A long list of illness and misfortune — almost too much to believe — had made me well-versed in sharing aberrant bad news.
I became disabled with myalgic encephalomyelitis (formerly known as chronic fatigue syndrome) at 24, lost my best friend and partner to a horrific mountain climbing accident at 42, my ex-fiance was diagnosed with a brain tumor five days after we became engaged when I was 47, and the man I dated after him was diagnosed with a different type of brain tumor less than two years later. (Each man’s tumor was benign but required major surgery.)
But I quickly learned that cancer is singular, requiring its host to become fluent in a new language. One must learn to navigate contorted emotional backflips (“I might die but I probably won’t!”), apologize for feeling awful when others have felt worse (“I’m sorry you had to have chemo — I only had to have radiation!”), and to reassure everyone that you are, as so many will implore you, fighting to stay alive, i.e. the thing that even a single-celled organism evolved to do (“I just ate a kale salad! Don’t worry! Lots and lots of kale!”).
The simplest conversations can veer unexpectedly because cancer is a magnet of sorts, immediately pulling people toward you or repelling them far, far away. Either way, it’s impossible to ignore; no one hears the word “cancer” and shrugs.
Because the thyroid gland is key to regulating the body’s energy and my cancer had been misdiagnosed for two years, I was profoundly weak by the time I had my thyroidectomy. Too ill to get dressed, one evening I wandered to my building’s lobby to get the mail in my plaid pajama bottoms and my “Keith Richards for President” shirt.
As sentient beings know, the number of people one encounters is directly proportionate to how much one resembles a new species of rodent. So, of course, I bumped into three neighbors in the elevator, each nattily dressed from work.
“I’m not violating the social contract,” I said and laughed. “I’m recovering from cancer surgery.” And these strangers, who until now only knew me in passing, were so exceptionally kind, holding the door open for me and helping me stack my packages on my walker. I remain deeply grateful.
Conversely, a colleague I’ve known for years emailed to ask how I was recovering. I was candid but spared him the goriest details. Still, his reply was the written equivalent of stuffing his hands in his ears like a little kid and humming, “La! La! La! I cannot hear you!” At no point did he acknowledge the bad news I was sharing. All I could think was, “Dude, why did you bother asking in the first place?”
That’s the thing about cancer: There’s no way to know who will come closer and who will step away until you speak the word, and the word is unavoidable if, like me, you have a three and a half inch scar across your neck or other palpable evidence that some of your heretofore cooperative cells went rogue.
While I miss my dad each day, I’m glad he didn’t live to see me eviscerated. He didn’t need that as he was preparing to exit Earth. That’s the silver lining. Well, that and the fact I didn’t follow him. But without self-pity, I can say that the near-simultaneous loss of my father and my cancer-free self has been gutting. I feel as if I were robbed of something vital and never got the chance to fight back.
It’s somehow reassuring that the most honest exchange I’ve had this past year has been with my 8-year-old nephew. We’re extremely close and hold forth on everything from why Steph Curry is his favorite basketball player to how my dad, his grandfather, lived under Nazi occupation in Greece when he was the same age.
Few subjects are off limits and the week after surgery when he saw my scar, then crimson and jagged, he asked all about the thyroid gland. When I explained that it helps regulate metabolism, energy, body temperature and mood, among other functions, he grew animated and blurted, “But don’t you need that?” I laughed, kissed his forehead and assured him that I’d be fine. I explained how different medicines would replicate my absent organ and that he had nothing to worry about.
But for the first time since my diagnosis, I felt understood.