Cancer and The Christmas Lie

December 14, 2020
Laura Yeager
Laura Yeager

As well as being a cancer blogger, Laura Yeager is a religious essayist and a mental health blogger. A graduate of The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa, she teaches writing at Kent State University and Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Laura survived cancer twice.

This holiday I have unfortunate news that may turn out to be nothing, but sometimes it's better to keep our loved ones in the dark till we know more.

Jan, my best friend from childhood, moved down South forty years ago and never returned to our fair state of Ohio. She’s been living in Tampa, Florida for thirty odd years and every Christmas I send a gift down to her with her father, who drives to Florida to spend the holiday with her.

He’s now 85, so it was questionable whether he was going to make the drive this year. Around Thanksgiving, I phoned him and told him that I was going to bring her Christmas gift over so that he could pack it in his car with the other presents he was taking down.

Great news! He was going to do the 24-hour drive to the sunshine state. At the end of our telephone call, he said, “So now, the cancer, it’s over?”

I’d had breast cancer in 2011 and again in 2016. This was the first time he’d mentioned my life-threatening illnesses to me. He wasn’t a person to pry. I guess he felt that by this time he could be fairly sure that my cancer woes were gone.

I paused. “Yes,” I said. “It’s all gone. No trace of cancer.”

“Well, that’s fantastic.”

“You have a nice Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas,” I said.

“Yes, and you, too. I’m so glad you’re well.”

We hung up. Sadness washed over me.

I was lying to him, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth and face what I had to face. I didn’t want him to feel sorry for me. And I didn’t want my Jan to think I wasn’t anything but 100% healthy. She was the picture of health at 57, still participating in triathlons and had never gained the “middle age” fifty extra pounds as I had.

About a month ago, I’d been having pain in the left area of my chest. I went to the emergency room and was checked out for pulmonary embolisms, among other things. They did a CT scan. The scan revealed that I was clear of embolisms in my lungs. I was relieved. Pulmonary embolisms were treated with blood thinners, and that made clotting difficult if you cut yourself. I was glad that I didn’t have to deal with bleeding all over the place.

“But” the ER doctor said.

Oh, God, what now? I thought.

“The radiologist noticed a spot on your right lung.”

“A spot? What do you mean?”

“Something that might have come from radiation treatments. Were you treated with radiation for either of your breast cancers on the right side?”

“Yes, for my first cancer.”

“The radiologist wants you to follow this. He said to get another CT scan in six months.”

That’s all the info I could get out of the ER doc.

So, the next day, I called my radiologist, the one who oversaw my radiation treatments eight years ago. He looked at my films from the ER CT scan. “Yes, it’s a spot,” he said.

“Is it cancer?”

“Probably not.”

“Might it become cancer?”

“If you were a smoker there would be more of a concern.”

I felt there was a lot he wasn’t telling me. I could sense that he didn’t want to alarm me. But the point was, and there was no denying this, he wanted to do a follow-up CT scan in April. I guessed they wanted to see if “the spot” was growing or changing.

Cancer just keeps haunting me. It was going to be an agonizing six months.

But I was proud of myself and how I’d hid the truth from my friends. I’d acted with prudence and empathy. Why alarm them until I knew something definitive? I had reasoned.

Jan is a dentist, and she throws a huge party every year. Ironically, I send her bags of dark chocolate and a beautiful Christmas bowl, which she sets out for the partygoers. It’s the one time she encourages people to eat sweets. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.

This year, it’s going to be a ZOOM party due to COVID-19, but she assures me that the chocolate will get gobbled up by her staff. She said she’d send me the ZOOM link so that I can drop in. This will be my first ZOOM party. Despite the spot, I have to find a way to keep enjoying myself, to ignore the damn thing. It will be so good to see Jan, even though I’ll be looking at her on a screen.

Life just keeps getting more dangerous. With the possibility of more cancer and this COVID-19 pandemic, we must find ways to forget the possibility of our own disappearance from this earth.

I will be looking forward to April, to another CT scan and hopefully a COVID-19 vaccine.

April can’t come soon enough.

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