* Author’s note: I would like to clarify that, as of today and in spite of what I think is a flu virus I’m currently fighting off, I am healthy. I recently passed my 9th Cancerfreeaversary™ in mid-August, 2014. I’m not sure what inspired me to finally finish this piece, although it is one that’s been in the works in some form or another for several years now. Maybe I was too busy living my life to willingly revisit this particular part of my past. Or perhaps I was only waiting for the right time and the right inspiration to kick me in the ass. Whatever the reason, it’s here now. Thanks for taking the time to read it.
Those Three Terrible Words
Since pretty much every single thing that exists in the universe may or may not give you cancer one day, it might be wise to bone up on the side effects that no one tells you about before it happens to you. I’m not talking about the adverse reactions from medicines and chemicals and wacky experimental treatments that doctors will try out on your cancer-riddled body as they assume the roles of well-meaning Dr. Frankensteins. Years later, I still haven’t been able to remove those ridiculous head knobs they gave me but at least I can tune in to any radio station in the world at will, so there’s that.
I’m referring to the side effects of the diagnosis itself – all of the unexpected things you will go through after hearing the words:
“You’ve Got Cancer.”
There are no balloons, no “Hooray! You’re Our Millionth Customer!” banners, no confetti. The cake is a lie. All you’ll really have to look forward to in the moments that follow hearing those words is a welcomed numbness that consumes your body as it descends into a state of shock, much like everyone who was thrown overboard into ice water during the sinking of the Titanic.
The upside is that you’ll be warm and mostly dry. The downside is that you’re going to be faced with some very difficult tasks in the immediate future, the least of which will involve finding ways to break the news to your loved ones. It’s not like you can invite them all into a darkened house for a party, and then flip on the lights while you scream ”SURPRISE! I’ve got cancer! Now who wants cake?!”
When I received the news that my cancer was invasive, my parents, my husband’s parents, and our two young kids were waiting in the living room for us when we got home from the appointment. Delivering that news to a room full of people was… well, it was something I’ll never forget having to do and I hope I’ll never have to do again. The phone is easier, take my word for it. Any way you do it, your conversations will result in tears and not a single one of them will end on a happy note. And once the cat is out of the bag…
Everyone Who Knows You’re Sick Will Treat You Differently
I don’t think that anyone actually intends for this to happen, but it does in spite of their best efforts. When you walk into a room, people will speak to you more softly and with greater concern, no matter what’s being talked about. Every interaction is shrouded beneath an invisible Blanket Of Seriousity, an itchy afghan knitted from the heaviest and most suffocating material known to man. To make matters more difficult for those of us who see ourselves through terrible situations by cranking our internal Sarcasm Blasters to “10”, the people around you are suddenly forced into the awkwardness of laughing (or worse – not laughing) at your morbid jokes. After all, no one should ever be amused by a sick person. Most of us are taught from childhood not to laugh at others, particularly the disabled, the elderly, the sick, or Lisa Lampanelli.
If people can’t laugh with you, then with any luck they will cook for you. Every night becomes a pot luck mystery feast brought to you by the Tupperware corporation. I have to admit that this part was actually pretty wonderful because your schedule will be turned into a completely unpredictable series of medical events. Your entire world will revolve around the schedule that you are given for your examinations, medical tests and procedures, consultations, and treatments. Appointments are not scheduled at your convenience; they are scheduled according to the next available opening, regardless of whether mornings or afternoons or Tuesdays are better for you. Oncologists are notoriously overbooked because they are not like general physicians – each one typically has a very limited set of specializations in which they focus. In most cities, you’ll likely only have a few to choose from – just like everyone else in your area who has a similar type of cancer.
Which also means…
You Will Wait Like You’ve Never Waited Before
That’s not even taking into consideration the wait time for test results, which was the easy part. If I’m being honest, in my experience good news travels fast, but bad news travels faster. Each time I had a biopsy (surgical and non-surgical), I got the phone call the very next day – I assume it’s because the results were not good news.
It was the act of sitting around in waiting areas that was the most difficult for me. It was a surreal experience, being surrounded by cancer patients in varying degrees of deteriorating health because, like it or not, I had to acknowledge the fact that I was now one of Them: one of the diseased masses, dancing the Carimbó just a little closer to Death than the day before.
It was nothing at all for me to wait two hours or longer – after arriving early – for scheduled appointments with my oncologist. It’s the nature of the beast, really. One doctor has only so many hours in a day, and consultations can take a very long time when patients are being given so much information all at once. They have to ask questions; answers and discussions take as long as they take so as the day wears on, a domino effect sets in and all subsequent appointment times start sliding like strippers on a greased pole.
