My Niece Has Cancer And I'm Ticked About It

Can I talk to her about it? Do people talk about cancer? What’s the protocol?

Katie looks like an Egyptian Goddess.

Specifically, she looks like Queen Nefertiti with her beautiful bald head which we all kiss unabashedly. In New York City, where Katie lives, her shaved head is fashion. To those who know and love her, it is fashionable cancer. She’s thinking about going as Nefertiti for Halloween.

So Katie.

Queen Nefertiti 2017, Katie Herrera, 30.
Queen Nefertiti 2017, Katie Herrera, 30.

My oldest niece, who found out she had cancer shortly after her 30th birthday, works as a nurse in an emergency room hospital in the Big Apple.

At first, she felt a lump near her stomach, no symptoms. Katherine Anna Herrera and her emergency room cohorts named it Terry for a disgusting cyst called teratoma that can grow teeth and even an eyeball. It is grotesque humor.

Again, so Katie.

A few weeks later, when Katie decided to get tested, she didn’t tell anyone. “Why worry them if it was nothing?” she said.

It was cancer.

Margaritas were snuck in, and once she got out and knew chemotherapy was the option, she went with a friend, shaved her head, donated her long, beautiful waves to Locks of Love, and went out for wine.

“We went out and got cancer drunk. It was kind of fun. I didn’t really care about being bald,” she said.

If I had to describe the babe, it would be as a bubble in sunlight. One of those lovely floating beings that rises into the air capturing the light and creating a rainbow. You see it and just smile in awe of its beauty.

My Katie.

I am so ticked that she has cancer, but I’m learning a lot from my niece.

You are never too old to learn life lessons. I’m grokking that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Those who kvetch and question why did this (insert whatever crap you went through) happen to me? And those who ask, “How can I take this bad experience to help me live life better?”

“I’m at peace with it and haven’t worried much because everything happens for a reason,” Katie said. “And, I know I’ll learn something from this.”

Katie, her dad, and her two younger brothers, have spent more of their lives with cancer than without it. My brother’s wife, Irene, was diagnosed with breast cancer when the kids were just single digits, 6, 4, 2.

Irene fought the battle and taught her children more than she probably ever knew. She passed when the kids were double digits: 19, 17, 15.

“Of course I had my mom as this great example. She was always so brave and she was always optimistic. There was never really a state of denial. There was never really a profound fear,” Katie says of her own diagnosis.

That doesn’t mean that everything is great or that her family and friends don’t worry about Katie or pray for her. It just means that we all don’t know what’s going to happen - just like any part of our lives - and we have to find acceptance in that no matter how difficult.

It was a weird day when I broached the subject of cancer with my niece.

The family was gathered to celebrate her brother Tom’s graduation from medical school. I knew I wanted to write about Katie, but frankly didn’t know if I should.

Unfortunately, cancer is common. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States.

This year, Katie is one. She has leiomyosarcoma. (As if cancer isn’t bad enough, the name of it has to be so outrageous, it is the stuff of a sick and twisted spelling bee.)

Can I talk to her about it? Do people talk about cancer? What’s the protocol? I asked myself. I mean, I know a lot of people who have it, but not so close to me. I don’t know why it felt wrong. But it just did.

I prayed and took a jog. I happened upon a boulder that was scrawled with graffiti, the lyrics from a Coldplay song, “Look at the stars. Look how they shine for you and everything you do.”

So, I took that as a sign and took the plunge to talk about cancer.

Katie sat basking in the sun smiling and joking about how chemo treatments mean hair loss - everywhere. “It’s summer and I’m bikini ready,” she laughs. “I save money on waxing, razors, and shampoo.”

Later, I asked her dad to describe her in five words: loving, charitable, determined, spiritual, beautiful.

His favorite memory of her is when she was almost two, was in the middle of a mall, and had a butt itch she couldn’t reach so she pulled down her pants to scratch it. They shared a moment of laughter. And have shared many since.

His Katie.

I don’t think I understand cancer or ever will. But I am trying to understand life.

We all have challenges, some more than others. We all have to find some way to break through them like a high school football team crashing through the banner to take the field to play life hard and with everything we’ve got. How we deal with adversity is what defines us.

Sometimes, many times, it’s not easy, joyful, perfect. But it is life. And sometimes getting through the toughest moments with perseverance is what makes it worth living.

Katie isn’t battling cancer.

Cancer is battling Katie. And, I think it’s in for a fight and a sincere butt-whipping.

So Katie.

Our Katie.

(Enriching music: Yellow, by Coldplay; My Wish, by the Rascal Flatts)