Cancer Exposes You - Like It Or Not

Embarrassment. Humiliation. Exposure. Fears that many of us human beings dread more than almost all others. Being embarrassed in front of a crowd is a universal terror shared by so many that the “was in class naked with no homework” dream has become a cultural icon. We don’t like having our lives laid bare for all to see, even though most of us know, on some level, that all people have similar foibles and no one is perfect. Despite that, we would almost always choose not to be exposed when asked. The problem is that when you have cancer that choice is taken away and there almost always comes a point where your existence is laid bare for others to see.

When you are diagnosed with lymphoma or really, any other kind of cancer, one of the things you find out very quickly is that it is near-impossible to keep others from knowing. Put aside the fact that no one should go through cancer alone, the physical effects of cancer and chemo are so outwardly evident that even your great-aunt Mildred who has cataracts and is hard of hearing can tell that something is wrong. There is no way around it, and even the most expensive wig and makeup done by a professional isn’t going to hide the intangible weakness that comes with the big C.

I didn't recognize myself

How do I know? Because I tried. I thought I was doing it too – I thought I was so slick. I dressed the same, I talked the same, I even brushed it off to people as no big deal. “Chemo, ffs! It’s nothing!” I would say with abandon, and I really believed I was pulling it off. Then came that fateful day when the illusion came crashing down. I’ll never forget it – I needed a picture of myself for something, and so I set up my iPhone to take a picture with a 10-second timer. I sat on the end of the couch and waited for the click-click-click-snap. When it was done, I grabbed my phone, eager to see how awesome I looked in my “Hugh Hefner meets Rodin’s Thinker pose™.” I thumbed to the newly-minted photo and got the shock of my life.

They have a few sayings in the entertainment industry about cameras. “The camera adds 10 lbs.” “The camera doesn’t lie.” “The camera is an unforgiving bastard that sucks the life out of you and poops on your ego’s head.” Yeah. (That last one’s a paraphrase.) Well, those sayings are all... devastatingly true. When I looked at the picture I had taken of myself, I barely recognized the person in them. My brain knew it was me, but my mind said, “Oh no, no, no, no, no, that’s not a well human.” This was when reality came out of the phone and literally smacked me across the face. I looked like I had cancer, which was pretty handy, because I, in fact, did have cancer.

Cancer is the ultimate humiliator

My face was gaunt, my beard was translucent, my eyes were less bright than usual, and my aura was nowhere near the colorful, vibrant, tapestry I was famous for. I have a special lens that lets you see a person’s aura. (Not really, obviously.) What made it worse was that I had inadvertently (and deliberately) been presenting myself to people as if I was fine – as if I wasn’t being affected by the lymphoma and chemo at all, and bizarrely, it seems like the people just went along with the charade without a word to the contrary. I was embarrassed for everyone.

That was when I began to realize that cancer is the ultimate humiliator. It exposes you to the world at your worst, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Dignity and modesty take a back seat to science on display and any thoughts you might have had about decorum are an illusion – an illusion that people seem happy to participate in, mind you. So, I decided then and there that I would not subject myself or my family and friends to the deception any longer. I was going to be the person who had cancer, because I did.

There are going to be humiliating moments

Now, it’s not all bad, really. If cancer teaches you anything it is how to live your life without giving a real crap about what other people think. I mean, many of us chemo patients had to wear masks in public and that was back in the days before COVID when it was the modern-day scarlet letter. You want to see how it feels to be a pariah, wear a mask in the produce aisle of a grocery store circa 2017 and start squeezing all the melons. You’d think I was double-dipping chips at a White House state dinner. That was my life for a year-and-a-half and it really put the final nail in the coffin of modesty I had called my life previous to that point, and I’ve never felt more free.

Lymphoma. Chemo. Cancer. These are things that you aren’t going to be able to hide, period. You are going to have humiliating moments and you’re going to look a mess in front of others, there’s no way around it. So, instead of wasting energy fighting it, I’m telling you to embrace it. Not only will it help you alleviate some of that anxiety you are feeling, but it will carry through to the other parts of your life and suddenly, you’ll care less about what other people think. I can’t imagine a better side-effect of cancer. Talk soon.

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