Derek Dienner was born on Sept. 11, 1985. He was also born on Aug. 24, 2017.
That’s the day Dienner was diagnosed with stage 3B colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancer, colon cancer is the third most common form of cancer to affect men and women in the United States. The average age of a person diagnosed with colon cancer is around 70. Dienner was a few weeks away from turning 32.
In many ways, Dienner’s life was just beginning. He and his wife, Ashley, live in the Conestoga Valley area near Smoketown with their two children, ages 6 and 3. MAKE films, a Lancaster-based film business that he runs with his wife, his brother Aaron and a group of friends that function as Dienner’s second family, was finding some success telling the stories of local organizations. And creatively, Dienner was exploring short films, writing, directing and providing music for a poignant film called “Dawn.”
Then came the diagnosis.
A cancer diagnosis – especially at such a young age – can knock you down like a giant, rogue wave and pull you under a dark ocean of fear and bitterness. If you let it.
Instead, he made a movie.
“The Day I Became Alive” is a short documentary film co-directed by Allen Clements and Aaron Dienner and produced by MAKE films that follows Derek through 209 days of chemotherapy as he attempts to make sense of his diagnosis and wrap his head around his new life with cancer. The film shows Dienner, exhausted from chemo, talking to the camera in the half-light of his bedroom, being wheeled through the halls of a hospital, surrounded by his family and friends – and never losing hope.
How is your health?
I’m technically cancer-free. Everybody is like, “Are you in remission?” I’ve learned so much about cancer since I started this experience. Basically, remission is if somebody has cancer in them that is not actively growing, but they can’t take it out. But for me, I had a curative surgery. They were able to remove the tumor and some of the lymph nodes around it that were infected. What happens when they remove all this stuff is that there are cancer cells floating around that are trying to find a host and there’s no of way of tracking whether those cells exist or not. A CAT scan shows up to a millimeter, but sometimes they can be smaller than that. So (doctors) recommend to do chemo just in case there are still cells floating around. If you don’t do anything except the surgery, there’s like a 50-50 chance of it coming back. So chemo with me and my age and all the things included, it’s like 80-90 percent chance it won’t come back. The first two or three years are the biggest chances of it coming back, so I’m getting another test in December. So all that to say I’m technically cured, but I’m not going to use that term until three years.
You made a documentary about your experience. Why did you decide to do that?
I just thought if there’s a young person that was diagnosed with colon cancer or any kind of cancer and they find my story at one o’clock in the morning and they watch my documentary, hopefully they can be encouraged that people can walk through it. Or if people are up at one in the morning with digestive issues, and they’re Googling symptoms of colon cancer, and they find my video and then they go get it checked because they don’t want to mess around with it – then it would’ve been worth it. That’s the goal.
What does it mean to you to have filmmaking as an outlet creatively going through this experience?
I think that’s a huge communication outlet for me. When I’m able to go through the process of a film it helps me communicate and it helps me to process it. Allen (Clements) and my brother Aaron, he also works for the company, they kind of co-directed it. Just talking them through it, like, “I’m going to have this done,” or “It would be cool to cover this,” made it helpful to me, to just kind of communicate on a casual level.
Nobody knows how to talk about cancer. People come up to me and try to talk to me about it, but they don’t know how to talk about it because they’re trying to be sensitive to me. But what am I going to do, sit and cry about it? The faster you say, “Yes, this is my new reality. These are the circumstances that I’m in,” then the quicker you think about what comes next instead of (dwelling on) regret or self-pity. Obviously I went through a lot of those emotions in the beginning. But I think it’s important to not let yourself get that way. Even if you’re a quieter person you still communicate with people that care about you. For me, the film helped me do that. That was super-therapeutic.
During your treatment were there any movies that you would watch to take your mind off of cancer or for inspiration?
One of my favorite newer movies is “La La Land.” It’s an incredible movie. That music was really inspiring. I think what I like about “La La Land” was it was about someone pursuing their dreams, but at the same time, it’s messy. I think what I’m realizing is that finding your way or figuring out your life is messy. It’s complicated. Sometimes you do things you don’t think you would do or you have some regrets, but you can’t live in those moments.
And I like to laugh, so just sitting there watching old episodes of “The Office” always made me laugh. Aug. 24, the day I was diagnosed, we had to take the trash out, it was a Thursday night and I was like “I’m sick. I can’t.” I use humor as a way of getting through. I’m not using it as a cover-up, but I think life is too short to always be serious.
Do you remember what you laughed at after your diagnosis?
I think the first thing that I laughed at was the doctor, a little bit. The day I was diagnosed, they found the tumor in my colon around 1 p.m. and then they rushed me to have a CAT scan done. They said they were going to call me to let me know if it had spread to my body. The whole thing was done so fast. So it was like 6 o’clock and I was in the bathroom, kind of crying a little bit, because it was the first moment with myself, and then when the doctor called it was all echo-y because it was in the bathroom and he was like, “I can’t hear you.” So I go in the other room and he said, “There’s no other spread, all I see is the cancer in the colon.” I was like super-relieved and I was like, “Oh, good.” And he was like, “Well, we still have to deal with the colon cancer.” And I said, “Yeah, I know that. I’m just relieved that it hasn’t spread anywhere else.” And he kind of understood what he said. And I just kind of laughed at that and I told my wife that the doctor was giving me a hard time for being happy that it hadn’t spread. It’s not really a laughable moment, but I kind of was laughing at it a little bit.
