Before I can enter the pharmacy, a cosmetics ad reminds me I’m doing cancer wrong. In it, a chemo patient — or a model hired to portray one — wears a silk headscarf and shimmering pink lip gloss. Her cheeks are full and rosy — mine, sunken and pallid. She smiles into the middle distance, radiating joy and pride and gratitude, as if watching a young child learn to ride a bike for the first time. “Battle beautifully,” the tagline reads.
I kick the pavement with the ball of my foot and drum up several alternative slogans. For example: Cancer could look this good on you, too, if you just gave it a little more effort. Or, Listen, I know you’re going through hell, but you’ve really let yourself go.
Resisting the urge to wipe the gritty traces of three-day-old mascara from under my eyes, I ball my hands up into fists and walk inside. A young man in a blue polo welcomes me. “Hey there. Anything I can help you with today?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, but I don’t move. I drum my fingers against my thigh and suck in a breath. “It’s just the woman on your poster looks really excited about having cancer. So.”
A few weeks ago, this wouldn’t have bothered me. I am new to cancer. I haven’t even gotten started, really. For almost two years I was a medical mystery, handed off from specialist to specialist and tested for a menagerie of diseases: lupus, Lyme, premature menopause. Most doctors deferred tests for the more malicious possibilities, because “26, that’s just so young,” as if youth precludes tragedy. Months passed without answers. I began to measure my days in MRI machines and surgical tables.
“It sure looks like blood cancer,” my doctors say finally, rattling off genetic subtypes and primary sites and other likely candidates for the sudden decline of my health. “Lymphomas can be very hard to pin down.” It is an almost-diagnosis. It is the knowledge that I am dying without the privilege of a treatment. It traps me in the space between life and death.
Meanwhile, most nights I wake shivering beneath the covers, my pajamas and sheets soaked with sweat. When I stumble into the shower to rinse away another midnight fever, I find new bruises scattered across my legs and arms, my hands, my feet. I towel off by the mirror and see a body that is not my own — a body that is 20 pounds thinner than it was two months ago. I see the protruding ridges of bone in unfamiliar places. I am a stranger to myself.
The night after I received my near-diagnosis, I pulled my long hair back tight against my head and squinted into the mirror, surveying the curves and dips of my skull, the parts of me that would one day be exposed.
My blood pulsed. It felt like my cancer pulsed. It was everywhere. “Get it out,” I screamed at no one, shaking my hands in hysteria. “Get it out. Get it out.” I braced myself against the bathroom sink, letting my hair fall in blonde wisps onto my shoulders, and the life I knew fell away like a coin beneath murky water.
Now, only weeks later, the world shows me what my new life ought to look like. From every direction, I am instructed on how to do cancer. How not to do cancer.
Life insurance companies start competing for my business, indicating that it would be a real bummer for both of us if I died before purchasing one of their policies. Law firms contact me about getting my affairs in order before tragedy strikes. Pharmaceutical ads encourage me to muster up enough “fight” to “win the battle,” as if those who have died should’ve just tried a little harder.
Then there are the friends, the co-workers, the well-meaning churchgoers who want to know if I’ve been taking a multivitamin and aligning my chakras and visiting their cousin’s boyfriend’s best friend’s naturopath three times a week. They ask me if I’m practicing positivity and tell me that my words have the power of life and death. I revel in my untapped psychokinetic abilities and talk a lot about how I plan to find $10,000 wedged in the back of my dryer, along with that sock I lost last month.
Faraway loved ones send me cards in the mail telling me that I am brave and strong and that I will beat this. Kind words. Maybe they are already thinking about how they will eulogize me. She never stopped laughing. She always wore a smile. She was grateful for every day. She battled hard until the very end. All of it beautiful. None of it true. As a measure of safety and maybe superstition, they sign their notes, “Get well soon.”
I make friends in the labyrinthian hallways of the cancer hospital who assure me that this will all make sense one day. CT scan technicians tell me that my struggle will be redemptive, that it will pay off in the end. Everyone seems to run away with an explanation, leaving me alone with what is.
Then one day a friend comes to my door with a bouquet of daisies and a box of chamomile tea, and she says, “I’m really sorry you might be dying,” and I say, “Me too.” We sit at the kitchen table, legs tucked up underneath us, and I lament that I will never have a career in the cancer modeling business. She does not ask me to battle beautifully. She does not ask me to get well soon. Instead, she reminds me of the biblical call to weep with those who weep.
It is both harder and easier than it sounds, to sit together for a few moments in shared grief without trying to fix it or explain it away. The rarest and most loving thing anyone has done for me is simply to acknowledge the terrible. To remind me that not every day is a day for courage or strength or relentless positivity. To allow, instead, for the days of sorrow and anger and petulance, no matter how uncomfortable. And to take that first, necessary step of acknowledgment.
It usually doesn’t sound like advice or a silver lining or a reflection on that time your Facebook friend of a friend got malaria and almost died.
It usually sounds a lot more like this: “I’m so sorry. I hate this for you. I hate this with you. I’m sorry.”