Who Says I Can’t: A Two-Time Cancer-Surviving Amputee and Entrepreneur Who Fought Back, Survived and Thrived by Jothy Rosenberg
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Paperback: 239 pages
Publisher: Bascom Hill Books (February 1, 2010)
If you tell Jothy Rosenberg there is something you think he can’t do, chances are better than good that is just the thing he will do. Chances are even greater he will leave you in the dust while doing it, too. He’s like that. He’s probably always been like that, but what has really strengthened Jothy’s perseverance to take on life at full throttle, meet and beat every challenge he encounters, has been his experience of being a two-time cancer survivor.
Who Says I Can’t is Jothy’s memoir, published in 2010 by Bascom Hill Books. It is the story of “a two-time cancer surviving amputee and entrepreneur who fought back, survived and thrived.” Jothy is an above-the-knee amputee with two-fifths of his lung removed, both due to cancer while still in his teens. He considers “considering” a dirty word (as in, “You’re good, considering you are missing a leg!”). Jothy does what he does perhaps in some aspects because of his physical challenges, but he achieves excellence that can be measured against any able-bodied person. A math major at Kalamazoo College, he went on to earn a PhD in computer science at Duke University, authored two technical books, founded six high tech companies. He has also participated in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon (supporting Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) seven times; has completed the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco as part of a fundraiser to support Boston Healthcare for the Homeless 16 times; and has participated in countless other fundraising sports activities. He now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife Carole, and is the father of three children, grandfather of one. Writing a book to inspire others with his story is just one more item added to his long list of achievements.
“The book is about hearing the words, ‘You have zero chance of survival,’ at the age of 19,” Jothy says. “After already having lost one leg and one lung to cancer, as well as an extensive course of chemotherapy, it is about what all of that does to you. More importantly, the book is about how one goes about fighting back, recovering and thriving in the face of all that adversity.”
Jothy lost his right leg to osteogenic sarcoma at age 16; his cancerous left lung was removed while he was a student at Kalamazoo College. Born in California, Jothy grew up in the Detroit area, the son of two physicians. His brother, Michael, was a Kalamazoo College graduate (1975), so he knew the college well.
“I wanted a school that was smaller than my high school and far enough away that I would not feel pressured to come home too often, yet I still wanted to be within a reasonable driving distance. I applied for early decision to Kalamazoo; I was not the slightest bit interested in any other school.” (Page 39, Who Says I Can’t.)
At the time of Jothy’s dark diagnosis, chemotherapy was a new and experimental treatment. For the 10 months that Jothy underwent the tortuous process of chemotherapy ( he still feels nauseous when he remembers it), his professors at Kalamazoo College worked with him to keep him up to date with his college assignments. Professor Thomas Jefferson Smith was especially influential in young Jothy’s life, and after jumping from one major to another, he settled on math in great part due to Professor Smith’s caring attention.
“You have to keep in mind that this was before we had the convenience of computers and e-mail,” Jothy says. “My professors brought my course work to my hospital bedside, often written out by hand.”
Jothy writes about his years at Kalamazoo College in his memoir—and all that came after. He says he was inspired to do so, in fact, because of an earlier article that appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of LuxEsto. It got him thinking that he had a story to tell and that there might be others who might benefit from reading it.
“As a 16-year-old lying in a hospital bed with one leg gone, with a mind on fire with anguish about how I might live a normal life, and then as a 19-year-old with one lung trying to recover from chemotherapy and deal with a death sentence, I felt on my own. I was looking for inspiration, guidance, motivation—anything. I wrote this book because I want to help anyone facing a disability or serious life trauma deal with it better and faster than I did. Considering it took me 30 years to figure it out well enough to be able to write it down, I hope my experiences can shorten the learning curve for someone in a similar situation.“(Page 229)
Writing meant reliving. Jothy grasped how much it would have meant to him to hear the story of someone who had dealt with a similar blow and done well. A large part of what he had struggled with in those years, after all, was the feeling of being alone. Who to ask questions about learning to walk again? How to date when you might trip and fall on your face in front of a pretty girl? Without a role model or experienced advice, he did his best, and often, his best meant overachieving. If a two-legged person could do something, Jothy was going to outdo it. Even when it came to dating.
