It’s the start of a beautiful Sunday in Santa Monica and Aaron Atkins stops to take stock of the world around him. The sun is shining as he sits at a coffee shop. A man is playing a keyboard nearby. The beaches are still quiet, but soon they’ll be filled with surfers, sunbathers and castle builders.
“Today will be a pretty Southern California day,” he wrote in a recent blog post, and he’s not going to take it for granted, even if he can only appreciate it out of his right eye.
It’s been a strenuous journey for Atkins, 30, a local resident who returns to work this week as a recruiter for a consulting firm. He’s taken the last 3 months off to rest and recuperate, the latest chapter in a bout with cancer that began three and a half years ago.
Atkins has lost 20 pounds of muscle. He has scars all over his body and has gone through numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. He sometimes loses his train of thought. He tires easily.
“Despite all of this I’m still here,” he wrote.
And Atkins is determined to help other cancer patients find the same outcome. In the hopes of achieving this goal he and his friends launched an online campaign selling T-shirts with the words “Live like a warrior,” a mantra he adopted from a Matisyahu song. The T-shirt drive, which had generated more than $18,000 as of last week, wrapped up on Aug. 1.
Half of the drive’s proceeds will go toward Atkins’ medical expenses. The other half will be donated to the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, which has supported Atkins throughout his battle with neurotropic melanoma.
The center, which depends heavily on philanthropy, offers many of its services at no cost to patients.
“For a young person like Aaron, it’s shocking to hear you have cancer,” said Anne Coscarelli, director of the Simms/Mann center. “When you get older, you know people who have cancer and maybe it’s a little more expected. When you’re a young person, it alters your world.”
“They have very unique needs. They’re thrown back into needing help from parents just when they’ve gotten out on their own. There are issues of independence. They’re not necessarily married yet, and their relationships can be very fragile. They tend to get more aggressive cancers. They’re at the peak of their development in terms of career and sexuality, and all of those things just get blasted by a cancer diagnosis.”
Raised outside Portland, Atkins attended the University of Oregon and lived in Seattle for four years after college. In early 2012, about a week before moving to Southern California for a job, he was told he had cancer above his left eye.
What followed over the next three and a half years was a surgery, 25 rounds of radiation, a recurrence, two more surgeries, more radiation treatment, regular drug injections, another recurrence and a recommendation by UCLA doctors to have his eye and surrounding tissue removed.
With the cancer lingering dangerously close to his brain, Atkins went ahead with exenteration surgery.
He now wears an eye patch, which he says gives him a built-in Halloween costume, and his peripheral vision is significantly affected. So is his depth perception.
“My brain has to learn to deal with having one eye,” he said. “I just have to slow down and take things at half speed.”
Including the Santa Monica sunshine.