Tumors have an incredible—maybe even ironic—sense of humor, timing. At least mine did. I’d had a six-month cough and who-knows-for-how-long lumps in my collarbone area before I finally saw a doctor. It was the same day that I rocked an interview for a new job and the day before I was headed to upstate New York for a month-long writing residency that I was awarded.
I thought I was in the clear when I told the Ear, Nose, & Throat specialist, “No, I haven’t had night sweats or fevers.” I thought that the lost weight, sleep, energy, and appetite were part of a post-lay-off depression. I thought the writing retreat would lift me up.
I cancelled New York and turned down the job. I gave up writing. I did, however, get night sweats and low-grade fevers for the next twenty-two days. And just for fun, I got head-to-toe hives from a newly discovered allergy to amoxicillin the weekend before my surgery.
Well played, tumors.
I was officially diagnosed with Stage 2b Hodgkin’s in April 2010. I was 32, unemployed, uninsured, and poor, having cleaned out my savings just to get diagnosed. The irony? When I first noticed the symptoms, I had insurance and saw a PCP, but she wasn’t too concerned. More irony? I was denied emergency MediCal because my cancer wasn’t bad enough. (That’s a blog post in its own right.) After a financial freak out, I finally received emergency medical coverage, not insurance, through San Diego County. I had to swear that my net worth was zero.
But science is funny, too.
The original game plan was eight infusions of ABVD + high-dose radiation; then it was four infusions + low-dose radiation. Never mind that I was in remission after four. Stopping treatment then was unheard of for my case. In the end, I survived twelve chemo sessions but no radiation, give or take six months. I was hospitalized for pneumonia when I was almost finished, however—my ten-day Thanksgiving staycation at the ritzy Thornton in La Jolla delaying treatments for over a month.
While I make an effort to avoid speaking in hyperbole and sweeping—my god, the sweeping—generalizations, I must admit that hooking up with The Hodge was probably The Worst Day of My Humble Life. (See, I even inserted a “probably” to save myself the trouble of printing out this page and literally eating my own words.)
Forget heartbreaks and drama, discovering horrible secrets, house-shattering arguments with family, bad grades, ugly days, and the Boss from Hell. That April was exactly what T.S. Eliot described in The Wasteland as “the cruelest month,” kicking off a surreal and challenging year.
I think most survivors feel this way, having seen those dark places. Our initiation into this unknown territory feels lonely, even when our caregivers and friends stand by or carry us. I’ve discovered, though, the unparalleled support of fellow survivors and thrivers—a secret society of like-minded mAsskicking individuals who corroborate and collaborate, swap stories and show off scars. Instant bonding is known to happen, commiseration in masses (pun fully intended).
But it’s the “after” that’s difficult, when we need the most support and empathy. We must be patient with ourselves, remembering that healing is not about moving on. It’s about moving.
So I am. Slowly.
I’m writing, driving myself around town, applying for jobs, re-watching The Wire with good friends, brainstorming projects, enjoying food, learning drums on a beat-up kit in the middle of a cramped living room, meeting and conspiring with new people, traveling, reflecting, remembering, sometimes slipping, sometimes crying—out of guilt, relief, astonishment, but mostly a quiet gratitude.
Even in the act of moving, one can and is allowed to stumble.
Yes, the business of having cancer is individualized. Yes, each story is unique. Yes, it IS lonely. But we don’t have to be alone. My story could be your story. Your story is my story. All of these stories intersect and have traversed the same ground. These stories are on a continuum, forging and adding to a narrative much larger than we expected, one with deep histories and global trajectories.
Yes. This…is Our Story.