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This 25-Year-Old Cancer Patient Is Live Blogging His Death

Dmitrij Panov details his life with stage 4 cancer on his blog "Dying With Swag."

All images courtesy of Dmitrij Panov

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

On the first day of February 2016, 25-year-old Dmitrij Panov published a post on his blog:

"Hello, my name is Dmitrij Panov and I'm going to die soon. It may sound strange, but that's how it is."

One day, about four years earlier—in December of 2011—Dmitrij was waiting alone in an examination room, exhausted from the MRI scan he had just had. After seeing the scan, the doctor only needed a few seconds to diagnose him. Malignant cell growth in his brain—a tumor. Relieved, Dmitrij immediately rang his mom to tell her that he finally knew what was wrong with him.

Dmitrij studied psychology in Marburg, where he went to the doctor when he couldn't take the daily pain in his back and the constant urge to vomit anymore. The orthopedist assumed it was some kind of tension—the physical therapist sent him to an internist. One day, about a month later, Dmitrij was playing Tetris when he suddenly fell to the floor. He woke up in the university clinic in Marburg, and finally saw a neurologist. When it was confirmed he had a brain tumor, surgery was planned for the following morning. He looked forward to surgery and the following radiation. The pain, vomiting, fainting—it would all be gone. Dmitrij took a semester off from college to recover. At first, he had radiation treatment every six weeks, later every few months.

The doctors didn't have a lot of time for him—sometimes one of them asked him how he was feeling. But Dmitrij's felt his answers always took too long—he needed more words to describe what he was going through than the doctor had patience for. One time, after a nurse drew blood from him, Dmitrij's trousers were covered with blood. He didn't get an apology.

"In days following the surgery, I learned about the advantages of strong anaesthetics (the visions!) and a catheter (going to the loo is for commoners). After ten days, I crawled back out into the world. Then I had radiation and chemo—and all was well for the next few years. It would have been nice if that was where this story ended."

The treatment was successful, and after two years of being cancer-free, Dmitrij's worries subsided. But it only counts as "cancer-free" after five years—not two.

He resumed his psychology studies and got back to his life of playing video games and watching films with friends. He joined the school's theater troupe, discussed films on an online movie forum, and met up with people from that forum in real life. He loved that community: When he first fell sick the news spread quickly on Facebook—people who only knew him online rang him to support him. Over the years, Dmitrij had collected 680 DVDs—his favorites being Kill Bill, Moonrise Kingdom, and the South Korean original version of Oldboy.

In April 2015, one year before he officially would have been considered cancer-free, he found himself back in the doctor's office. He was diagnosed with a recurrence—the same kind of tumor in the same place. He underwent another surgery, followed by radiation and chemo. He had to start over counting the cancer-free years.

Dmitrij with markings for his radiation therapy

Near the end of 2015 his spinal fluid was tested, which resulted in a new diagnosis: brain metastases. A new round of chemotherapy followed—the doctors wouldn't be able to really get rid of the metastases, but wanted to "optimize the quality of his life as much as possible." He had a stage 4 medulloblastoma on the part of his brain influencing his motor control. If it got bigger, it could affect his balance too, or press against the visual cortex. Medulloblastomas are sometimes called "child tumors" because they mostly appear in young people. There has hardly been any research on what they do to adults and young adults like Dmitrij, so the doctors had to experiment.

The news that there wasn't really anything to be done didn't surprise Dmitrij—the fact that it wasn't operable meant he could spend Christmas with his grandmother instead of in hospital. He had already missed her birthday while undergoing chemotherapy.

The news brought him to writing that first blog post, at 2 AM on February 1:

"Hello, my name is Dmitrij Panov and I'm going to die soon. It may sound strange, but that's how it is."

He called his online diary "Dying With Swag" and published something new every four days—to show that the incurable and inescapable isn't all that bad. He wanted to leave something behind.

Dmitrij was born in the Soviet Union, 25 years ago. The umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck and he wasn't breathing. According to his mother, it took four hours to revive him. She lives 30 miles away from Dmitrij, in Herborn. Now, she would lose her only child anyway.

After his visits to the clinic, he would go home to the apartment he shares with his best friend Sabine. Dmitrij talks to his mother on the phone every now and then, but he never wanted to move back to her—he's easily annoyed and, according to Dmitrij, there's no proper wifi at his mother's. He didn't go back to his studies, but filled his days watching movies and playing video games. His theater troupe performed Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and on opening night he stumbled, wobbly, onto the stage. After the final applause, his classmates brought him straight to the university clinic.

"Slowly, the feeling that I'll never get out of this clinic is getting stronger. It's likely that it'll get worse. Do I accept that? Not yet. It's so annoying that the doctors always make you wait for them. I have pain in my back, my legs, the pain in my arse keeps coming back; the IV keeps dripping. It could be worse. I don't want to think about what I'll do when it is."
(April 29, 2016)

Dmitrij had another operation and another six weeks of radiation. He heard he might be paralyzed from the waste down, he started writing his will—his DVDs would need a new owner. When the white walls of the clinic seemed to close in on him, it helped him to read the comments from his readers.

"What used to matter to me and doesn't anymore:
College.
Sex."
(July 2016, "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit)

He was admitted to a recovery center—not a hospice, because he wasn't set to die that soon. He didn't want to know how much time he had left, exactly. He's not scared of death—some people die unhappily at 100, he'll die fulfilled before he's 30. He wrote that he's not interested in touring the world, but he's sad about missing out on a few things: that he never went to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet around the corner from a Penny supermarket in Bonn. And not being able to play all the video games that haven't been released yet.

"Last time, I wrote that I'm not really afraid of dying. Maybe I should have said that I'm not really afraid of being dead. When you're dying, there's still some life in you and sometimes I think that I'm afraid of life."
(May 11, 2016)

On a sunny day in May of this year, Dmitrij was in the neurology ward of the clinic in Hesse—stuck in his room and hardly able to move. That's where I met him. The other patients went for walks outside, or lay in the grass in the adjacent park. The clinic has one wing for people with mental issues and another for people regaining their physical strength. Sometimes, Dmitrij wasn't sure which wing he was in.

He watched movies, played games, and looked out the window, overlooking a forest. The view didn't interest him much. His back hurt, he wasn't able to find a comfortable position for days. His last diagnosis was another metastasis, grown on one of his vertebrae. He couldn't see properly sometimes, which would last for about half an hour.

"Morning/midday probably the most intense pain of my life. It's been okay for about an hour (thanks to the paracetamol I had for a fever). It's far from being ideal, but I'm able to sit and I'm not constantly screaming out in pain. Hopefully it'll stay that way—firstly because I'd love to get out of here, and secondly because I'm not sure I can take it again."
(June 4, 2016)

Dmitrij was sent home on June 9 of this year.

After his death, Sabine will post his final blog entry for him.