Adaptation: Stories about survival

This week, we present two stories of adapting to survive, from a cancer survivor's creative solution to the after-effects of his treatment to an Iraqi who becomes a computer scientist to survive the war.

Part 1: Benjamin Rubenstein survived cancer, but now there are new challenges to contend with.

Jump to Benjamin’s story >>

Benjamin Rubenstein is the author of the "Cancer-Slaying Super Man" books and other personal essays. He speaks about personal health, feeling superhuman, and the urge when he's intoxicated to eat jelly beans--all of them. The two items he brings with him everywhere are a flask and gum, particularly Juicy Fruit or Big Red because those have sugar instead of sorbitol. Benjamin doesn't fuck around with weird chemicals (excluding whatever is in cheap whiskey). Benjamin loves inspiring others through a combination of insane stories of survival and attempted humor.

Part 2: A young Iraqi computer scientist must adapt to survive war and its aftermath.

Jump to Abbas’s story >>

Abbas Mousa is an Economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis. growing up in Baghdad Iraq he always wanted to be an artist but ended up with a Computer Science and Economic degrees, he's been featured on the Moth Radio Hour on NPR,  and with his passion for art and storytelling he became a regular storyteller with the Moth StorySlam. Mousa immigrated to America in 2009 through a special immigrant visa for Iraqi translators and currently working on his memoir, he has been featured in multiple articles and a guest speaker sharing some of his stories and experiences. Follow him on twitter @atmousa.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Benjamin Rubenstein

I was nineteen years old standing on a wooden platform in a huge square room in front of a machine that delivered radiation.  To give you a sense of the size of this room, imagine you're microwaving a single popcorn kernel, only that popcorn kernel is alive and named Benjamin Rubenstein. 

My radiation technician, a lean blonde girl who looked not much older than I was, told me to stand with my arms slightly out to the sides and to stand for five minutes without moving.  I had some questions I wanted to ask her, like if you don’t like your patient, do you give them extra radiation?  And do you and your co-workers have competitions to see who can deliver the most radiation, sort of like Employee of the Month?  And do you want to get coffee with me in about half a year when I’m no longer near death? 

She exited the room and pulled the Fort Knox-sized door close behind her and the “X-Ray In Use” sign lit up red. 

I volunteered to receive radiation because it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Radiation was found to kill cancer cells in the late 1800s when scientists realized that it attacked rapidly dividing cells like those in tumors.  At first, they didn’t understand the power of radiation.  They would manipulate radium with their bare hands only to find that it scorched their tissue from the inside. 

Over the last 120 years, radiation techniques have come a long way.  They now have the CyberKnife machine and proton therapy which can kill cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy ones.  But back in 2003 when I was facing radiation to treat my second cancer, those didn’t exist and I would receive 1250 rads of radiation spread evenly from head to toe.  All my cancer cells and healthy cells would get the same amount. 

Now, there were pros and cons to receiving radiation.  Pros: the possibility of killing the cancer in my body and… never mind.  There's one pro.  Con: a guarantee that twenty minutes after receiving radiation there would be an explosion out my mouth and colon.  Con: the possibility that the radiation wouldn’t kill my cancer.  Con: the possibility that radiation would cause a second cancer, or rather a third cancer for me.  Con: the possibility that radiation would damage the healthy cells in my body. 

I considered all of these and decided that the pro outweighed the cons. 

With the door now closed, I heard the machine click into place.  I wondered, should I close my eyes?  Should I stare at it?  Should I stare at some other point in the room?  It didn’t matter.  The radiation would find my eyes no matter where they were looking.  I just hoped they would find those cancer cells wherever they were hiding too. 

IMG_1923 (1).jpg

The machine started.  I knew it started not by sight or sound or smell but by the immediate churning in my gut, the nausea that burst through me, the hairs on my arms that stood on end.  I decided to stare at the big black eye of the machine. 

