Making a Cancer Patient

On Monday, August 15th my doctor told me that “realistically” I have lymphoma. I texted the Kitten and asked her to come over after work. We cuddled and cried and looked at pathology reports and Wikipedia articles and flapper hats on Etsy. Because if I go bald, I want to do it vintage style and I like to be prepared. Then the Kitten had an idea to call her friend, an oncology pharmacist, who told me to prepare myself for 4 to 6 rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation.

I wasn’t on the phone with her for very long. Probably less than five minutes. In the course of those five minutes, my brain dredged up enough high school biology to remember why my white blood cell count mattered, freaked out about losing my eyebrows and eyelashes, wondered whether I could learn to draw on my eyebrows, wondered if I’d be able to keep working and go to grad school, decided I’d have to defer school, decided to take an adult ed course instead of school, mentally tallied my support system and found it lacking, and decided that there was absolutely no way I actually had cancer.

Then the oncology pharmacist said said something that told me I’d crossed a threshold and I had changed. Not my health had changed, or my life had changed, but I had changed — been made new, my old identity brushed aside and a new one slapped down in its place.

She said, “You need to stay strong, and stay positive, and remember you’re going to get through this.”

And I thought: This can’t be right. She’s talking to me the way you talk to a cancer patient.

I even said that to the Kitten when I got off the phone. I looked at her and said, “I feel like we’re talking about someone else. Some chick who has cancer.”

That was the beginning. All week, even though I didn’t have my diagnosis yet, I could feel myself being liquified and poured into a new mould, the cancer patient mould, which apparently was used, with slight variations, for just about everyone “realistically” awaiting a cancer diagnosis.

The doctors and nurses scheduled tests and ran labs and told me that I must be terrified and that being terrified was normal and understandable. They called my insurance company and found other doctors to refer me to. I was assigned someone called a patient advocate, who was not a psychologist (I asked) and appeared to be a project coordinator for project Diagnose Erica With Cancer. She read through pages of forms while my eyes glazed over and asked me to sign on lines with X’s and told me to remember important things that I’ve forgotten and suggested I re-read everything later, at home, when I could concentrate better.

I googled support groups and makeup tips and more hats. I berated myself for googling makeup tips and hats. I went to Sephora and asked a sales associate to show me how to fill in my eyebrows. I didn’t buy the eyebrow pencil because, while I’m not superstitious, I’m not stupid either.

I started telling my friends. They asked how I was doing and told me they were there for me. I reassessed my support system: stronger than I’d thought.

On Friday, a friend went with me while I had minor surgery to remove a lymph node for biopsy. For the first time, I had company at the doctor’s office. My friend and I talked so enthusiastically about literature and writing that the surgeon kept apologizing for interrupting our conversation.

I received my diagnosis on Friday, August 26th: Hodkin’s Lymphoma. While I was waiting on the diagnosis, I started writing. I wrote about waiting. Now, I plan to keep writing. I’ll write about who I was before the oncology pharmacist said to stay strong, and who I am now, and whether they are the same person. About boundaries and support, autonomy and helplessness. About dating when you’re 29 years old and fighting cancer in New York. About why I’ve never blogged before and I don’t have Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat and I almost never post on Facebook, but now I’m starting this blog because suddenly there is something in my life that doesn’t feel private, and I find myself bursting to share.

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