Four months ago today, a doctor looked me in the eye and told me I had cancer. Truthfully, he was looking down at the open file folder on his desk when he said it, but he caught my stunned eyes by the end of the sentence. He didn’t seem nervous or sad, nor was he patronizing. To my ears, he said it gently and without apology. He then talked for what felt like 15 minutes about the details of papillary thyroid cancer, the surgery process, the potential complications, and the recovery. When he eventually took a breath, I only had one big question: would I still sing? Behind that one: would I still teach? Thus began the avalanche of questions.
Cancer is not like the flu or a stomach bug. It is not even like malaria or hepatitis. With the former, you get sick and then you get better. So few people die of the flu nowadays that it rarely crosses people’s mind as a possibility. The latter are a bit scarier – a significant number of people in the world die of malaria and hepatitis, and having them in your medical history means that few (if any) hospitals will ever want your blood, but both are treatable. Cancer is different. Cancer has club status.
“I have cancer.” It took a couple weeks to be able to say that out loud. The words felt funny – as though, once connected, they somehow weighed more than other words. Their sum is more than the parts. And was that really my voice speaking them? Stranger still was the reaction that I observed in others when when sharing this discovery. “But it doesn’t define you.” More than one supportive soul wanted to be sure that I knew this. Each said it firmly and with empathetic conviction, and though I always agreed in the moment, my mind drew a question mark. What could they possibly mean? How does changing the landscape of my life not define me?
I am reminded of when rosy hearts blithely proclaim that “age is just a number.” There is a grain of truth hidden there. Some youths have insight well beyond their years and some grey heads are as blind in their age as in their youth. It is a comfortable adage when age is the thing that we specifically want to ignore, but age is not “just” a number. Married at 18 is NOT the same as married at 28 which is not the same as married at 38. A twenty year gap between spouses is not the same as a two year gap. Childbirth at 40 is not the same as childbirth at 20. Even if by some miracle all other qualities are perfectly level – youths are wise, souls are kindred, and bodies are healthy – there certain consequences of age that can never be leveled.
There are consequences of cancer that cannot be leveled with those of other illnesses. First, even if you are blessed enough to be rid of it, you are never rid of it. It may hide and it may come back; it may be actually gone, but you will never know for sure. That’s part of it, but not the point. Point is, once a cancer survivor, always a cancer survivor. This is the club to which all patients are automatically admitted the moment their doctor looks them in the eye and says, “So, it’s cancer …” If you blast the disease from your body, and if you survive the process, you are forever one who has lived to tell the tale. You have a story. You have a testimony. A key to the cancer clubhouse.
Second, it changes your body. “But you are more than your body.” I believe that is true, yes; but I live in my body and only in my body. Change this body, change the life within it. Without a thyroid, I will be on hormone replacements until I die. Adjusting to that reality may be easy or it may be hard, but it will never be irrelevant. I will always have a 10 inch scar on my neck. It will fade, and some may notice it and others may not, but it will always be before me in the mirror. My annual doctor visit will now always include a neck ultrasound, and they will always be looking for cancer.
I am more than my illnesses – past, present, and future – but experiencing cancer has exploded the landscape of my life. The view is different from this side of diagnosis, surgery, treatment and recovery. I am still learning the lay. And in the meantime, I’ve done a lot of crochet.