I stood there motionless for five minutes, then the technician, whose bad side I did not want to get on in case my hunch about the Employee of the Month thing was true, re-entered the room, told me to turn around and face the wall behind me for five more minutes.  I was depleted and weak from the chemo I had already received and those ten minutes were among the hardest things I'd ever endured. 

I got radiation for ten minutes a day, twice a day for four days.  Half a year later, I got well and I've been well ever since.  That was thirteen years ago. 

I have noticed some unique side effects from radiation over the years.  One in particular stands out.  A few years ago, I noticed my memory wasn’t as strong as it had been.  Throughout life, I had this amazing episodic memory.  I could visualize events from my life, connect those events to certain periods of time or sometimes even to specific dates. 

But a few years ago I had trouble remembering recent events, and I told my brother this.  And Jonathan said, “I don't even remember what I ate for lunch today.”  But I wasn’t content just having a stronger memory relative to Jonathan. 

I thought about my lifestyle.  Maybe there's something in my lifestyle that’s making my memory slip.  I was on a no-sugar, low-carb, calorie-restricted diet and I drank whisky and vodka and rum and Jamaican rum known as white lightning.  I considered that maybe not giving my brain the energy from food and the alcohol were causing my memory problems, and I accepted that answer. 

But soon, I started to struggle with names, like names of songs, names of movies, names of actors and artists.  I knew something was going on here.  I went online to the National Institute of Health website and I did some research.  What I found is that radiation to the brain often causes permanent deficiencies in some people.  Enough was enough.  I had to find out once and for all what was going on so I sought help. 

This past March, I got cognitive testing.  Over the course of four hours I went through a slew of brain tests, one to measure my ability to see patterns, one to recall details of a story I was told, one to name as many mammals as I could in a minute.  I was told the results would take five weeks.  Sure enough, five weeks later I get a manila folder in the mail and I take out this six-page packet. 

The first page talks about my IQ.  I didn’t even know they were testing IQ.  It said mine was between normal and a genius.  And I rejoiced.  I figured if I just cut some whisky or some white lightnings then I'll be fine. 

Then I flipped the page.  According to the cognitive testing, I’m in the bottom seventh percentile for word recall and my ability to name things.  Basically, I can think of the words to say it just takes me longer as if there are these microsecond delays in between segments of my speech. 

For the rest of the day, I just felt so sad.  I endured so much to extend my life, yet the treatments threaten to reduce the quality of that life.  Cancer stole my adolescence and now it was stealing my words. 

The next day, I pulled myself together.  Humans have this amazing ability to adapt and I had to adapt because my brain will never repair itself no matter how many white lightnings I reduce for my consumption.  I thought, “What can I do to adapt?  What can I do so that I can communicate with others using my words, and the right words?  What can I do?” 

Then it hit me.  If I reduce the speed of my speech, then I'll give my brain a chance to catch up.  I'll avoid those microsecond delays. 

Now that I found the solution, whose footsteps would I follow to hone my newfound speech skills? Because humans are also amazing at following examples, sort of like a template.  The thing is, this time, I did not even need to slow my brain down for one name to come to mind. 

I started studying him.  I studied his mannerisms and his speech.  I watched all his movies and his interviews and his commercials, even those car commercials in which he doesn’t say anything at all.  This man is the gold standard of slow speech.  He is the poster boy for cranial radiation-induced speech deficiencies.  My new template I'll follow, my new speech idol is Matthew McConaughey.  All right, all right, all right. 

Part 2: Abbas Mousa

When I was twelve, back in Baghdad, Iraq, Latin soap operas were very popular.  So my sister and my friend and I used to play actors, Latin actors.  Three years later, I decided I wanted to go into the art program.  It’s a five-year program where it starts after ninth grade and you would graduate with an associate in art. 

So I told my dad, he was no challenge.  He said okay, and I’m like, “Okay.”  Now, I got to convince my mom because I know she's the hard one.  So at night, my dad and I told my mom, and she flipped the hell out. 

