The idea that someone knows whether or not I have cancer but is keeping it from me is ridiculous, but here it is, actually happening. “Your results are in. The doctor is out until Monday. Only the doctor can relay your results. I’m sorry, ma’am. Have a nice weekend.”
I can’t even bring myself to do a Lifetime movie style screaming rant at the “Have a nice weekend.” Even in a Lifetime movie, it’s hard to believe that someone would write a scene in which Judith Light or Meredith Baxter Birney is told that she won’t find out whether or not she has cancer until Monday, and therefore she should have a nice weekend. The searing rays of frustration, panic, and fury shooting through my brain but not, surprisingly directly out of my eyeballs, which would be appropriate, satisfying, and about as believable as “Have a nice weekend,” turn off for a moment and the ridiculousness of the situation washes over me. It’s almost comforting; that familiar feeling of on-the-verge-of-hysteria laughter comes over me, but it’s different this time.
I spend a lot of time reassuring people and myself that it’s ok, that I’m not going to die no matter what, answering my mother’s tearful plea of “Why you?” with “Well, why not me?,” reassuring my husband that he’s not going to have to live without me as he lies with his head on my chest repeating that he can’t live without me, and believing it, genuinely believing that this is just a bit of bad luck, just like finding a job right out of grad school with excellent health insurance and paid sick time was a bit of good luck, because I’m certainly not the smartest, hardest working, or most needy newly-minted librarian in the greater Boston area. I’ve faced this situation with something approaching aplomb, and yet, regardless of the stiffness of my upper lip, this is more than I can smile and nod at just now.
The fact that whether or not I have cancer is now, finally, known for sure and yet I will not be told until Monday and should therefore have a nice weekend is just over what I can handle. I handled an offhand remark from my oral surgeon that I have a thyroid nodule and I should get it checked out. I went on to handle my doctor telling me I need a biopsy but it’s probably nothing, having to tell my family that I need a biopsy but it’s probably nothing, a biopsy that showed something as opposed to nothing, and a surgery to determine whether or not the something is cancer. If it is, I will need a second surgery and then I will need to be treated with radioactive iodine, both of which I will handle. I will handle having cancer, in fact; I know that I probably do, but I need to know for sure, and I need some help.
“I need you to call my therapist and tell her that my results are in, but the hospital won’t tell me what they are. Please have her call them and tell them that I am crazy. Have her tell them that I have an anxiety disorder and that I will spend the weekend out of my mind if I don’t know. If necessary, have her hint that I might hurt myself. I AM NOT GOING TO HURT MYSELF. But I need to know and I need your help because I can’t spend any more time on the phone right now. I can’t talk to you anymore right now. I’m going to take two Valium and I’m going to lie down. Thank you. I love you.”
I kiss his forehead, turn around, walk into the bathroom, and slam the door as hard as I can. I open the medicine cabinet, take two Valium, close the medicine cabinet, and look at myself in the mirror. I look pretty wild-eyed and pale myself, now that I’m alone. I pull a towel down from its rack, stuff it into my mouth, and scream as hard as I can. The searing rays are back. Between the scream and the rays, my head is now throbbing and I’m dizzy. I feel like I may faint, actually, and I would welcome fainting. I open the medicine cabinet back up and decide to take a third Valium, because I need to pass the fuck out soon. At the last moment, I sort of come to my senses and bite the pill in half so I’m only taking two and a half Valium. My doctor advised me to never take more than two, but I figure it’s a special occasion and my anxiety is high enough that the extra half will target it and not the part of me that might normally be hurt by extra Valium. I’m still present enough to know that doesn’t really make sense and that’s not how drugs work, but not for long. I open the door of the bathroom to hear my husband shakily repeating “Ok, thank you, doctor. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“She’s not a doctor, she’s a clinical social worker!” I unhelpfully holler down the hallway, as if it matters. I get into bed and blissfully drop my head onto the pillow. I can already feel the two and a half Valium dimming everything, turning down the searing rays to a nice manageable glow, unfurling my clenched muscles, highlighting how tense and rigid I usually keep my body and brain these days. I can actually feel my brow smooth out and my teeth come apart, relaxing my jaw that has apparently been clamped shut for possibly several days, judging from the ache spreading over my face. I want more blankets, even though there are four piled over me now. I want to be weighted down by something physical. I fall asleep.