“I went on 40 dates in ten weeks when I was at Kalamazoo College,” he laughs. “Each one with a different girl.”
Not exactly the best way to develop a satisfying relationship. That’s the kind of advice Jothy could have used. Summing up his advice from the book, he says: “You are tougher and more resilient than you could ever have imagined. Fight back just one little victory after another. Set a modest goal for something you can do to regain your balance and sense of normalcy. Achieve that and set the next goal. Before you know it, you are strong and inspiring others.”
Jothy’s “small” victories outsize those that most of us will ever achieve. Completing the circle of receiving healing and now giving back to others, he regularly participates in AIDS fundraising bike rides from Boston to New York—a ride of a mere 375 miles. His bike is specially fitted to him, so that he can ride with one leg. Jothy has become something of a celebrity participant, and his memoir recounts his grueling training, frustrations, and eventual victories.
“I have two main causes at this point,” he says. “I direct a lot of my fundraising efforts for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. They were on the forefront of chemotherapy work in the mid-70s, and I am convinced it played a major role in my survival. I give them proceeds from the sale of this book and from the 192-mile Pan-Mass Challenge bike ride in which I participate every summer.”
Yet when Jothy is asked about his proudest achievement, it is not the physical challenges he has met, not the bike riding, long-distance swimming, or being an expert skier. It is not even the many business startups with which he has been involved over the years. “Without question, it is the fact that my kids like me and are proud of me. Like any father, I am insanely proud of them, too. We are truly good friends, and that is not something I take for granted.”
If the memoir is meant to give comfort and advice to those undergoing adversity or physical challenges, Jothy also hopes it gives those of us with limbs intact a better perspective on how to treat those who are different from ourselves. What he wants people to understand: “Don’t stare, and teach your kids not to stare,” he says. “But don’t ignore such people either. Feel free to ask a question. Just remember, we get lots of attention for being different, and that can be tiresome. “
Jothy wouldn’t call his early brush with death a blessing, challenging him to become a better man—although he believes it has in fact done that. “But I never sit around wishing it hadn’t happened. I can’t wish it away. It happened. So I make the very best of what I do have.”
“Everything becomes difficult with a bad leg. I can’t carry things. I can’t walk any distance for lunch with colleagues or to catch a cab. I walk very slowly and laboriously through airports. I worry about just walking down the hall to my boss’s office. It eats away at job effectiveness. It can affect how well I do my job, how likely a job promotion is, and therefore how much money I make. It affects my self-confidence in social relationships … Dealing with the superficiality of the disability is important for self-confidence. Dealing with the anatomic, physical, structural, mechanical aspects of the disability is just as important for success. With these daily challenges to self-confidence and self-esteem, the disabled person needs a constant outlet where they can excel, where they can overcompensate, where they can leave the temporarily able-bodied people in the dust.” (Page 228)
Along with insights into dealing with physical challenges, the book also provides an inside look at business startups. Jothy has been involved in starting, running or funding half a dozen startups. His memoir tells about the excitement of a new idea, the frustrations and danger zones of obtaining venture capital, the hard work of building a dream on a good idea, and then, at times, the heartbreak of having it swept out from under you.
Approaching his book promotion as he does everything else in life, Jothy is promoting it with everything in him. He has a Web site, whosaysicant.org, a fan page on the social networking site, Facebook, and he “tweets” regularly on Twitter as @jothmeister. He is currently on tour, giving talks and readings, signing books, and even trying to get a spot on Oprah’s talk show. Someone should tell him he can’t do it. And then stand back and watch what happens.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue, including an interview with author, Jothy Rosenberg