You play the piano. Is that something that helped get you through this?
That’s been a big part of my journey, too. I actually wrote and directed this short film that we made four years ago called “Dawn.” I’m still working on creating a short album from the music I wrote for “Dawn.” … It was kind of weird and prophetic that I created that film. I’m a Christian, I’m a very spiritual person. I just knew that maybe subconsciously I was going to go through something someday. That I needed it.
I saw that on the MAKE films website. It definitely seemed to speak about your situation. I didn’t realize you made that movie before your diagnosis.
It was pretty weird in some ways. The thing about “Dawn” was I enjoy running, but I think when someone sees someone running it brings up a lot of questions. Where are they going? Who are they trying to run from? A friend of mine and I were just talking it through one day and we said, “What if we do a short film of somebody running somewhere and we really don’t know where he’s going and you find out he’s going to be with his terminally ill wife.” It was this idea of relationships and that we don’t have any idea of how long we have. That just came out pretty fast and it was pretty neat how the whole thing came about. I felt like it worked.
In your documentary, “The Day I Became Alive,” your wife says that your attitude of powering through the treatments is a “dad thing.” Can you talk about being a dad during your cancer experience?
There’s a certain responsibility that you grow into as a parent. It’s like, I can’t let my kids down, but I also want to be human to them. I don’t want them to feel like I’m a superhero, because I’m not. I was vulnerable and open and they could see me sleeping – because I was always tired when I was going through treatment. But my attitude was not melancholy. I want them to understand that adversity is OK. My wife Ashley’s dad passed away from cancer and even if you lose the fight – and dying of cancer doesn’t mean you lose – it’s the way that you take in the fight. I think you lose when you decide that life’s not worth fighting for.
Did the diagnosis make you think differently about mortality?
I think that it did for me – first of all, I think when you understand mortality a little more than you can actually live a better life, because you’re not taking for granted the moments in front of you.
Did you have to have a conversation about mortality with your kids?
I think because my diagnosis wasn’t terminal, I didn’t have that conversation. I had the conversation that your Dad is sick and he’s going to have to have some surgery and every other week I have to have a purse that has medicine that’s really harmful, but it will help me feel better eventually. My kids are 6 and 3, so I didn’t even say cancer at first. But then a couple months after I was diagnosed, my daughter and I were praying before bed and she said, “Thank you, Lord, that nobody in our house has cancer.” I was like, “Where did she hear that?” So I talked to her and apparently a girl in her school lost all her hair because of chemo and so she heard about cancer that way. So then I had a conversation with her about cancer and that I have cancer and I’m going through treatment and it’s looking really positive. Then she understood it and it was good.
Earlier you mentioned you’re a Christian. Can you talk about the role that your faith played during your treatment and the whole experience?
I think through hard times people can blame God. But my choice was life just sucks sometimes. I believe that God is there to comfort you in those times. If everything is going well and you don’t need help, then what’s the need of reaching out to him? Why do you need God then? There was nothing else that gave me greater peace than just resting in the peace of God. I don’t understand everything and I’m not trying to pretend like it’s all destined to be a certain way, either. I’m just going to do my best and see what happens. I have a quote in (“The Day I Became Alive”). I say, “Everything happens for a reason – if you believe it does.” If you’re not searching for those things then those things will probably just pass you by, and then you’ll just be bitter.
You’re young to have had colon cancer. Do you have any advice about cancer?
Well, there are statistics about how colon cancer under the age of 50 has increased by like 20 percent in the last eight years. But, in general, if your body just changes all the sudden – like I had blood in my stool – but if you start developing some kind of weird pain or weird bowel habit or something, whatever it is, if it lasts for more than two weeks, then go get it checked out. People in their 20s and 30s don’t think they’re going to get something, but if your body is saying something, listen to it. That’s a big message for me. Most of the time it’s not cancer – and if it is than hopefully you caught it early. When you catch it, typically – there’s always outliers, and I’m very fortunate to even have had symptoms – but when you catch it early, it hasn’t necessarily had the chance to grow to like when you’re 60 and it can be deadly.
As a filmmaker that interviews people, is there a question that you would’ve asked someone in your situation?
If I’m asking this to me, I would ask, “You say that now your time is valuable. If you truly believe that, then why are you spending your time making a documentary like this?” And I think the simple answer is that it provides meaning to me. It provides a way of saying that it’s not just for nothing that I had this. Maybe it’s for someone else, too. It’s a way for me to communicate what life means to me for other people. There’s no real financial return to me – and I’m not doing it for that – but the return to me has actually been bigger than I thought. The return has been the processing of it. I guess it’s just as you get older, you realize that the only thing that you don’t get more of is time. So I think my three messages that I’m trying to say are: the key to fighting cancer is early detection, live the best life today, and be intentional about your time.
Did you get a sense of what the meaning of life is for you?
Yeah, I think so. I think that this life on Earth is just a portion of my full spiritual life, but I think that when I’m here on Earth, using this time to impact the people around me and to spend time living in the moment.
Maybe the meaning of life is as simple as defining what success means to you and then living that every day. Because, unless you define what success means to you, you’re going to be searching for an idea of success that you never fully realized. So, if success means to you that you want to make a lot of money, unless you do that, you won’t feel successful. But if success means spending really great moments with your friends or family, that’s different. I think that might be the true meaning of life.
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