It’s the day before my second surgery. I go to a yoga class to try and relax and center myself and all that other nonsense that I generally avoid. I need to take deep breaths, though, and I am never very good at doing so, so I’m going to force myself to calm the fuck down. It’s confirmed that I have cancer and that I will spend the next several months getting various treatments and then I won’t have cancer anymore. I’m 32 years old, which is young to have thyroid cancer, but apparently this works in my favor, too. This is comforting, actually, but no one will join me in being comforted.
My mother calls every day; every other day I take her call and reassure her that yes, I know she wishes that this was happening to her instead of me and yes, I know that she would trade places with me if she could. I’m not sure why she thinks I would find this reassuring; like most people, I am more afraid of my mother getting cancer than I am of actually having cancer.
This has been especially hard on her because not only has she had to endure the my-kid-has-cancer-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do racket, the psychic powers on which she claims to have relied throughout her life have failed her as well. During the aforementioned Herculean process just to get a diagnosis, my mother remained calm and smiling because her “sources,” as I think of them, had assured her that I “do not have cancer and have never had cancer.” My mother’s sources comprise her own unique brand of spirituality; from what I understand, they include various spirits and angels, along with a hodge-podge of hunches, signs from the universe, symbolic coincidences, and a psychic advisor named Carol with whom she has consulted for many years. This was her mantra, always spoken in the exact same way–“Do not have cancer and have never had cancer”–as if there was a possibility that I HAD had cancer at some point but it had righted itself. Luckily, the fact that the cancer that was indeed present was also very treatable and, eventually, entirely removed from my body provided a loophole for the sources; to this day, whenever my mom passes along some advice for me from the sources, I remind her that the sources were wrong about my cancer, and she happily responds, “Yes, but, you don’t have cancer anymore, do you?”
This negates the “have never had” section of the sources’ diagnosis, but I don’t bring that up, and besides, she’s right; I don’t have cancer anymore.
All teasing and sarcasm aside, I do understand the urge to seek help and guidance from something more powerful than bumbling, fallible human beings when faced with hardship. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have sought a little other-worldly help had my diagnosis been, say, fatal, but within this situation, anything that might be classified as prayer felt entirely unnatural. Right before my first operation, a woman who appeared to have stepped directly off the cover of a Putumayo CD of acoustic lullabies for little humans, all linen, kale, and fresh air, stopped by my surgical bed to ask my mother and I if we wanted to join her in a pre-surgery prayer. “Hahahahaha…” I answered rudely, as I was not expecting this at all and was really craving a nice pre-surgery cocktail more than anything else. My mother stepped in to claim her place as the Head Prayer Warrior at my sickbed, informing Putumayo that I sometimes allow her to pray for me (this was news to me; she had never asked) and that maybe we could all pray together. We all joined hands and Mom and Putumayo had a nice little chat with God/sources/the universe while I gritted my teeth and silently asked God/sources/the universe to prove their existence once and for all and interrupt this prayer circle with a nice, heaping dose of general anesthesia.
I shake my head to try and clear out these thoughts, because the past is the past and all I can really control is myself and the way I react to not just the cancer, but other people’s reactions to the cancer. I don’t know how I would fail and have failed to comfort my own loved ones in their times of need; I probably failed my grandmother, for example, who died after a life-long battle with lymphoma when I was sixteen years old, in ways I can’t even imagine. All I can do is care for myself, and this yoga class seems like a good way to do so, and it doesn’t involve any “sources.” Deep breaths. Deep, cleansing, peaceful breaths.
“All right, we’re going to go into our first inversion now. Inversions are particularly good for the thyroid, which is the seat of youth and beauty.”
My deep, cleansing, peaceful breaths come shrieking out in what I have come to call my “I have cancer, but it’s ok, it’s not that kind of cancer” laugh. I take what is left of my seat of youth and beauty and leave the studio so we can spend our last night together before I lose it forever.