She said, “You're going to a science high school.  You're going to a science college.  And actors are poor in Iraq.”  And that was it. 

I went to a science high school, and in fall of 2002 I enrolled in college to study computer science, because computers were the second thing that I liked after art. 

At the end of my freshman year, the war started in Iraq, March of 2003.  Schools were shut down, businesses were shut down.  We stayed at home waiting for the war to be over, hoping not to die.  A month after the war, we went back to college to finish the semester. 

I remember our professors told us that we are so lucky because by the time we graduate, all these big companies from around the world, they're going to come and invest in Iraq and they're going to need a lot of programmers.  I already imagined myself working for Microsoft and then I extended my imagination to even meet Bill Gates and shake his hand when he comes to visit the Iraqi Microsoft branch. 

And having a computer at home helped me apply what I learned in college at home, especially for the classes that I liked, like the computer graphic class where we learned how to make 2D cartoons.  I remember how the professor was impressed with the Pikachu that I drew.  Then I learned how to color it and then move it. 

And in the computer security class where we learned the algorithm that Julius Caesar used to encrypt his letters. Of course, we learned the modern algorithms in encryptions and decryptions. 

Right after the war, Baghdad was somewhat safe.  So terrorists first entered Fallujah and we hear about them, we hear about the fighting and the bombing, but we did not experience anything yet, until fall of 2003.  That’s when they started spreading into Baghdad and other cities, and that’s when things got crazy for us. 

I remember in my sophomore year when a guy named Ahmed in college was killed.  His friends told us he was shot in the head in front of his mom and his mom used the button over his shirt to block the blood scatter as it flows from the hole in his forehead.  His death haunted me for days because, back then, hearing about death was not the norm, especially if someone gets killed before their time.  But in the years leading to my graduation, hearing about death became the norm.  And I accepted the fact that every morning, before I go to school that I might die in a car bomb or an IED. 

But I kept going because of hope.  The beautiful thing about hope is it never leaves us, because when it does, we die.  That’s why those people who live in war-torn countries, they continue to live because they're hopeful. 

Then graduation day comes July of 2006.  After the farewell with my best friends, I go home and I remember what my professors told us about being lucky because investors are going to be here and investing and needing us, and I wished that that was true.  Instead, the terrorists entered Iraq and started investing in killing us left and right.  At that time, Baghdad was so dangerous, not only because of Al-Qaeda terrorists, but also because of the Sunni-Shia Civil War. 

Later that year, I had to quit my job and I flee to Kurdistan state in northern Iraq.  I got a job as a contractor running a project for the U.S. military.  The officer that I worked for named Major Abell, he was pretty strict but also very fair.  After a couple of months into the project, Major Abell’s unit was leaving, and that’s when I learned these U.S. military units rotate in deployments. 

At that time, I was away from my family, I was lonely, and I always felt blue every time I go back to my room.  The fear of the unknown was my fear because I always wondered what tomorrow holds for me.  Where are my family and I going to end up?  Am I going to live long until I’m old with a cane and big, thick glasses?  Or am I going to die young like Ahmed? 

The new unit comes, the replacement, and they were a Wisconsin National Guard unit.  After a couple of months, I finish the project and they offered me a translator position, which I accepted, and they really took me in.  The unit commander was a female commander and it was my first time meeting a female commander.  She treated everyone in the unit as a member of her own family.  They were good and their goodness was not just limited to their unit members. 

Soon, I felt loved and I felt trusted.  Soon, I had so many friends on base, the base became my new home.  We played cards once or twice a week, we barbecued together, we took our music and reserved a gym room and danced.  We shared stories and pictures about our families and our lives.  But then their tour came to an end, and I was really worried about the next unit and whether they're going to be like a family to me or not. 


Soon enough, I learned that they were very, very strict.  They didn’t like some of the privileges given to translators so they took away my cell phone and my CDs.  To a degree, I understood why the cell phone, but not the CDs.  I went to my boss and I told him, but that didn’t work, and then I went to the intelligence office because all the civilian officers there are my friends.  I helped them a lot in the past and now I’m asking their help. 

