Cancer at any age is isolating. Cancer at the age of 27 feels doubly so. Even though my husband, my family, and my friends know about what I’m going through, they still have the luxury of objectivity. They understand the fear and uncertainty I face on a daily basis and they see the pain of my treatments, but they don’t live it themselves. It’s not something that I blame them for; it’s simply that I don’t know anyone my age who has gone through what I’m going through.
I’ve had a lot of time to process what’s happening to me. I write about it, I think about it when I lie awake at night, I talk about it with my husband and my family and my friends and my doctors. Often I worry that I’m being narcissistic, which with me is never that far from the truth. I’ve watched friends pull away from me since my diagnosis, and I can’t help but feel that it’s due to “cancer fatigue.” Cancer has taken over such a huge proportion of my headspace, so it’s hard not to talk about it constantly, but I understand that the drama can be a lot to take sometimes. I get bored with it, too, believe me. In any event, I can imagine it’s difficult to know how to react when someone says, “I have cancer.”
When I first tell people I have cancer, usually one of two things happens: the other person goes all rah-rah Live Strong Race for the Cure cheerleader (“you’re gonna beat this!”), or the other person valiantly struggles to mask their horror and the urge to blurt out “you’re gonna die!” Both reactions are perfectly natural and understandable; in the first days after my diagnosis I swung back and forth between the two extremes myself. But obviously, neither of these two reactions is particularly realistic, and neither is ideal. In a perversely paradoxical way, I’d hear the Live Strong cheerleader and think, “fuck you, I could die;” I’d hear the Debbie Downer and think, “fuck you, I might not die.” (Clearly, in the beginning of this ordeal, I would feel angry toward healthy people. To be completely honest, I still do, sometimes.)
Once I started my treatments, one thing I heard a lot was, “You’re an inspiration.” This is an incredibly kind thing to say, and something I never expected another person to say about me, the solid-C student, the lax dog-owner, the indifferent housekeeper, the screw-up who somehow managed to get a life-threatening disease at 27 years old. It is humbling to hear that others are inspired by my illness, and I invite more people to be inspired by me: I make an awesome breakfast sandwich, and I’m not kidding, my dog’s capacity for misbehavior is truly impressive.
But in all seriousness, being called “inspiring” is also a bit discomfiting. It’s a lot to live up to, and on my best days, I feel pretty much the same as before, minus one boob and about 20 years of life expectancy. On my worst days, well, there’s nothing inspiring going on. Just lots of crying.
It’s also hard to know what to say when people ask, “How are you?” It’s an innocuous question, one we all ask each other on a daily basis with the best of intentions, but once I found out I had cancer, it was tough to tell whether people were asking me how my day was going, or if they were asking euphemistically about the cancer. I’d usually just say I was doing fine, and if the other person wanted to hear more, I figured they’d ask. Some people would ask how my treatments were going or how I was feeling, and I appreciated the specificity. I know that no one wants to hear a litany of my medical complaints in response to a simple, “How are you?”
Another thing I get a lot is, “My mother/grandmother/sister/wife died of breast cancer.” This is something I had to learn to inure myself to early on. As a society, we tend to hear a lot about people who die of cancer, and not much about the millions of people who are diagnosed with cancer, give up a year or more of their lives slogging through the grueling treatments, and come out on the other side. As a newly diagnosed cancer patient, it’s hard enough to be optimistic. Though I’m genuinely saddened to hear about others who have fought cancer and lost—my own grandmother died of breast cancer, so I really do know how it feels—I don’t want or need any further prompting to consider my own odds. That’s an uncertainty I live with every day.
(This is perhaps a good opening for a favorite rant of mine: the pervasiveness of a terminal cancer diagnosis as the salient plot point for movies and TV shows. Breaking Bad, The Big C, Biutiful, Love and Other Drugs, Funny People, Battlestar Galactica, and so on. It’s a great way to frame the story in a definitive period of time, it adds urgency, but it’s also a little cheap, too, right? At a Race for the Cure event this summer, I heard about a woman who had advanced breast cancer back in the 50s. She underwent treatment more than 50 years ago, which must have been fairly primitive by today’s standards, but she’s still alive and has never had a recurrence. I want to see a movie about her.)
Luckily for me, I have some extraordinary coworkers who had the absolute perfect response to my diagnosis: they started a blog and took turns posting funny pictures and YouTube videos they thought might cheer me up. I was grateful for the gesture, and also a little sheepish to discover that a) the nuances of my personality fell into a few main categories, and b) those categories are: fancy shoes, pictures of baby animals, and movie quotes. And that this was so clear to others.
In fact, there are many people in my life who have been totally awesome in their reactions to my diagnosis. I have so much appreciation for the people who have been able to simply say, “That sucks!” and then let me talk about the cancer situation as much or as little as I want at that moment. Some days, having cancer is the only thing I can think and talk about. Other days, I’d like to forget I have cancer entirely.
Which brings me to the next best response I’ve encountered: treating me like everything is more or less normal, with the tacit acknowledgement that there is nonetheless one big exception to my normalcy. This probably sounds like a fine line to walk, and it is. My sister is one person who is great at this, and perhaps that’s because she is a nurse. She and I never really talk about my cancer, but when we do, she is accepting and matter-of-fact and imperturbable, and I really appreciate that. My manager at work is also really cool about this, and it makes performance reviews much less stressful.
It’s also comforting to be around people who can joke about the cancer. I realize that this is another fine line that is entirely dependent on my lead, and for that reason I try to be conscious of how I talk about the cancer myself. Hopefully I put others at ease about it. I have one friend who likes to joke about my cancer “acting up” as an excuse to get a day off from work or bow out of some onerous engagement. Maybe you have to be there, but it’s really funny. A lot of my friends also like to joke about my new, larger, boobs. Before my first reconstruction surgery, one of my friends asked, “so…is this going to be like a haircut, where we’re supposed to comment on it?” My husband will sometimes joke that once I have my fantastic new rack, I’ll leave him for someone with more money or better looks. (At least, I think he is joking.)
What I’d really love, though, is for someone to come over to my house a couple days after I have a surgery or a hormone shot and watch TV with me. Actually, I would like that most days, regardless of the cancer.
As fate would have it, a few weeks after my mastectomy, a coworker of mine was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly I had a kind of “cancer buddy.” It was weirdly nice to have someone around who could relate to what I was going through. At the same time, it turned out that her cancer was at a much more advanced stage than mine, and I found myself straddling the line between “concerned objective onlooker” and “comrade in arms.” I struggled with what I should say to her, what tips I should give, and how I could cheer her up without being the Live Strong cheerleader. The experience of having cancer is not the same for everyone, or anyone, really. What little advice or cheer I can give is tempered by the fact that I have been incredibly lucky; as cancer goes, the unpleasantness I’ve had to face has been minimal. Moreover, the truth is that cancer, at any stage, at any age, sucks. Nothing anyone says is going to mitigate that in a significant way, though it’s also true that having funny, understanding, patient friends and family is a comfort and a blessing when times are tough.
Though I guess that goes without saying, whether cancer is involved or not.
Illustration by Rebecca Elves