I’ve never been a joiner. The idea of belonging to a team, a tribe, a clique, or a club does not appeal to me. Some people have anxiety dreams involving nudity or public speaking; mine involve suddenly having to re-experience the dread and horror of discovering that I have to participate in the bullshit exercise of a “group project,” and furthermore, we will all be graded equally as a team. One side effect of cancer that to me was only slightly worse than the nausea, decreased life expectancy, and so on was the fact that I had been inducted into a sort of society against my wishes. When I told my friend who had recently gone into remission after a long, shitty bout with Ewing’s sarcoma that I did indeed have The Cancer, she quoted Gilda Radner at me: “Well, welcome to the elite club that nobody wants to join!” As someone who would really rather not join ANY sort of club, this was especially galling. I understood the comfort and camaraderie that comes from joining with other people who have been or are going through the same challenge, but I didn’t feel it myself. It felt like just one more damn thing I had to do, one more occasion to which I had to rise.
Coping with cancer didn’t feel like a group project to me, and I felt the same mild irritation and palpable lack of connection when someone meaningfully told me that they, too, were a cancer “survivor” that I felt when someone told me that they, too, were half-Jewish or from New Hampshire. One particularly cranky adolescent summer, I read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which introduced me to the concept of a “granfalloon,” which is defined as a “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.” Vonnegut gives “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and any nation, any time, anywhere” as examples. This was a comfort and a triumph for me to read as a 14-year-old, as it gave me proof that at least one other person had been as down on groups and group projects as I was. The word “granfalloon” echoed through my head again and again throughout my bout with cancer.
I didn’t want to join this club and get lumped into a group simply because there were other people that had what I had. I wanted to get cancer over with and carry on.
What I didn’t realize is that cancer should, in fact, be a group project. My refusal to acknowledge that even if my cancer wasn’t going to kill me, it was going to be in charge for a little while, did more harm than good. My second surgery required an overnight hospital stay. My husband slept beside my hospital bed on a little cot. In the middle of the night, I swam up from the sea of sedatives and got out of bed to pee. On my way back to bed, I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I was staying overnight in a hospital because I had just had surgery because I had cancer.
There was no sarcastic laughter, no reassuring myself that it was okay, that I wasn’t going to die, that it wasn’t that kind of cancer, as I had rushed to tell everyone with whom I had come into contact within the last year. I was confused and scared and sad. I made my way over to the cot and tried to crawl in next to my husband, despite the fact that there was barely enough room for him in there. “Hi!” I called breezily. “I’m getting in bed with you!” “Hi! What? No! You can’t get in here. There’s not enough room and it’s not safe. You need to get back into your own bed, come on.” I burst into tears, feeling utterly rejected and forlorn. “No! You can make room! You only want me with you when it’s safe!” He hugged me and tucked me back into my hospital bed and held my hand until I fell back to sleep. He was right, of course, but so was I. By the end of that year, we had separated and two years later we got divorced.
My having cancer was pretty bad, but there was no way that it was the worst thing that was going to happen in the course of a lifetime. The inappropriateness of me trying to join him in on a cot covered in tubes aside, he really did only want to be with me when it was safe, and safety is never guaranteed, hence the reason “poorer,” “bad times,” and “sickness” are included in traditional marital vows. If we couldn’t get through my non-fatal cancer damaged and tired but stronger and closer, as opposed to just damaged and tired, we couldn’t get through the rest of our lives together.
My mother and I, of course, have never sworn to spend the rest of our lives together, but it’s something we continue to do, regardless of our disagreement about which sources to trust and which sources to ignore. Every time I tell her how sad and guilty I am that I had to break my marriage vows, she stares me down and informs me in no uncertain terms that I did the right thing, despite the fact that she loved my ex-husband very much, and that I am stronger, smarter, and better for doing so. It’s exactly what I need to hear; calm, factual, down-to-earth reassurance that this is bad, but it’s not the worst.
She got a little mad at me after I let her read this; she didn’t love the way I portrayed her, but she was proud of me for writing it and thanked me for showing it to her anyway.
She’s a pretty good source.