The last year has been pretty productive for me. Professionally, I think I’m going the right direction. I wrote my first solo article, which was offered a spot in a law review. But that’s not really the first thing that comes to my mind.
At various points through the day, I find myself chuckling. Well, it’s not really a chuckle. It’s a short laugh that exits through my nose in one staccato burst. “I had two cancers last year,” I say to my husband. If I don’t continue, he’ll reply “And then two trees fell on our house.” It’s like a call and response.
Saying these things perhaps brings me closer to “dealing” with them. Or maybe I have dealt with them but not accepted them. Or maybe I’ve accepted them but it doesn’t quite click. I know what’s going on. Life happens. Unfortunate things are a part of that.
Earlier today, I remarked to my husband about how my hair is so poofy. Everyday, it’s just a little longer than the day before. When it was coming out in clumps during chemo, I had him cut it short. I bought wigs. I wore a wig to the AALS hiring conference last year when I was trying for the third year in a row to get an academic job. The first full day, I had my wig situated just a little wrong, and I had a headache by the end of the day. I’m a few months beyond “the shortest my hair has ever been” but I still run my hands through it and marvel at the way it grows out straight and then holds itself up by curling against my scalp. I developed a streak of grey in my hair when my immune system decided to attack the mole on my scalp about ten years ago. My husband said that my grey streak looks super badass at this length.
How did I get through all of this mess? I still wonder. The most important thing to me, though, has been perspective shifting, which I think is subtly different from spotting the “silver lining.” When the doctors told me I had a rare T-cell disorder, one of my first thoughts was “Cool, my data might benefit researchers.” When I had a painful gout flare on my first day of chemo, I shifted my perspective temporally. I said to my husband “Remember that time when I had a gout flare the same day I started chemo and you had to push me around the clinic in a wheelchair? That sucked but we got through it.” When I heard the crash and saw the tree that had just destroyed my deck, I immediately called our insurance company to start a claim. And then I shifted my perspective, because “New roof and new deck, 2019” will look really good on a listing once we sell. That didn’t fix the damage or remove the 50+ year old Douglas Fir, but I was taking it one step at a time, planning for those steps to eventually lead to closure.
Overall, my philosophy has been “This too shall pass.” It might pass like a kidney stone, but it’ll pass. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that I have a very obvious, textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Well, except for the part in the DSM-V or whatever they’re on now that requires comparison to mental states before the trauma. I had no before, because cystograms were part of my life before I was even forming accessible memories. So I have PTSD brought on by repeated medical trauma in childhood, and it made me surprisingly good in a crisis.
Last year, I was diagnosed with primary cutaneous anaplastic large cell lymphoma. I had a swollen lymph node in addition to some spots on my back. Because I’m a kidney patient already, my doctors wanted to have the lowest impact imaging possible, so I got a PET scan that also identified a tumor in my thyroid. Then there was the needle biopsy, which was unpleasant, because when someone tells you not to swallow because they’re sticking a needle right next to your trachea, you suddenly realize how many times you swallow without thinking about it. The swollen lymph node matched with the ALCL that they found on my back, and the extra glowing bits in the PET scan were just standard, common thyroid cancer. And I still felt about as lucky as someone can be and still have two cancers.
First step was surgery. I told my husband “Until I have surgery, I’m only dealing with one cancer. After surgery, I’m only dealing with one cancer.” Alas, it was not quite to be. The thyroid surgery went okay, except one of the tumors was stuck to my trachea, so the surgeon had to very carefully scrape it off. So I had chemotherapy for the ALCL and then took a radioactive iodine pill to take care of any leftover cells.
And now I’m dissociating. This is why I think that I haven’t fully dealt with my situation. Because when I start to devote specific time and energy to thinking about it, writing about it, I get woozy, my body temperature goes up, and my head starts buzzing more than it was before. So I’ll take that as a biological sign to stop writing for now and leave further reflection on cancer for later.