Cancer Is Not Who I Am
Why one woman will not let the disease define who she is.
BY Nora Mackin Lally
PUBLISHED July 21, 2017
You would think that I’d know the exact date of the last time I received a chemotherapy treatment, but honestly, I don’t remember.
I’m sure the day was marked on my 2010 calendar, but that calendar, like so many other reminders of that year, is long gone. The things I did keep — the hats my sister sent me, the wigs my parents helped me pick out — are shoved into the dustiest corner of my closet where I am sure to not accidentally run into them in my early morning scramble to get dressed.
It’s not that I forget that in 2009 I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which was removed (along with anything else that wasn’t nailed down inside me) in early 2010, with 18 weekly chemotherapy treatments following. It’s more like I just don’t think about it. Cancer is a place I visited once, and just never care to go to again. Like the panhandle of Texas. But I still have my journal from that time, with entries like this:
Questions from the Greek chorus of patients with cancer puncture the silence of the waiting room: What stage are you? What’s your protocol? These patients like nothing more than to talk about being patients with cancer. I understand that for them, turning cancer into benign small talk is comforting, soothing and helpful. To me, it feels like I’m going through rush week at the sorority of ovarian cancer, and I’ve never been much for sororities.
My response to their questions is brief and vague: ‘I’m stage 3; my drug protocol is Taxol, maybe, or Avastin. I’m fine, thanks.’ A testament to my Irish-Catholic upbringing, I’d rather have my eyes poked out with IV needles than discuss private details about my real problems.
It’s not just Celtic privacy that keeps me from engaging in chemo-chat. For me, cancer is something to get through and beyond. I am a good patient who does what my genius doctor and heaven-sent oncology nurses tell me, but I don’t want to talk about it.
Cancer is a thug that caused me a year’s worth of inexplicable pain and scary visits to various doctors, none of who could figure out what was wrong. Because of cancer, my daughter will always be an only child. She will never know the joys or tortures of having one sibling, let alone the eight that I have. She will never have one sister, as I do, who is as close and vital as her own skin. No, cancer and I are not on speaking terms.
And there is no way I am ever going to call myself a cancer survivor. I refuse to define myself in relation to cancer. Give me “youngest child” or “Clevelander at heart” or “unable to return library books on time” any day. Cancer is a bully, and I have been taught to ignore bullies, not to label myself as having escaped their cruelties.
Years post treatment, my feelings are the same. My nowbiannual checkups go smoothly, with me answering the questions from the intern du jour who comes into the check-up room with clipboard in hand and nerves on his or her face, with my “yes” and “no” responses in all the right places. My screens come back with phrases like “grossly unremarkable.”
If I were a liar, I’d tell you that after cancer, my perspective on life was so changed that I now never worry about the small stuff and I enjoy every moment of every day. But life after cancer is still life, with its moments of joy and banality. Just because I had cancer, it doesn’t mean I need to enjoy cleaning bathrooms or going to staff meetings.
The only main side effect of all of this seems to have fallen on my daughter. She was only 3 at the time, but remembers enough that when we are listening to the radio in the car and a commercial with the word “cancer” comes on, she says, “Uh, Mommy, can you turn it down?” When that happens, for both of us, I change the radio station and drive forward, without looking back.