The wait times were so extensive that whenever I arrived and signed in for my appointments, I was given one of those buzzer pucks that you get at busy restaurants – you know, the ones that light up and vibrate when your table is finally ready. I thought that was pretty handy since it gave me the freedom to get up and go for a walk or use the bathroom, or even take a nap before showtime, without having to worry about not hearing the call of my name when it was my turn at bat.
(If you’re ever lucky enough to snag the first appointment of any given day, you should consider playing the lottery as soon as possible because Fortune is smiling upon you, my friend.)
That said, there will likely be free snacks involved. I was treated at the Karmanos Institute in Detroit, Michigan; everyone who worked there was nothing short of wonderful – I highly recommend it for all of your cancer-asskicking needs. As we’d wait (and wait, and wait) for various appointments in an area that resembled a mall concourse full of sick people, there were vendors pushing carts of sustenance, offering free sodas, juice, and miscellaneous snacks so we wouldn’t starve to death before our appointments.
In my experience, little things like that made the situation bearable.
Fare Thee Well, Modesty
When you finally do enter the inner sanctum, e.g., the exam room, plan to leave all of your modesty at the door. Even if you’ve got cancer of the toe, you’re going to be prodded in all sorts of places because the possibility of metastasis – the cancer spreading to another region of your body – is always there. I was unfortunately diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. I’ll leave the horrifying details out but suffice it to say the prodding wasn’t limited to the affected orifice.
Everything was performed with medical students in the room, with them being given the opportunity to… well, feel things out for themselves, following my oncologist’s own examination. If the idea of this makes you uncomfortable, rest assured that you should be given the opportunity to deny their attendance. I didn’t. By that point in my life, I had already given birth to two kids (the youngest just weeks before my initial diagnosis) and I no longer gave two shits about who saw what I had going on anywhere. That, and I figured medical students have to learn their craft somewhere, right? I was helping science!
The Disconcerting Power of Prayer
Things can and will be uncomfortable for a variety of other reasons, some of which may not have ever occurred to you. Particularly for those of us who do not attend church, finding out that someone has put you on a “Prayer List” can be a really unsettling experience. On one hand, it’s truly nice to know that so many people are sending positive thoughts your way. On the other hand, you’ve suddenly got an assload of perfect strangers sitting in pews in a building somewhere, collectively getting all up in your business.
Despite your personal beliefs, you really can’t say to someone, “Oh please don’t do that,” because to them, it’s their only way of helping you when they feel helpless. You can’t fault them for it. Besides, you already have a year’s worth of casseroles in your freezer, thanks to every friend/relative/neighbor you know who has a kitchen, so what’s left to be done? At least a prayer can’t give you food poisoning or make you fat.
I honestly did appreciate the sentiment behind the simple act of prayer. In fact, I received a rosary and little bottle of Grade P (for Priest) Certified Holy Water along with a card that informed me of my prayer enlistment at one particular church. I still have it packed in box somewhere, mostly because I was always a little bit afraid that I might be struck down if I ever threw it out.
(Hey. Just because I’m not a Christian girl doesn’t mean I can’t be too careful, right?)
Your Diagnosis In The Age Of Information
If you’re reading this post, you’re obviously online in some capacity so it’s safe to say that there is one major pitfall you won’t be able to avoid, no matter how much you try. It’s natural to want as much information as possible, particularly when you’re faced with a potentially deadly medical condition. Luckily (and unluckily) for you, the internet is full of it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to gather information, especially because it will help you to ask better questions when you’re discussing things with your oncologist. Just know that there’s a fine line between educating yourself and scaring the living shit out of yourself. Take what you read with a grain of salt, apply what you need as minimally as possible, and ignore the rest.
It’s a good idea to bring someone with you to your appointments. You remain in a state of shock for quite a while, even if you aren’t completely aware of it, and when you’re receiving so much information from your doctor, it’s a lot to absorb. You’ll miss things. You’ll forget the things you wanted to ask. A spouse, relative or friend can take notes during your discussions, and they’ll likely think of other questions that you might not have considered.
It won’t be an easy road. The very best advice I can give you is this: do not worry about the extent of things until you know exactly what you’re dealing with. While that could potentially take some time, remember that time is going to pass at the exact same speed, regardless of whether you’re freaking out or taking it in stride. No amount of worrying now is going to change the diagnosis because it will be whatever it already is. Stay calm, stay strong. You never know what you’re capable of handling until you look back after the fact and wonder, “How did I make it through all that?”
I don’t know. You just do.