Surviving Cancer Can Be A Shock Too

I’ve never written about this before because, frankly, I didn’t know how to approach it to make sure no one who reads it gets upset. Ha, ha, I know, right? What a way to start a post! “Hey, guess what, this will probably make just about everyone who reads it feel feels they’d rather not.” Well, I guess I can kiss my career as a salesman goodbye, but in all seriousness it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about much and I believe it’s high time to put pen to paper. “What topic is so controversial?” I hear you ask. Well, I wanna talk about the fact that not surviving cancer can be almost as off putting as, well, surviving it.

"Am I going to die?"

As I said, I worried for a long time that anyone terminal who is reading this would immediately take to Twitter with a #cancelDaniel campaign. If you have cancer and are terminal, please know I am not delegitimizing your experience, feelings, or pain at all, I just want to talk about the feelings, experiences, and pain of those of us who thought we might be terminal but then came out the other side. Those two states of emotional being aren’t mutually exclusive, I promise. The thing is, when you are first diagnosed with cancer you assume the worst, and doctors aren’t much good at convincing you otherwise. Mostly everyone experiences that initial, “am I going to die?” phase, so when people finally start saying the “r” word, (remission) it can take some serious mental gymnastics to adjust.

Now, look, I am not saying that anyone terminal, given the chance, wouldn’t bowl over old ladies and small children to get the chance to go into remission. Of course, anyone would reach for any alternative to a death sentence, but surviving has its own challenges. Especially since you have to fight so hard from beginning to end. It’s almost as if you don’t have time to stop and relax and consider what happens if things do turn out for the better. You mostly spend every second trying to make it to the second after that. The future is just a nebulous ghost hanging out off in the distance, like seeing the top of a stadium and hearing the music before you get to the actual concert. You can’t afford to spare mental energy to contemplate the “what if’s,” as you puke your guts out and your mouth aches from all the sores contained within because that mouthwash does absolutely nothing.

Realizing things might go my way

I remember when I finally realized that things looked like they were going to go my way. It was after that second PET scan, when I saw the look on my doctor’s face. He’s a young guy and we both got divorced while I was going through chemo (not from each other but coincidentally for the exact same reason), so it bonded us – which is why I knew as soon as I came in the room that it was good news. The tumor had shrunk, responded to the chemo, and was metabolically dormant. I remember him saying that’s about as close to perfect as you can get. You’d think I would have gotten up and danced the floss right then and there, but I just said, “Thanks. And see you in three months.” Then I went to the car park and gave them my ticket and still, nothing. Then I drove home and stopped for a slice of mediocre pizza, and even then, I wasn’t sure how I felt. I had a bit of a knot in my stomach but it turned out to be from the cardboard-and-ketchup pizza I ate at the one-off gas station with the stray dog roaming about. In retrospect, I should have known better.

As I thought about the “remission thing” all that night, I realized, partially at least, why it was jarring. When you have cancer, everything becomes extremely clear. You have one goal and one goal only – survive. Live. Make it. Do whatever you have to do – lie, cheat, steal, claw, yell, throw rocks – anything to survive the onslaught that you are facing. It’s awful but it’s also extremely freeing. There’s no worrying about what gossip your friends are peddling, there’s no worrying about what your boss thinks of your latest report, and there’s no worrying about what your girlfriend’s parents think about the fact that you’re a writer. (All of those are totally made up. I swear!) All of that stuff means absolutely jack shit when facing the life-threatening battle of epic proportions that is blood cancer. So, when you get that all-clear sign and you realize that your life is going to continue, it’s almost like you aren’t exactly sure what to do when facing the return of complex emotional existence.

Cancer changes you

I know, I know, you are screaming at the monitor right now, “you are gonna live, how can that not be all there is??” And that’s certainly true, but still - I can have two dissenting thoughts in my head at once that can both be true! For God's sake, I’m not a politician! Sure, I was happy the horror was coming to an end, but now I have to face imminent divorce, living at home, all the “cancer survivor” bs, and of course, the financial hostage situation that was medical billing for chemo. All of it came back in a flood and I realized, finally, the simple times were over. It was an abrupt change, like going from a one-lane dirt road to an eight-lane highway with a cloverleaf. It took me a while to wrap my head around it.

People think that once you get the “you’re good” from your oncologist, things just up and go back to normal, but that’s not how it works. Living through cancer changes you and after that, it’s as if people think your first name was legally changed to “cancer survivor.” At least, that’s what follows your introduction for the REST of your life. All of that takes time to mentally digest and that process doesn’t get the respect it deserves. See, I told you this would probably upset almost everyone but then again, I’ve never shied away from talking about anything and I wasn’t going to start now. Talk soon.

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