As always, I’m going to put my disclaimer here. My cancer isn’t your cancer. My experience isn’t yours, or hers, or theirs, and this isn’t definitive or about anyone but me. I’m speaking for Kate only, here. I have full, total respect for every person’s approach to their difficult shit, cancer or otherwise, and respect for people dealing with it secondhand however they have to, which might actually be harder.
So this is about me. Me, alone.
I’m just not that adversarial about it.
Cancer came on pretty quietly in my case. It wasn’t a TV-movie, camera-ready kind of cancer and now that it’s all more or less over I wonder if my experience “counts,” in much the same way I used to second guess my abuse, like if TV movie things didn’t happen, then maybe the experience wasn’t real, somehow.
But I think that’s a fallacy, a dangerous one.
Look, I had that lump for years. Thyroid cancer is wicked slow growing and I’d wondered and dithered, and finally my doc said “you know, normally I wouldn’t be so worried, but you play hockey. And if someone who plays hockey tells me something is wrong, then maybe they’re dying or something.”
She was Russian, and both of her sons play hockey in Russia. She knew a lot of the Massachusetts players, including Orr.
I got a couple of scans. A lump or two showed up as being the wrong size, the wrong temperature. It was probably nothing. Everyone said it. And then I got a biopsy, which showed up as “well, maybe. Sort of. Maybe not. But probably.”
Which is more or less what my doctor told me over the phone, and added that to be safe, best to have the thyroid out. “Or maybe just half,” she said.
I’m not saying there wasn’t anger. There was definitely anger. The day I got the phone call I was at work and I went back into the employee lounge and shut the door and took every cheap paperback off the bookshelf in there, and hurled it as hard as I could into the opposite wall.
Under the anger, though?
Mostly stark terror.
And I guess that’s part of what I don’t like about it, it’s sort of this sense of snarling and yapping into the wind, “FUCK YOU CANCER,” like it’s somehow going to suddenly roll over in a ball and piss itself and be all “oh, shit, my bad, never mind, sorry,” and disappear. If somehow we just puff up and make Big Cat and convince it we’re scary enough, like it’s some big TV bully in an alley.
But it’s not. Really. It’s a thing, not a person, and like it or not it was part of me, probably for a long time.
The anger was fear, in my case. I didn’t want the surgery. I didn’t want the diagnosis. I didn’t want to die.
It wasn’t anything valiant. Or ferocious.
In fact, I didn’t feel valiant or ferocious at any point in the process. It was a shitty, painful, terrifying thing and the first time I felt even remotely strong or okay or human again was when Ron did the only right thing and red-jerseyed me and let me get on the ice again, with a stern admonition to the others to give me a wide berth and to me, to not have my head fall off, please, while I was out there.
I think I still had a couple dozen staples in my neck at that point. I looked like some crazy kid’s movie, Hockey Frankenstein.
I guess too that… said to me, about cancer, “fuck cancer!” feels almost dismissive.
“So I was seeing this guy and he broke up with me,”
“Fuck that guy,” you say. And then we change the subject. Because after that, after that conclusive judgment as an answer, what else is there to say?
And maybe there’s something to that. “Forget it and move on.” “Don’t let it affect you.” “I’ve always hated that asshole.”
But there’s… there’s this whole other complicated experience there.
Yes, it sucked. Yes, it’s bad.
But I need and want to acknowledge that the whole process is a complicated one, start to finish, where I didn’t know that I had cancer until after the surgery, when the cold slice was sent to the clinic and it turned out that three tumors on that side were in fact cancer, papillary carcinoma. And… that’s another thing. Every cancer is so very different. Different stories. Different processes. Different ramifications.
My cancer was a couple of scans, a biopsy, a really shitty surgery that went three times as long as it should have, and then I was offered and refused radiation because no one could really give me a straight up reason why radiation was a good idea except “that’s what we always do,” which wasn’t good enough and frankly radiation scared me about as much as the cancer did.
And I didn’t know going in if I had cancer for sure, and what do you say, to people, exactly? “Please support me because I might sort of probably could might have cancer, I’ll know for sure after it’s all over?” Yeah. No. That happens in no movie or TV show ever. And so I basically told no one and except for my wife and a coworker wound up feeling really isolated and alone.
Fuck… well, which cancer, exactly? Whose?
After the fact, I wrestle with fear every time I go in for the obligatory scans. I’m down to one a year.
It’s terrifying, still. I hate the process, I hate the way it makes me feel. I hate how out of control the possibility of finding cancer again makes me feel, and who knows, maybe “fuck cancer” helps that, expresses that hate and fear but in my case, it just sounds like more panicked, strident yapping.
Because if it’s there the cancer, it’s part of me. It’s my cells, it came from me. And at some point, I have to both accept and reconcile that. That it’s a thing to be watchful for, it’s a thing to make rational, good decisions about, it’s a thing to embrace now as part of my past and something that’s shaped me.
In profoundly good ways, as well as bad ways.
I’ve become stronger.
I’ve learned to start talking sooner, rather than wait for TV sensibilities, TV, moments.
I’ve learned to draw people out to talk about it, not to shut them down with platitudes. But to ask… hey. What was your experience? How did it change you? How are you feeling now?
I have a vivid scar across my throat. I don’t cover it. Half the time I love it, half the time I forget about it.
I’ll carry that.
And so it’s pointless to hate it.