If you ever find yourself with cancer just know that as difficult as it is to tell people you have cancer, you will learn to love to watch the way people respond when you first tell them the news. After all, how does one respond to someone who just told you they have cancer? As I start to tell people, I play this game inside my head, it’s a little like a game of cancer bingo. What will the response be… I can hardly stand the anticipation. Occasionally, there is an awkward moment of void and sadness that can only be filled with hugs, tears, laughter and the much attempted, chocolate. Usually there is encouragement, support and offers to help. Sometimes people offer to pray for you (more on that in a later blog). Frequently, you find yourself in the middle of a “my sister’s, friend’s, cousins, aunt who once had cancer” story. (I then run a separate game in my head as I wait to see if the story ends with… and she died. You would be amazed how many people feel the need to share their cancer story that ends in death.) Finally, there are genuine questions and curiosity. How did I find out? Had I suspected? What’s the treatment like? Am I going to lose my hair? Does chemotherapy hurt? Ultimately, it comes down to, what is it like to have cancer?
It’s a legitimate question. If I’m being honest, I had never really thought about it before this happened and so rudely interrupted my busy life. Cancer was always a dreaded idea floating somewhere far off in the distance like an apparition. The cancer ghost, I knew it was probably real but I’d never seen it and I chose not to devote too much energy into examining its existence. I have so many other things to stress about, worrying about getting cancer just never quite made the priority list. Other than some horrific things I’ve seen in movies, I really had no idea what it was like to have cancer. Sure I’ve known someone who had cancer, everyone has, but I’ve never been in a position to really ask someone, what’s it like?
If you ever find yourself with cancer accept the fact immediately that there is no right way to do it. I’ve always felt like secrets and silence were a cancer in-and-of themselves and I refused to let secrecy compound an already shitty situation. After telling my family, a couple of close friends, and my work, I decided to come out of the cancer closet publicly on social media. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. The outpouring of love and support was incredible, the endorphins alone from having so many people respond might have killed the cancer. On top of feeling incredibly loved, coming out of the cancer closet, made it an okay subject for everyone to discuss. It was suddenly okay for my kids to ask questions and to go to any adult in their life and say, “My mom has cancer, I’m scared, and I’m having a bad day.”
Everyone knew, all my friends even one’s I hadn’t talked to in twenty years all of a sudden called or sent messages. I had distant family that I had rarely or never spoken to contacting me and it was fantastic. Where have these people been all my life? All my colleagues at work, even the ones I’d typically just smile at because I don’t really know their names, were coming out of nowhere to give me hugs. Coming out about cancer made it okay to talk about it in a normal tones, not hushed secretive voices where you whisper while looking over your shoulder and hope the person you’re whispering about doesn’t overhear. It made it okay for me to cry when I needed to… and I did, randomly and without notice. (Once while heating up my noodles in the lunch room because a colleague walked in and smiled.) It made it okay to laugh and crack inappropriate jokes about bald heads, chemical diarrhea, and vomiting uncontrollably. The point is, it made it okay to be public about all the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with cancer.
Cancer happens randomly and can happen to anyone at any time. While everyone’s experience with cancer is unique and highly individual, there are two commonalities that are guaranteed. One, it’s a guaranteed that no matter when in life the diagnosis comes, it will be an inconvenient time. There is just never a good time in anyone’s life for cancer to invite itself for a visit in your body. It’s an unwelcome, self-centered, and disgusting house guest that leaves its dishes in the sink and wet towel on the floor. Which brings me to the second guarantee, having cancer absolutely sucks. It just sucks, no getting around that. But, you do get to choose what to make of the experience.
I decided to use this experience to connect with the world in a way I never have before. I wanted to share what I was going through with everyone I knew because in my mind, the more support, and general good juju I can surround myself with, the better. As taxing as fighting cancer is physically, it’s also a huge mental game and I really don’t want to play it alone. Sometimes it’s the simplest things a hug, a card, or text message that reminds me that I am not alone in what can be a very isolating experience.
I have a warped and wonderful sense of humor, and I choose to handle the harsh daily realities of cancer with sarcasm and inappropriate (but funny) jokes. I told a friend early on that I’d rather laugh about it than cry. I am very aware and have recently been gratefully reminded of how many people are available to help or provide a hug, a shoulder to cry on, or blissful distraction when I need them. Cancer doesn’t give you many choices. It moves in when it feels like it and you lose total control of your life, your body, your hair, everything. I accepted early on that there is very little I can control, I’m getting on this roller coaster whether I want to or not, and it’s departing NOW. What I can control is what I make of the experience. I chose to talk about the humorous and delightfully strange things people don’t hear about or see in this movies, because I can.
So, if you’re curious what it’s like to find yourself with cancer, keep reading. Rather than simply documenting my detour on the cancer coaster, I’d like to share a slightly more universal perspective about what to expect when you’re not expecting cancer.