Three little words that are no less terrifying the second time around.
The first time I heard that dreaded phrase, I was 14 years old. I had taken up a juggling hobby (make that obsession) and had been practicing for many hours a day. My right shoulder had started to ache, so we all assumed it was from overuse. I tried to back off a little, but the ache continued. One evening, I was juggling clubs at The Juggling Club and I threw a high double and caught it in my right hand. I heard a snap and felt excruciating pain shoot down my arm. I dropped the club I had just caught, and the ones in the air clattered to the ground. The room full of jugglers turned to look. I gritted my teeth, smiled and said, "Oops! Ha ha, I'm just … gonna go get a drink of water," and I rushed out of the room. Once in the hallway, I collapsed against the wall and tried to figure out what had happened. I could barely move my arm and it hurt, oh how it hurt.
It was already late, so I told my mom I was too tired to go the emergency room, let's wait until morning. It's probably nothing, may as well get a good night's sleep first. A couple of ibuprofen should dull the pain.
The ER doc thought it was most likely some sort of muscle strain, and that the noise I heard was the joint popping. "Let's take an X-ray, just to be safe."
His face when he returned with the films . . . the look on his face told me it was not good.
"It's not what we expected."
He put the X-ray up on the board and we saw that a large tumor was filling the head of my humerus. The weight of a single juggling club had caused this weakened bone to snap.
I had heard my bone break.
My mom's face.
The doctor's face.
I picked up a magazine and pretended to read.
My best friend's dad was the pediatric oncologist available that morning. Now that I'm a mom, I can't imagine having to tell my kid's best friend this terrible news, to look at the parents that I know so well and say that heartbreaking diagnosis. Osteosarcoma. Chemotherapy. Surgery.
"But I'm in a play. I can't have cancer."
"We will do a biopsy to confirm. If it shows cancer, we will put in the portacath while she is still under anesthesia. We will need to start treatment right away."
As we drove to the biopsy that cold October morning, I looked out the window and thought to myself, "Thus begins the winter of my life."
When the first wisps of consciousness lifted me out of anesthesia, I immediately felt for a port along my ribs. It was there. So it was confirmed.
You have cancer.
And now, over 20 years later, I am back in Cancerland. This time it is stage 4 lung cancer. So much is the same, and so much has changed.
The first time I heard those words I was terrified of needles. I was terrified of the hospital. I was terrified of losing my hair. I didn't think about dying, all my fears were focused on the really really really difficult chemo regime it involved.
The second time I heard those words, I was terrified of dying. I was terrified of missing my children growing up. I was terrified that they would never know their mom. I was terrified of not holding my end of the bargain with my husband, we were supposed to grow old together, raise our children together, build our lives together. How could I skip out on all that?
"I can't have cancer. I have three small children."
I made it through then, I can make it through now. Of course, now there isn't a "through." Now there just is. Just this, just now, just treatment and side effects, hoping I don't run out of options. Hoping the meds can keep one step ahead of the disease. Hoping that science keeps pace with my cancer. Hoping all the promising research pans out in time for me to use it.
Now I need to stick around for the next big thing.
Tori Tomalia is many things: a mom, a wife, a theatre artist, a mediocre cook, a Buffy fan, a stinky cheese aficionado. She is also, unfortunately, a repeat visitor to Cancerland. Stay tuned for her continued adventures.