I clearly remember the day that I first heard those words that no one ever wants to hear: You have cancer. You never forget that moment you suddenly come face to face with your own mortality -- literally, the wake-up call of the century. Your life immediately divides like a cell in mitosis: Before Cancer -- After Cancer.
For a while (weeks, months) I woke up every morning feeling a little bit off kilter and then I would remember: Oh yeah, um, the Sword of Damocles is sort of poised above my head. It was like a loss of equilibrium to which I eventually had to adjust. In a way, it's as if I had quickly relocated from living at sea level to an elevation of 14,000 feet with the antecedent need to keep constantly hydrated so I could still feel normal.
As I examined my priorities up to that point, I felt as if I was looking into a kaleidoscope. The first priority, of course, was staying alive. Also, I was adamant to stay as positive as possible. Crawling under the covers and sobbing was simply not a tenable option. Then the hard part; learning how to make myself my first priority, which had never before been the case. I had to learn that I was the most important person in the world -- to myself.
My priorities were thus completely upended. What had seemed so crucially important became a mere blip on the radar screen of life. Things I had kept in the Someday pile rose to the top. Cancer also handily dispensed with the need for artifice. Artifice and lies and dissembling were no longer necessary. Who has time for that? I do not (and neither do any of us). Life is too short. Let's get right to the point.
Hardest of all, I had to admit that in order to get through this I needed help. That turned out to be the worst part of it -- not the drugs, not the scans, not the tests, not the biopsies, not the needles. I had somehow gone through my whole life, for the most part, without medical drama. And now -- ironically -- I found myself in as dramatic a situation as one could be in.
I reminded myself that if this had happened to a close friend, I would have dropped everything to do whatever they needed me to do. And I had no closer friend than myself so I had to stop being so damned precious about it. I had to learn how to admit that I needed help because my life now depended on it.
I've kept this whole thing close to the vest for over three years, eschewing a fuss. So why now? Why come out of the cancer closet? Because I feel like it's finally time to call the bitch out. Because this year, too many of my friends are at the receiving end of that poison dart and some of them are not as lucky as me. Some of them have Cancer -- I, on the other hand, have cancer.
Lucky, I can hear you say. Why lucky? Because I've heard stories from my cancer peeps that lead me to realize how very lucky I am, harrowing stories. But they are not my own and this is really all about me, this time.
This is for my mother, whose bravery and strength I honor, who fought this fight in the Seventies and has been gloriously cancer-free for several decades. You are beyond amazing. Your life is a constant inspiration to me.
This is for Susan, my dear friend, who I never knew before endometrial cancer had her in its thrall. She dealt with an aggressive and virulent disease that caused tumors to bloom like deadly flowers all through her body. Susan, a gifted artist, was cut down in her prime, years before she should have been taken. Recently I went to her funeral to honor her memory and learned from her friends and family about her brilliant, vibrant life.
This is for those who disparaged Sam Simon's statement that his terminal colon cancer is "the most amazing experience of my life" because you know what? It can be and often is the most amazing experience of your life when mortality holds up a mirror and shows you what's most important. That's what happened to me. I understand what he meant, and I honor him.
This is for those who couldn't understand Brittany Maynard's decision to die with dignity. At first I too didn't understand why a 29-year-old would choose to leave this world, but then I read and learned and grieved for her. I realized that she needed to own her disease and not be manipulated by others who were, at the end of the day, not her. I honor her and her choice.
This is for Malcolm MacDougall, who recently died just five days after writing for The Daily Beast about how his insurance company delayed and denied cancer treatments that would have helped extend his life. I honor him.
And to those who continually try to throttle and choke the Affordable Care Act, which for the first time in American history does not penalize me and others like me with pre-existing conditions, as if we chose to have a serious illness? There but for the grace of God go you.
And as this is the week after Thanksgiving, I am giving thanks. I am giving sincere thanks to my cancer posse, they know who they are, who have been there every single day of this journey helping me remain undaunted in a daunting situation. In this time of gratitude I give thanks to all of you more than ever. I simply couldn't do this without you.
I'll tell you what I do know, deep down in my bones. It's not going to win. I will not allow it. This whole situation is so not part of my plan. My plan is to stay healthy and strong, to rise like a phoenix above my medical bills, to write all of the books currently percolating in my beautifully creative brain (and to find those hours like precious jewels that I need to do so), to dance, to sing, to read, to snuggle, and to continue to fight this disease lurking in the dark corners like the craven, evil coward it is.
Because I have cancer. And I'm in love with life.
Special thanks to Kris Carr, for her Crazy Sexy Cancer books, all of which changed my life; to To S.L. Wisenberg, for The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (omg! Someone else knows what this is like!); and to Amanda Palmer, for The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, because no book has ever reached inside my soul like that one. It's exactly what I needed and everyone should read it.
Special thanks also to the feisty, fierce, and fighting women in my support group at Gilda's Club, who helped me find the courage to post this article. And thanks to Gilda Radner, without whom.