Two men sitting at a bar, one looking very angry and the other looking confused

What It's Like to Have a Slow-Growing Cancer

Recently, a writer friend posted to social media, asking for help with an article. She has a chronic illness, one that can go years without giving her any trouble. She wanted people to share their experiences of what it was like to live with a chronic illness that doesn’t always bother them, and what it feels like when it does finally act up.

I immediately thought of my own cancer, follicular lymphoma.

Follicular lymphoma: A chronic disease?

It’s such a strange disease. For some of us, follicular lymphoma grows aggressively. For many of us, it grows very slowly. For others, it grows slowly, speeds up, and then grows slowly again. Lots of us are in more than one of those groups over our years as patients.

But since follicular lymphoma is considered incurable, it can often be considered a chronic disease: a condition that will be there all the time, and maybe, like with my writer friend, laying low for a while.

Of course, as many follicular lymphoma patients will tell you, that state is a mixed bag. We might feel OK physically, but mentally, there’s always the worry about if /when it will come back.

How it feels to have a slow growing cancer

As I thought about my friend’s request, an old story came back to me. It’s one I told years ago when someone asked what it was like to have a slow-growing cancer like follicular lymphoma.

I picture myself in a bar. I take a seat at the far end of the bar, away from the door. I’m alone, enjoying myself, maybe watching a game on TV and drinking a beer.

And then I notice, at the other end of the bar, a man. He’s looking at me. Staring, really. And sneering. I don’t know him. I’ve never met him before. I’ve never done anything to him. I’m just minding my own business, watching a game and drinking a beer.

But it’s clear that he has a beef with me. I’ve been in enough bars in my life to know that, when someone is staring at you like that, there is going to be trouble. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or when, but it’s not going to be good.

I can’t leave. I’m at the far end of the bar, and he’s sitting at the other end, right by the door. I can’t get out without going through him.

I can try to call some friends. They’re nearby. But I’m not sure they’re going to get to me in time to help.

I’m stuck in my barstool. I just want to drink my beer and watch the game. I didn’t ask for trouble. But I’m not sure I can avoid it.

To me, that’s what it feels like to have a slow-growing cancer.

It gets better

The good news is, that feeling gets better with time. Maybe that menacing man drinks himself silly and he’s not much of a threat. Maybe my friends do show up in time to help me.

Over time -- months and years -- I get used to just sitting on the stool, keeping an eye on that guy, and learning to just enjoy myself. There are worse places to be than sitting where I am.

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