Owning My Cancer
I wonder whether it is possible to sell my cancer experience on craigslist. You can sell all manner of things for which you have no further use there. I am weary of this disease’s effects on my life. This past week I have sobbed in public bathrooms at four campuses and a hospital because of the painfulness of the process of urination. Cancer did not cause that pain. Treatment of cancer did not either. Prevention of recurrence did.
I keep forgetting that I have undergone this “care” because my surgeon did not remove the lymph nodes that connected my diseased reproductive organs to my bloodstream. What was that all about? I wish I knew.
I started new classes this week on two campuses. I told some students about my situation. I continue to lose hair every day. I may yet have to wear one of those wigs I bought. My clothes are quite large on me. I roll my suit jacket sleeves up. My pants drag on the floor. I can no longer put anything in my pants’ pockets in case the extra weight drags the fabric right over my hips. Now that this has become a possibility, I find myself studying the belts worn by, and the gaits of, those teen boys who wear their jeans below the hip bone so as to reveal their boxers. They remind me of traditional, Asian women with bound feet. They are constrained for fashion. I need to buy a few new outfits before this looks like an unfortunate fashion statement.
As I informed one of my classes about my diagnosis and current status, I said, “You may be wondering why it looks like I’ve been shopping for clothes at the Men’s Big ‘n Tall Shop, but I was diagnosed with cancer, have had surgery, chemo and radiation and, as a result, have lost weight.” They laughed at this characterization of my wardrobe and at the idea of me wearing a blonde wig with a long lock in front a la Nicki Minaj. I, too, am sometimes amused by my situation. I wish I could laugh even more, but there is pain also.
This week I met with a friend who has not seen me in months. She told me that I was a warrior. I do not feel much like a warrior most days. I am often afraid. I cry. I call friends and family and beg for a pep talk. These acts of weakness are not comfortable for me. I much prefer to help others through tough situations. I listen. I try hard to conceptualize what I hear. I brainstorm. I support. I guess that is not warrior’s work either. I am thinking about that cliche that states that if all the problems of the world hung on a tree and we could choose problems we would select those we now face.
Would I choose cancer? Would I buy it off of craigslist? I will never know. I checked and the site does not have a board for the sale of cancer.
I will own that I have had cancer because it chose me and not because I have noble reasons for claiming it. I also will own that I have chosen to take aggressive steps to prevent its recurrence. I will own the consequences of this prevention, too. I will not wish this on anyone else. If that makes me a warrior, so be it. I guess all warriors have times when they go forward in spite of fear. They do not always enlist for battle either. Sometimes the battle comes to them.
I will not pretend that this warrior handles these burdens gracefully or fearlessly. I will not have others who read this blog think that my strength made this challenge manageable. Every day is tough now. My good fortune in recovering swiftly from surgery remains a great source of comfort, but everything else since has brought me to the most painful stage in my life. I am reminded every day of my own weakness. I will own my weakness, too. That way no one will be confused about the nature of cancer.
The enemy is impossible to assess. I hope I have had all of the cancer removed from me in surgery. I agreed to a hysterectomy. I thought that meant the entire set of reproductive organs. One of my doctors said he would fix my hernia. Another doctor took his place and did not repair the hernia, all of which means that the cancer may still be inside me. My hernia, or, possibly, something else, hid the lymph nodes from the surgeon. Moreover, the cancer grew in me for years and so can recur even if no cell of the original cancer remains. I can take preventive precautions, but no one knows the nature of cancer well enough to say who will be its victim and who will avoid it. Cancer invades by many organs and systems. Its victims cannot predict well its point of entry. In some cases, its incursion will be slow. Mine was a low grade of cancer. I had time to catch it that I may not have if it recurs in another part of my body. It advances in stages. My stage was, I hope, early. That means it may not have spread. However, we can only guess at the stage. I have no reassurance of my cancer’s exact staging due to the failure to remove and test my lymph nodes.
My point is that my cancer will fight this battle as though it owns me. It will be difficult or impossible to predict how it will do battle or contain it even when its next point of entry can be predicted. If I spend every moment on prevention, my cancer will still act as if it owns me. It will have every advantage that its unassessed nature affords it.
What then, will I do as I battle this cancer? I haven’t the slightest idea. All I can think of to do now is own up to having had it.
I am not going to hide so that I will not again be discriminated against. That’s a battle like dealing with cancer itself, isn’t it? If I had not told DePaul College of Law that I had cancer, then my supervisor would not have “reassigned my students” on the theory that people with cancer always suffer setbacks that let down those who rely upon them. How can I be at once protected from discrimination and wise to hide what makes me different? Could I have hidden my thinning hair or my weight loss? If I hide from those who would discriminate, then I am not a warrior.
To demand the full measure of my right to be free from discrimination I must be able to be who I am. The blind cannot hide their disability. Neither can anyone else with a detectable disability. Racial minorities cannot hide their race. Isn’t it the point of anti-discrimination law that those who discriminate find those they victimize and strike at them? Some ethnic minorities have tried to hide their heritage in times when they were victims of discrimination. They have changed their names. Others have denied their own true natures to conceal themselves from discrimination. (Don’t ask, don’t tell.) That does not make them free from discrimination. The act of hiding who you are is evidence of suffering from the effects of discrimination.
I will be pretty busy. I must fight my cancer itself even though I already feel battered by it and treatment already received. I need to have a plan to battle cancer’s return, a plan that will have to address the fact that the medical community that serves me is focused on fighting one aspect of cancer but does little to help me fight it on every front. I need to protect myself from discrimination on the basis of cancer and remedy discrimination already suffered even though it will not always be detectable.
As my doctors like to tell me when I beg for relief from more suffering, what’s the alternative? To let cancer win?
This is beginning to sound like the script from a bad movie. Any minute now the battle will start and the special effects team will engineer a scene that will save us all from the over blown drama of what went before. The good guys will win and the bad guys will lose. Only I don’t have a special effects team. Just a cause. Just a long battle to fight. No movie. If it isn’t something you want to watch, this might be a good time to get popcorn.