So I told my friend Matt that I want my CDs back.  He asked, “What’s on the CDs?” and I said all my projects, my programming projects from school.  I took them with me everywhere because I never knew where I’m going to end up. 

He gives them a call and they said, “We can’t give them back because these are considered writable CDs.” 

I told him, “No, they're not, because when I added the files, I locked the CDs.  So they can’t be unlocked, nothing can be added, nothing can be removed.  They can verify that.”  And then they said no. 

Then I said, “Okay, so how about they keep the CDs for now, they put them in a locker or something, and when the time comes and I leave the base for good, they give me back the CDs, because they're mine.” 

Once again, they said no.  And I was really heartbroken.  They're policies didn’t make sense to me.  I’m away from my family, I live with them, I serve with them, and I help them, and it’s not fair to treat us like that.  Then I remembered Major Abell and I wished he was here.  He was the common-sense policy man. 

But I didn’t give up.  I installed the programming language on my computer at work and I started programming.  Soon enough, I had a folder full of computer graphic files.  One of them was a picture of Major Sarah Bammel from the Wisconsin unit, who was a good friend of mine. 

But then the strict unit were being replaced and the new commander is also a common-sense policy officer.  I was given back my privileges, my cell phone, a computer, CDs if I wanted to have some, but the thing is, my CDs from college were destroyed.  I never drew back my Pikachu, but I still remember it very well. 

In July of 2009 I got my special immigrant visa to come here and I found out that I’m coming to Wisconsin.  I arrived here with an eagerness for success.  I can finally live the many dreams that I had.  I can finally build a future. 

After I arrived, I got an internship in IT and that internship was a turning point for me, because I didn’t study programming for four years to be installing printers and changing inks and fixing the problem with someone else’s ZIP file.  I wanted to be a programmer and most IT jobs here doesn’t give me that. 

So I started thinking about changing a career, and since I’m in America, I can be whatever I want so I had so many options.  I thought of getting my MFA and I went to school and asked.  But for that, I was told that I need almost another bachelor degree in art.  And since I made my peace with not being an artist a long time ago, I was okay with getting a job that I enjoy doing and pays me well so on my own time I can do my hobbies. 

At the same time, there was something else I wanted to be.  I miss working with the army.  And I remember the first time when I got my selective service card in the mail how excited I was because I thought the government is asking me to become a soldier because of my work as translator.  I was very happy and excited until I learned what the selective service card is, which is draft. 

But not too long after that, I did join the Army National Guard, wanting to become a common-sense kind of leader like these officers that I worked for in Iraq like Major Abell and Bammel and Colonel Gerety and Colonel Dorrow, just to name a few. 

And as a National Guard soldier, I get to have a civilian career, so I decided to study economics.  And I swear to God, I don't know how or why I decided that.  I went to school and I put in an application.  I was accepted in the grad school in their grad program.  And I studied statistics and statistical programming and all the micro and macro econ stuff, and it was tough, but I graduated in summer 2015, not sure who was going to hire someone in my background.  Because, by now, I am too many things.  I am a computer scientist, I am an economist, an army sergeant with a logistic and ammo background, and I am a storyteller.

It took me eight months to finally get an offer from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce and now I write codes, statistical code, mainly, for regional economics. 

And when I remember my dream of becoming an actor, I wonder, will I be happier?  Will my life be easier or better?  Then I remember that my computer science degree is what helped me get a job in Kurdistan, what helped me survive in Iraq and I think it’s okay.  Sometimes it’s okay not to get everything we wanted to be when we were little, but we should always try to get what’s best for us, what we enjoy doing in the second place. 

Honestly, I enjoy doing what I do now.  And I feel blessed that I've been introduced to the art of storytelling because it makes me feel like an artist and it gives me the opportunity to share stories from my beautiful and interesting life. 

Thank you.