The Cancer Card

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you get a cancer card. It’s sort of like a credit card, except instead of money the currency is a combination of sympathy, offers to help, kind words, the opportunity to take time for yourself, free meals, and being the center of attention. The more serious your diagnosis is, the more credit you get on your cancer card.

My pre-op appointment was yesterday to discuss my second surgery with the doctors. The surgeon confirmed that my particular flavor of malignancy is stage zero … which, on the one hand is exponentially better than hearing any other number after the word stage in a discussion about cancer. On the other hand, what is zero? It’s null. Absence. Nothing. Stage Zero cancer feels like a Thing That Is Not A Thing. Not malignant so much as mischievous, with the potential to get up to no good at some point.

If it’s stage zero, it also feels like there’s not much credit on the cancer card. It reminds me of our first credit card when we moved to Scotland. When you move internationally, your credit rating does not move with you. If you’re moving short-term, it’s not a big deal — you can still use your credit cards based in your home country if you need them. But if you’ve moved long-term, you need to start building credit. We couldn’t even get cell phone contracts in the U.K. because they require a credit check — and we had no credit. Finally we qualified for a credit card: It was a card they offer to people who have trashed their credit in the past. It had a monthly limit of £150, and a sky-high interest rate. We used it to get two tanks of fuel each month to be sure we were using it and yet not overspending it.

My stage-zero cancer card has about as much credit as that card with a £150 limit. Again, I don’t bemoan this — I feel certain that my friends and loved ones who have heard words such as “inoperable tumor” and “stage four” and “maybe six more months” would happily take my pitiful little cancer card and trade places with me in a millisecond. This is one time when not having much credit is a really good thing. I only highlight the contradictory emotional response elicited from the words cancer and stage zero.

What’s next for my mischievous cells? The medical team agreed that they need to come out. And they agreed that the process of taking them out would create some aesthetic challenges with two differently sized breasts, so the plastic surgery team will also be part of the operation to ensure that I have both a good aesthetic and a medical result from surgery. We have agreed to proceed optimistically in the hope and expectation that this time margins will be clear and a third surgery won’t be necessary.

This operation will be more involved than my first surgery, and will require a longer hospital stay and a longer recovery. We’re waiting for the surgical teams to fix the date. In the meantime, I feel strengthened and encouraged by all the love and notes and prayers from friends and family. Thanks for allowing me to use some of that credit on my wee little stage-zero cancer card to share this experience with you and to be supported by so many of you who offer to help, keep me laughing, and pray faithfully.

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