Captain, My Captain: Cancer Survivorship

After the close of the 2021 college football season earlier last month, I looked back on a unique moment during the season when I played a small, but important, role during a game. No, I didn’t play a down—I’m a bit too old and definitely out-of-shape to sprint down a field, let alone sprint down my driveway to our mailbox. No, I wasn’t a coach or a member of the training staff.

My role was honorary and special to me. Back in October, when the Memphis Tigers played—and defeated—the Midshipmen of Navy, I was designated Captain of the Game.

Nominated by the West Cancer Center and Research Institute and hosted by the University of Memphis Athletics Department, I represented Memphis and Mid-South cancer survivors, patients, and their families. The game’s theme was cancer survivorship—bringing attention to cancer survivors.

Survival begins at diagnosis—the moment you are told you have cancer.

That night in October, my job was relatively simple: walk out with the players for the coin toss at mid-field, stand on the sidelines for pictures, and smile for a video camera while my face and my cancer story were broadcast on the stadium’s Jumbotron.

A little nervous and stressed before my introduction, I felt oddly at peace as the evening went on. I was both proud and humbled. The recognition was wonderful—a reward, if you will, for all the advocacy work I’ve undertaken since being diagnosed with cancer (metastatic melanoma) more than eight years ago. Yet, as an honorary captain, I was reminded that my work is far from complete. There are many goals I want to achieve, and my desire to serve others grows stronger every day.

As an advocate and spokesperson, I do act much like a ship’s captain, helping cancer patients and their loved ones navigate the troubled waters of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. And that diagnosis is the start of a journey, or a voyage. Through calm and rough seas, cancer patients battle physical and emotional storms each day.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

As you may know, Walt Whitman’s famous poem, O Captain! My Captain!, is a metaphor about the death of President Abraham Lincoln shortly after the end of the Civil War.

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

In Whitman’s poem, the ship’s captain dies before his vessel has reached the end of a stormy and dangerous voyage. In other words, the captain never gets to see or to celebrate his achievement.

My own journey has been full of stormy weather, and, at times, it’s been difficult to keep my own emotional ship upright and afloat. Being there for others, as an example of survivorship, as a mentor to other patients, and as a lay member of the research community, helps me to weather those storms.

Captain, My Captain.

In mid-January, we celebrated the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., another great leader and great citizen, who never completed his journey. Here in Memphis, MLK Day is a bitter reminder of what might have been.

Yet, this federal holiday is known as a day of service to honor Dr. King’s legacy by empowering individuals, strengthening communities, bridging barriers, and creating solutions to social problems with the hope of moving our country—and world—closer to King’s vision of a beloved community.

Please understand that in no way do I believe I’m a leader, a captain, in the same league as President Lincoln or Dr. King, but I sincerely believe all of us have both the potential to lead and an obligation to serve. To undertake a journey with a purpose that is much bigger than ourselves.

Cancer patients and survivors have that obligation to be there for others within our own community; to honor those who were not so fortunate, and to pave the way for new treatments and preventative measures. As I wrote last summer in Happy Birthday, Spider-Man, with good fortune comes greater responsibility.

For obvious reasons, I want my own journey to continue for as long as possible. As an advocate and a patient, I want to see more innovations made in cancer care, and, maybe, someday, be there to celebrate more victories over this terrible disease. I want to know I made a difference and had a positive impact on others.

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

No, that night in mid-October, I did not dirty a uniform, nor did I even break a sweat. But I was a small part of something much bigger than myself. Honored and humbled, the temporary spotlight meant the world to me and to my family.

Living with cancer means knowing my time on this earth is at a premium and how I use my time is important—not just for me, mind you—but for helping others along their own journeys. Someday, those rough waters will turn to smooth seas. Until then, I’ll continue navigating my way through the storm.

Captain, My Captain.

Writer’s Note: Portions of this story first appeared in a quarterly advocate email from the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) and later as the article Captaining an Emotional Ship on 

Information regarding MLK Day of Service courtesy of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) website: (January 17, 2022)

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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