This past week I learned one of my author friends was diagnosed with cancer. Brandon’s young enough to be my son –if I had him during my freshman year in college. Determined to be a survivor, he’s facing this challenge head on, and has decided to be open with his family, friends and fans. His number one rule–everything is funny. One of his friends expressed a concern that his attitude was too positive and perhaps he was in denial and not appreciating the gravity of the situation. While his friend meant well, most of us agreed Brandon’s positive attitude is a powerful weapon against the disease.
This got me to thinking about how each of us deals differently with life’s challenges – and how I faced my first cancer diagnoses – and even my second – compared to how Brandon is handling his.
I was just 23-years old when my doctor removed what he believed was a polyp from my olfactory nerve – only to discover it was a malignant tumor. It was an extremely rare type of cancer, and even the treatment was based more on second guessing, since there wasn’t significant data on treatment methods for the doctor to go by. The few cases he found had been treated with radiation. My cancer was so rare, that my doctor and my case made it into a medical journal.
So how did I handle my diagnoses? When I think about it now – strangely. Unlike Brandon, I really was in denial. Since I am still here, 36 years later, I guess that denial thing worked out for me.
But, it really wasn’t denial – not exactly. I was unemotional, and in some ways it was an out of body experience, as if I was watching someone else go through the ordeal. I didn’t ask the doctor a lot of questions. I didn’t ask if I might die. I only heard what he said about the cancer patients who had survived.
Unlike Brandon, I didn’t tell anyone – at least not immediately. While I know I eventually told my family, I can’t recall any of those conversations.
I do remember the red dots they put on my face that I had to leave there throughout my six weeks of radiation. They were used to line up the machine. I remember the drive from our home in Pomona to Covina California, for the radiation treatments. I also remember how incredibly nice the people in the oncology unit were – and how it freaked me out. It was as if they thought I was about to die or something.
I only recall crying once. It was toward the end of my radiation treatments. They warned me I would lose some hair from the radiation, but that hadn’t happened yet and I was feeling quite cocky. My parents were visiting, and by that time they knew about the cancer diagnosis. It was summertime, and I decided to put my hair in pigtails.
I remember standing in the bathroom, parting my hair, and looking in the mirror to see if the part was straight. There in the middle of my part, was a big ol’ bald circle. I started to cry. My dad, who always wanted to make the world right for his little girl, went out and bought us a color television. (Don and I had only been married a couple of years, and only had a black and white TV.)
Whatever trauma or emotional crisis I experienced back then is buried deep in my psyche. For me, it is a complete and total disconnect – so much so that I feel like a fraud claiming to be a cancer survivor.
People often say cancer changes them – makes them see life differently. Even for me, who remembers the experience as a detached and isolated episode, I came away with my own epiphany: I wanted children. Oh, I always planned to have children with my husband – but after the cancer, I really needed to have them. They were in some way, a means to my immortality. So perhaps, deep down inside, a part of me did wonder if I was going to die back then.
Oh there was one more thing –I knew we would always, always have medical insurance. Even if we were poor, we would sacrifice to pay for it. At the time of my first cancer, we were covered by Don’s work insurance. Financially, cancer did not cripple us.
I mentioned a second cancer – yes, that was a few years back. Thyroid cancer. I suspect the radiation from my first cancer was the cause of my thyroid cancer. It’s nothing my doctor ever suggested, just a speculation on my part.
And how did I handle that diagnosis? Once again, I never considered dying. At least not on a conscious level. I just remembered hearing how thyroid cancer was the best cancer to get, if you had to get cancer. I do recall my doctor saying how sorry he was that I had the cancer – which freaked me out in the same way as the super nice people in the oncology unit. But, I just pushed aside all that super niceness that seemed to shine a light on how serious cancer can be, because frankly, I didn’t want to look at that stuff. I had other things to look at. Like living my life.
So to Brandon I say… I don’t advocate internalizing like I did, yet I do believe focusing on living and on the treatment successes is a powerful force. I’d also stick with your rule number one. Go with the laughter.
Photo: That’s me and our son, less than two years after I completed radiation treatment.