Maine College Student Doesn’t Let Cancer Derail His Education

Brian Main

This can happen to anyone. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

Brian Main thought his excruciating back pain came from lifting heavy water tanks during a controlled burn in his wildfire class at Unity College.

A sophomore in conservation law, he’d lifted tanks “no person should be carrying,” he remembered. But his pain progressively got worse. “I was waking up at night, taking Tylenol PM.”

Hours away from his own doctor back home in Sanford, Maine, Brian walked to a family doctor near his school. The doctor wasn’t sure what was wrong, but then Brian reported that during a self-exam, he discovered the pain in his back was connected to his testicles.

The doctor sent him for testing at a hospital in nearby Waterville. Brian doesn’t have a car, so a friend gave him a ride. There, doctors observed a mass and sent him for bloodwork, a CT scan and X-rays. An oncologist gave him the news: Stage 2 testicular cancer.

“It was just a shock,” he said. “But the doctor said, you have a rare form, but it’s very curable.” That comforted him.

Then, he had to call his mom. “Throughout the entire time, I didn’t tell my mom I was doing any of this,” Brian said. He knew she would rush to see him and, obviously, worry.

He was in tears when he first called home, but after that, he worked to stay strong. “I didn’t want my mom to break down, or my grandma.”

It was just after spring break and Brian got through the rest of the semester, before returning home. He was scheduled for four weeks of chemotherapy at the New England Cancer Center in Kennebunk. The plan was to do one week – five days per week, six hours per day – then take two weeks off.

“It was the whole summer,” Brian said. The treatment made him sick and exhausted. At times, he had no appetite. Then, steroid treatments would kick in and make him ravenous. “One morning I had four cinnamon bagels with peanut butter and two peaches – and I was still hungry!”

He also got a blood clot in his leg and spent five days in the hospital. And his hair fell out. His stepmom, a former hairdresser, shaved it off for him.

He spent a lot of time recuperating with his grandma, who is retired. He couldn’t work his normal summer job in the Hannaford grocery seafood department, so a grant from the Joe Andruzzi Foundation helped cover his living and school expenses.

When summer ended, Brian was determined to return to college. But his cancer had spread to his lymph nodes; his doctor scheduled surgery at Dana Farber in Boston during Thanksgiving break.

Afterwards, his family celebrated the holiday at his aunt’s house in Andover, where Brian recovered from pneumonia he’d contracted after surgery.

Again, he was determined to return to school. “My mom and grandma wanted me to stay home,” he remembered. “But I told them, I’m going back to school.”

He finished out his freshmen year taking painkillers, a big scar across his chest, but passing all his classes. (Including one where he had to identify 50 different types of ducks.)

He’s kept going ever since and is now finishing his junior year. He still gets follow-up scans and just finished taking blood thinner, but “so far, everything has been clear.”

Brian hopes to work for the National Parks Service after college. Going through cancer made him realize he’s grateful for this current life, but he wants to travel. He especially wants to see Japan, the United Kingdom and Rome.

“It makes you take a step back and say, ‘Is this what I want to be doing? Are these the people I want to have around me?’” he said.

He’s also learned how unpredictable life is. “This can happen to anyone. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.”