The C Word: My Cancer Diagnosis

Finding Out You Have Cancer is Devastating

They called me at eleven. From 8-10:30 I gave an exam to my seventh-graders. Not a single one of them was still working on the essay portion after 10, though I tried to encourage them to do so. Instead they doodled, stared at each other, picked their noses with pencils, teased me with questions they knew the answers to, raised their hands only to say “nevermind” when I got there and wrote overly optimistic A+s all over their tests.

After collecting all the tests and saying goodbyes I decided to grab lunch before starting my grading stack. I went to Whole Foods for sushi. I got a Greek salad for Carol. I talked to Noah on the phone and ignored a call from the doctor. I decided to wait until I was back in my office to return it. After all, I couldn’t get bad news at work. No one would call to tell you you have cancer while you’re at work. I listened to the message from Dr. K: “I’d like to discuss the result of your biopsy with you when you get the chance. Please call back when you get this. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye!” All very upbeat. A friend calling to say hello. To say, geez Mary, chill, will ya? I told you there was nothing to worry about. You can breathe now.

I call back. They’re out to lunch. I call my mom and get her machine. “Hey Mom. Well, the doctor called. I don’t know anything yet though cause I missed it and they’re at lunch, but I thought I’d call and ask you to pray with me before I call again cause I’m a little nervous. Anyway, keep me in your prayers. Love you.”

I check my email. I call back again. This time I get Dr. K: “Yes, well Mary, I wanted to talk to you because we got the results back from the biopsy and they tested your nodules and they are both cancerous.”

A bomb explodes. Shrapnel punctures my heart. My lungs. My eyes. My bowels reel from chemical poisoning. They wriggle like worms in the rain. Every part of me is trying to leave. Abort! Abort! This body is contaminated! This vessel is leaking! It’s inside the house! RUN!

Nothing can prepare you for that first thought. All the whatifs and maybes and couldbes and ifthens are just simulations. You enter the battlefield alone. And it doesn’t matter how hard you trained, there was already a sniper waiting. No matter how long you studied, you can’t change your grade. You can’t try harder or do it again or get back on a horse, because those words cannot be erased: I. Have. Cancer.

I’m not sure what the normal stages of grief are for the discovery of an incurable disease. I’m sure they are bulleted and numbered on various websites. My first feeling was of despair. Of having been completely and utterly defeated by the game of life. When your opponent says “I win,” you don’t keep playing. It’s over. There’s no second place. You just stop and admit defeat graciously.

I certainly was not gracious about this defeat. I burst into tears. (Judge me if you must.) I listened to Dr. K’s concerned voice ask me if I was alone, if I had someone there, but it seemed to come from far away. I controlled myself enough to make an appointment for 3 o’clock and hang up the phone.

Then I wept. I indulged in the almost instinctual "why me?" thoughts. I called Carol and wept in her arms. I called my mom and asked her to come pick me up and wept. I called Noah and asked him to meet me and wept. And then I stopped weeping, because, thankfully, even the saddest souls do not have the capacity to cry forever.

Then I made a series of bad jokes. I inherited a knack for puns-that-make-people-groan from my dad. These are great in uncomfortable situations, like when you have to tell someone you have cancer: “God sure does have a terrible idea of a punch line.” “Yeah, you'd think I'd at least get a free one of those ribbon bumper stickers out of this deal, but they want me to pay for one.” “Boy this sure is the crap-can of cancers. Where is my marathon? Where are my free t-shirts and support groups?” “I figure God owes me now, so I'm investing in lottery tickets.” “Well, I’d say things can’t get any worse, but I don’t want to give anyone any ideas.”

And these were just on the way to the doctors. Now initially, Dr. K’s accent and my deafness led me to believe that I had medullary thyroid carcinoma, a cancer with a much lower survival rate than papillary thyroid carcinoma, which is what I actually have. This and a few other matters, like what “survival rate” actually means, were cleared up for me in that first appointment. We left Dr. K’s office feeling so optimistic that we went out to IHOP. Also we were hungry. I quipped all through dinner, threatening to cut people out of my will and telling Noah he’d have to let me pick the movies from then on.

I have never seen so clearly a divide in my personality. The easy sarcasm and goofiness felt like (was?) a fa├žade. Because, after cancer, the part of me that continued to put on a good face, does so out of habit. But I am lost every time they leave. Alone, I am insecure, faithless, angry, “the wretch, concentred all in self” and being such a self, my greatest enemy.

This body is not mine. This smile is not mine. I am waiting to leave the rabbit hole.

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