Welcome to Conversations with Cancer Survivors, a Q&A series that teaches people how to detect cancer early and ways to navigate the doctor-patient experience from those who have been through the process. Rob Russo is a testicular cancer survivor who has become a frequent 15-40 Connection volunteer. He talked recently with 15-40 Connection’s Carl Setterlund.
CARL: Hi, Rob. You’re our first Q&A subject to actually come visit us at the 15-40 offices. And thank you also for helping out with the recent fundraiser for 15-40 Connection that students put together at your college. First off, share a little about yourself so people can get to know you.
ROB: I’ve been a professor at Nichols College since I was 23 and I’m now currently 29. Coincidentally, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer when I was 23, right when I started teaching. Life for me is about seeing my students on an almost daily basis and trying to shape their lives and find them the career path that they want to go down. I also like to cook, ride my bike, go to the gym, and see family and friends.
CARL: So, you were recently out of college yourself when you got your cancer diagnosis. What was your mindset back then? Did you feel like you were prepared to navigate that type of situation?
ROB: Back then, when I was 23, I kind of had that invincible mindset and that “I hate going to the doctor” attitude, which I feel like a lot of people have at that age. I had severe lower back pain, but that was pretty much it at the start, so I thought maybe it was an old football injury and I wrote it off. I didn’t know the 2-Week Rule at that point, so it didn’t click. It was there for two weeks, and then it did finally go away, and I was like, ‘Thank God, it’s on to the next thing.’ That’s kind of where it all started.
CARL: You mentioned how common it is for people to feel that they’re young and healthy and not motivated to go to the doctor in their early 20s. What are a few simple tips you would tell younger people to foster a better mentality about taking care of their health?
ROB: I think the best advice is to know your normal, which I didn’t. I also had a growth on my right testicle and I wasn’t going to talk to my mom or dad about it. Number one, is identifying that something is different, and then find someone you’re comfortable confiding in. That ended up being one of my best friends, who was becoming a nurse. He told me, “You should definitely go see your primary care doctor.” To find somebody you feel comfortable with that can help guide you or encourage you if you’re worried about something was a key thing that got me going down the path to diagnosis.
CARL: For sure. Having someone that can give you that extra push in the right direction can make a big difference. So, one of our fun questions, tell us about your recent excursions and your dream travel destinations. You did some camping out in the Pacific Northwest?
ROB: Most recently, I went to Washington state and Alaska. I stayed a couple days in Seattle and then I drove up to Mt. Baker, off some fire roads and hiked in a couple hours and set up shop out there for about five days. Then, I flew into Fairbanks, took the Alaska Railroad down to Denali (National Park). I saw eight Grizzly bears the first day. One night, I was eating my meal, and I turned – I had opened my bag of dried Pad Thai and put the water in – and there’s a giant moose like 100 yards away and he smells it and looks at me, so I put the bag down and slowly walked away. I love traveling, absolutely love it. If I could go anywhere, like a hiking camping type of vacation, I’d go to Antarctica. If was one where my girlfriend was coming and we were just having fun, I’d like to go to Australia or South Asia.
CARL: You also mentioned earlier that you’re a pretty good cook. What’s your specialty?
ROB: My classic go-to is chicken parm. I’ll get the chicken breast and filet it out so it’s even and then hit it out, bread it, sauté it lightly in a pan but then finish it in the oven. I also do homemade pasta. You start with semolina, press it out, I have a Kitchenaid pasta press. I do my sauce from scratch as well. I do that in a separate pot and then pour it in the sauté pan to get some of the juices and flavor. Then you take a scoop of water from your pasta while you cook it and the starches from the pasta water helps thicken your sauce. Everything from scratch. That’s probably my favorite meal to make, but it takes forever.
CARL: I’m hungry now! I might have to go get a chicken parm. Rob, thanks for sharing your advice!
This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Early detection can make a lifesaving difference. Learn more about how to identify and act on cancer symptoms with our 3 Steps Detect education.