When you have cancer, it becomes the thing that defines you – to the point where everything else that makes you “you” just fades into the background, unnoticed … forgotten.
- When people ask me, “How are you?” they are no longer offering a meaningless greeting; now, they are asking me how my cancer self is doing. I tell my friends and family all the time, “I hate this question” … so they replace it with, “How are you feeling?” – which is essentially the same thing.
- Despite being in a day and age when everyone is rushing from one place to the next, glued to their phones and oblivious to their surroundings, complete strangers go out of their way to exchange some moment with me. They make a point to give me eye contact and a smile. Sometimes, there is sympathy on their face, or pity. Sometimes, there is kindness. Sometimes they follow this up with an encouraging statement: “You go, girl!” or “Looking good!” or “Keep fighting that fight!” Bald men, in particular, like to stop me in the grocery store, on the streets, at conferences, and in doctors’ offices with some compliment like, “Great hairstyle choice!” I know their intentions are good, and most of the time i appreciate their sentiments. Hell, sometimes i feed off their words, and it gives me a little extra boost that day. … but I also know that most of these people wouldn’t call out these statements to me normally; they’re saying these things to me because i have cancer.
- New people i meet just have to tell me about all the people they know/knew with cancer. “So what do you do?” has officially been replaced by, “You know, my ______ was diagnosed with _________ cancer….”
- One last change I’ve noticed has been on the road. So… my bumper stickers tend to piss a lot of people off. I know this. I love this – clearly, since I have been loading up my vehicles with bumper stickers since 2001. For 15 years, i have dealt with people speeding up to get right beside me in the next lane, finding some way to get my attention (e.g. honking, vigorously waving), waiting for my eye contact, and then making some rude gesture to show their disagreement with something expressed on my car (e.g. giving me the middle finger, shaking their head with a disgusted look on their face, yelling something like “baby killer,” or throwing some small item in my direction and then speeding off). And you know what? I don’t think that has happened one time since i got cancer. Here’s what *does* happen: I see people pulling up closer to read my stickers, changing lanes, speeding up to line up next to me … and then nothing. This has probably happened half a dozen times in the last two months. It’s like there’s some invisible line that these people don’t want to cross: “It’s okay to insult and throw shit at a liberal … but not a liberal with cancer.”
So, yeah, i get it. I’m the girl with cancer. It’s going to be what most defines me for a while. I can’t change it, so I accept it … and when i find myself getting grumpy about it, i just remind myself that i don’t have the power to change this right now, so get over it.
Last night, i had a moment where i was HONORED to be “the girl with cancer.”
It was 6:20 pm. Carissa, Clayton, and i had just driven over an hour to get to San Tan Flats. Christie planned this social gathering because she’s been out on FMLA for 5-6 weeks now, and she hasn’t been able to see her ADJC peeps much. When we got to our reserved outdoor table area, there was a flurry of greetings, introductions between friends and family, compliments about outfits, instructions about how to order food and drinks, and reminders about the gift cards included with the invitations. In the midst of all this, i feel a tap on my lower arm. I look down at an adorable little girl with huge brown eyes, a pixie hair cut, heart earrings, and a pink T-shirt announcing her status as a “princess.”
“Are you done with chemo?”
Something fluttered near my heart as i processed this little girl’s question. I smiled – not that automatic smile you give for pictures or initial greetings, but the kind of smile that lets the other person know you see them, you understand them, you are grateful for them.
“Yes, actually, i am done with chemo. How did you know that?”
“I went through chemo.”
I’m already trying not to cry. “You did? How long did you have to go?”
“For six months … 32 sessions.”
“That’s a lot of sessions! That must have been really hard.”
She nods, solemnly. “But I haven’t had any more chemo for a year now.”
“How do you feel?”
“Better.” She smiles. My heart is breaking.
I ask her if i can hug her, and she lets me. We take a picture together, and then i walk over to her family – a mom, dad, and two brothers all watching the entire exchange. Her mom tells me that Mia came home from school one day complaining about a headache – a headache that was the result of a cancerous tumor in her brain (medulloblastoma). Brain surgery … physical therapy … six months of chemo – all before she even turned eight years old. I look at this incredible little girl and feel humbled just standing next to her. I’m strong? I’m a fighter? No. THIS GIRL is the strong one. I’m an adult; i have the resources and coping skills in place to address adversity. This girl had to fight for her life at seven years old.
I later found out that Mia recognized my cancer self the moment i walked through the door. “Mom, look! I think she’s like me!” When she said she wanted to come over and talk to me, her mother said no, but her dad intervened. “Let her go.” This tiny, adorable mini-human had the observational skills to notice details about a complete stranger; the ability to differentiate between different types of bald people; the awareness that my bald head was from chemo; the additional awareness that i looked healthy enough to be post-chemo; and the drive to reach out and make a connection with someone who went through the cancer journey, like she did.
Forget mere acceptance. Tonight, i was grateful to be “the girl with cancer.”