When I was growing up, the word cancer was a taboo word, spoken in hushed tones, with funereal hangings draped around it. It was a dirty word, as dirty as any four letter words you might be discouraged from using in polite company. More often it was called the “Big C” rather than by its full name which carried the burden of death on its back.
These days the taboo doesn’t feel quite as strong. I’m sure the television ads for competing cancer centers can take some credit for that. We see images of people who look healthy and grateful for the center they have chosen. See, cancer isn’t such a big deal after all! Or maybe that’s what they’d like for us to believe. It can be controlled! Treated! Managed! You can live!
These many months after my diagnosis it still feels surreal to think that I have the Big C. It certainly wasn’t part of my life plan – I know it’s not in anyone’s life plan – but while my family has had diseases that I worried about getting, the fear of cancer wasn’t part of any sleepless nights. Upon receiving the diagnosis I was shocked, and that hasn’t really disappeared, because I began this whole nightmare as a healthy person, suffering no ill effects from the disease. It’s the treatment that has given me all of the side effects and weakening of my body, mind and spirit. Funny how that works. It’s been so tempting at each stage of decision-making to say, nope, I don’t want that. I’ve read the product literature for all of those drugs you plan to infuse through a port that’s going to be shoved into my chest, and I’d rather take my chances that this cancer thing just goes away all by itself. Just give it a little time. Let me talk some sense into those cells. I feel fine, I look fine, I’m probably the finest I have felt in years…
But, it is the Big C, something can’t be taken lightly, and Ms. Rational Brain calmly explains to the other, more wishful side of my brain, that if I ignore this, things won’t just go away. Instead, they will spread and reach a point where, yes, the effects of the Big C will be felt after all.
Fine, I suffered through the 18 weeks and 6 treatments of chemotherapy and I’m beginning to feel more normal again. Just ask Joe, I’m snarkier than ever, with my attitude sharpened by the bitter blade of this experience. On the more positive side, I now have peach fuzz growing all over my head. I didn’t realize what a tactile pleasure it would be to rub my palm over the peach fuzz. Kind of like petting a newborn kitten. Just ask me and I’ll let you experience that sensation too. I’m not selfish. It just feels nice. My color is better thanks to the improving hemoglobin counts. My energy is returning, but I’ve always had such an abundant supply of it that I think it just tucked itself away to wait out the chemo poisons and emerge when the coast was clear, to drive me to be productive and make up for time lost in the chemo fog. Hmmm, I wonder if that’s not the best thing while my body still has a long way to heal? And I can’t help but wonder if that compulsive energy and inability to just enjoy life contributed to my disease. Sorry, I’m getting all Zen on you now, and that’s not the point of this post.
On to the next decision I had to make, one of the hardest decisions of my life. I fell into the gray area where the surgeon said I could have a lumpectomy, also known as breast conserving surgery, or go for the whole enchilada, the full mastectomy. And while I was at it, not to leave any option unturned, I considered doing the old double mastectomy too. I spoke to friends and friends of friends with experience, and did a lot of research into this question. I even considered just hopping off this crazy train, since I was feeling more energetic and getting back my hair and soon will look completely normal. Let’s just ignore this Big C, why don’t we? Ms. Rational Brain jumped in again to remind me that it’s an illusion, and cancer needs to be stomped out until there’s nothing left to stomp it with, and there’s a good reason for the old taboo. And so I decided to go for the whole enchilada on both breasts because even scarier than cancer is the prospect of going through chemotherapy, the tests, the endless doctor appointments, and the accompanying stress all over again. No thanks. Not if I have anything to say about it. If cancer didn’t take me quickly this time, I have no interest in the slow death of self through another series of cancer treatments.
But, that’s not all folks! Hey, there’s still another opportunity to ponder the recommended course of treatment. Oh, yes, there’s another treat in store for me after surgery and that would be radiation. I mean, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? Highly recommended because my cancer decided to expand its domain to my lymph node too, greedy little tenant that it is. And the rate of recurrence is higher once the Big C has decided to spread to the neighboring lymph system. Therefore, I’ll take a serving of radiation too, please and thank you doctors. You see, although I know very well that we have little control over this disease that comes with so many unanswered questions, I’m still going to take all of the treatments I’ve been offered that present the slightest illusion of control.
The Big C, scary if left untreated, awful to be treated. As you can see, there’s a good reason for the taboo. Don’t say it, try not to think about it, because you really don’t want to invite the Big C into your life. Take my word on that.