire to survive.

During my first rounds of chemotherapy, I began to lose my hair and see some of the side effects. My complexion turned from a caramel brown to dark chocolate. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. My parents came to see me every day during treatment, and on weekends I hung out with friends and family. Even though I had no hair and looked like a zombie, my friends were still there for me and helped me remain calm and happy.

I had defied the odds: I beat cancer, I graduated from college with a 3.4 grade-point average despite my illness, and I had a beautiful daughter.
Carl Granum sarcoma survivor

The fourth or fifth round of chemo really began to affect me. I was tired, had constant nausea, and became sensitive to certain foods and smells. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It was also during this time that my daughter, Tiye, was born. I remember the first time I held her and she fell asleep on my chest; I was so in love with her. I would leave MSK and get on the subway while wearing rubber gloves, a mask, and baseball cap just to get home to her. I still remember the looks I would get when people would see me on the train.

Once I completed chemo, I began radiation. The doctors recommended that I stay away from infants because of the high radiation levels so I wasn’t allowed to see my daughter much during this time. That was difficult.

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Recovering from Cancer and Looking Ahead

That September I was happy to be done with treatment and looking forward to having hair again. It felt good returning to school and being around familiar faces, but leaving my daughter in New York with her mom was difficult. After spending so much time with her and getting used to having her sleep on my chest, it was hard not having her around. The football coaches offered me a coaching assistant post since I couldn’t play, which allowed me to teach the younger players core fundamentals and help them develop into better players. We had a good season, and I graduated on time with a degree in life science and a minor in chemistry. I felt extremely proud of myself and my accomplishments the day I walked across that stage and received my degree.

Carl with his young daughter

I’ve grown to realize that to really understand life, one must experience many things, both good and bad. Having cancer at 21 taught me a lot of valuable lessons, but the two most important were to have resilience and to believe in myself. Having resilience meant never giving up when dealing with adversity. I was at a pivotal point in my life, and things could have turned out much worse, but I remained positive and didn’t let those negative experiences break me. I’ve made the best of every situation and learned from the negative and positive to create a better picture. Believing in myself meant believing that I was going to overcome cancer. I believed so strongly that the treatment I was receiving would remove the cancerous cells from my body.

Every day during treatment I held my vision of one day walking out of the hospital with a clean bill of health, and I did! From the first day I was diagnosed with cancer until the day I die, I will repeat the same affirmations: “I am healthy, I am wealthy, I am intelligent, and I can do all things.” I read somewhere that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for many people, including my parents, my girlfriend, my doctors in Iowa, and the nurses and doctors at MSK. Thanks to them, today I’m a proud father of an eight-year-old, I’m a small-business owner, and most important, I’m healthy.

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Carl originally shared his story through Bridges, our newsletter for cancer survivors. Bridges offers a forum where patients and their families can share stories of inspiration and hope, and of the challenges that can accompany a cancer journey. Learn more about how to receive Bridges and how to submit your story here.

Comments

What a wonderful story. I’m very happy for you. I was just diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma. I had one surgery at the VA but I’m now at MSK.

I have known Carl since 2010 and he has never shown any signs of weakness or despair. A positive person to be around and a great role model.

Can I ask if this was rabdomyosarcoma?my son is 15 and was diagnosed recently. Would like to know more about it tks

Dear Michele, we're sorry to hear about your son's diagnosis. The patient featured in this story had a desmoplastic small round cell tumor. If you would like to learn more about rhabdomyosarcoma, you can go to this page on our website: https://www.mskcc.org/pediatrics/cancer-care/types/rhabdomyosarcoma

If you would like to bring your son to MSK, the number to call for an appointment is 833-MSK-KIDS. You can go to https://www.mskcc.org/pediatrics/cancer-care/about for more information.

Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you and your family.

I recently met Carl and soon learned of his story of triumph over challenge as he revealed to me that he is a cancer survivor. I observed that Carl is so much more than that. He is intelligent and ambitious; courageous and confident. He is tenacious and tough; victorious and triumphant. And at the same time, he is a gentleman who is abundantly curious and has a kind generosity of spirit.   For me, Carl is not a survivor, he is a thriver...a young man - a loving father - with a purposeful passion for life!

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