Excuse Me? I Can’t Possibly Have Cancer
(I absolutely do, though)
“It’s good that you brought your partner along this time,” the pulmonologist told me as he called us into his office.
Matthias and I shared a look that said, Uh-oh.
Our butts had barely touched the padded chairs when he gave us the news.
The words fell into the silence.
I gulped. I looked at Matthias for reassurance, and he gave me a small, sad smile. A smile that simultaneously said Fuck! and I’m here for you.
“We’re pretty sure it’s lung cancer,” the doctor continued, after waiting for the time he deemed enough for us to process this revelation.
I was astounded. How could this be? There must have been a mistake. I kept my lungs clean. I did everything right. Always.
I vividly remember this one time, when I was five years old, that my mother brought me along to a restaurant to have lunch with her and a coworker. As soon as we sat down, my mom lit a cigarette — at a restaurant in Portugal in the early 90s, this was as common as complaining about the government. The sight of her cigarette caused my nose to run for cover, and I buried my face in her underarm. At that point, an armpit felt as inviting as a bed of flowers.
My mother was used to this scene, so she calmly explained the situation while continuing to enjoy her smoke.
“I am so sorry. The thing is, she would rather breathe in my armpit odor than the cigarette smoke.”
From across the table, her colleague stared awkwardly at me while I kept inhaling the sweet relief of 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid.
Even at such a young age, I was acutely aware of the importance of always making the right choice for your health. Otherwise, your whole life might end up in disaster.
Both my parents smoked. As such, I’d heard numerous adults tell them things like, “You know, those things will give you lung cancer one day.” Or, my personal favorite, “That cigarette is another nail in your coffin.”
My parents didn’t seem to take these warnings seriously, but I did. I did everything in my power to avoid cigarette smoke. I said no to every attempt that the cool kids at school made to give me a puff of anything. I didn’t care about looking cool or feeling good — I cared about fucking surviving.
In my 20s, I realized I was being bombarded with exhaust fumes even just walking down the street. So I started wearing a bright blue anti-pollution mask on my way to and from work. I was conscious of the puzzled looks I received from passersby, but it was worth it. I was protected, unlike those poor suckers.
When my father (the man who raised me on his own since I was 12) developed lung cancer at the age of 60, a part of me felt the satisfaction of being right.
“Well, he was a smoker,” that part thought. “So, really, he can’t say he wasn’t warned.”
After smoke, my enemy number two was the sun. School textbooks were full of warnings like “Helena started tanning at age 13 to look cool, but now she is 45 and has skin cancer. She doesn’t look so cool now, does she?” So while the other kids spent the Portuguese summer tanning at the beach, I stayed in the shade covering myself with SPF50 sunscreen, usually reserved for centenarians and albinos.
I also avoided drinking, sex, fun, and carelessness — everyone knows that losing control, or giving in to pleasure, is the fastest way to die. I never skipped a medical check, and I’d report if anything, from my pinky toenail to the tips of my hair, felt out of the ordinary.
One day, in January 2020, when I was 31, I went for my morning swim at the local public pool. This morning ritual always made me feel energized before work. I felt like a healthy adult, with my shit in order. Like I’d made it.
But on this day, as I started moving my arms in freestyle, my breathing suddenly sped up, and my body resisted my movements. This had never happened to me before. I pushed myself to finish one lap, each stroke harder than the previous, until I finally reached the end wall. My heart was pounding, and with my mouth wide open, I took in gulps of air as fast as I could. I tried to do another lap, but I had to stop halfway to catch my breath. I watched as every single one of the other swimmers cruised past me, even the pair of gossiping elderly ladies.
“Are you OK?” asked a woman in her 70s, who stopped beside me with a worried look.
This was the moment I realized, Shit. Something’s wrong with me.
I went to my GP, and after an X-Ray that showed that my right lung was full of fluid, the next step was the pulmonologist.
“Well,” he stated nonchalantly after examining my lungs. “It could be one of three things: an infection, an autoimmune disease, or — even though it’s extremely unlikely at your age, I’m obliged to tell you — cancer.”
He said it in a way that reminded me of when you Google a symptom you have, no matter how small, and it invariably says, “it could be cancer,” but it never is. I didn’t worry. I went home and told my partner Matthias about the appointment, and we spent the whole week making jokes about the fact that I might have cancer.
“You better do as I ask,” I’d say. “Because I could have cancer!”
A week later, I had my follow-up appointment with the pulmonologist for the blood and lung fluid analysis results. I’d researched autoimmune diseases, and I fit a lot of the symptoms described, so I was ready for the doctor to say, “It was Door Number 2: autoimmune disease!”
But no. My worst fear was here. It was Door Number 3: The Big C. The least likely option, but not any less real. And it started in my lungs, of all places— the last body parts I would expect to betray me, after everything that I’d done for them.
“What caused it?” I asked the doctor after receiving the news. “Was it second-hand smoke? My parents smoked a lot.”
The scene of me and my mom at the restaurant came to mind.
“Or is it because my dad had lung cancer? Or did I do something wrong?”
I wanted answers. I needed to know who or what I should blame for this terrible mistake in my life. Even though it didn’t make any difference (I already had cancer), I wanted something to make me feel in control.
“No,” the doctor answered. “The type of cancer you have is… Just bad luck.”
Note: If you want to know about the type of cancer I have and other fun facts, you can read more about that here.
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