I was walking through Times Square on a breezy, sunny spring day when my doctor called to tell me I had cancer.
Finding out you have cancer seems like it should be a dramatic, life-altering moment, but the reality of it brought absolutely no sense of drama. "Superficial," she said, and "non-life-threatening." No chemo nor radiation for me; the entire course of my treatment would be a scrape-and-burn procedure in her office. The two-minute cancer cure. Bam.
I've always known I'd eventually get skin cancer. There's nary a risk factor I don't have: The family history, the light eyes, the fair skin and hundreds of freckles, the bad childhood sunburns, the weekends spent clinging to the edge of a pool. In the Philippine Islands. All year round. And so I've been visiting dermatologists for all my adult life; I had my first biopsy at twenty years old.*
But even knowing that this was destined to happen, I'm yet having a very complex and difficult reaction to the manifest reality. We all know we're going to die one day, too, but that doesn't make it something to look forward to, not exactly.
Cancer sounds terrifying. It is terrifying. Typically in the face of peril, I arm myself with knowledge that helps me triage risk and prevention strategies. But there is no strategy for getting rid of your skin and growing an all-new one. Sunscreen and shade are all I have, and it's unclear whether even that's too little, too late. So I'm trying very hard not to read much about recurrence rates and additional primary cancers. Knowing the odds does not change them. It just gives my anxiety-prone brain more to gnaw.
I tell stories, and so it's natural that I slip into telling myself the story in which I am a cancer patient. Against my better judgement, I find myself worrying about how my family could manage without me. I make sure my husband knows important passwords and lock codes. I worry about whether the girls would get enough calcium and vegetables. I contemplate whether I would feel moved to keep writing if I knew how fast my clock was ticking, and what I would be moved to write.
And yet: superficial, non-life-threatening. A non-event. I am not a terminal cancer patient; you could argue that I'm not a cancer patient at all, except by the barest technicality. This is all not a big deal, and as far as anyone knows I still have another forty years on the clock. But I don't have a narrative structure for cancer that is the yapping chihuahua and not the angry lion with a taste for human flesh. I'm telling myself the wrong story, the story that ends with me dying at a tragically young age, because it's the only story I know.
Then again, given personal history, it's extremely unlikely that this will be the only time I have skin cancer. So maybe, I think, I'm just practicing. Maybe I'm bracing myself for the inevitable worst. I don't know that it's the wrong story, not for sure.
The spot that turned out to be cancer was a freckle that had been there for as long as I could remember. It hadn't grown enormous or turned red and blue or transformed into an open sore, none of the showy signs you're supposed to look for. It was just like it had always been. Unremarkable compared to all of my other dozens of spots. Except it itched. In my case, having cancer is a lot like having a mosquito bite that just won't go away.
The biopsy that turned up cancer was the third I'd had in my life. On Monday they took five more out of an abundance of caution; I have medical photographs proving they hadn't changed at all in ten years, but now we've moved on to "just in case." After all, the one that turned out to be cancer looked the same in photographs ten years ago, too.
Even now, as I wait and worry for more results -- results that are almost certainly going to be "nothing to see here" -- I find myself staring at my spots, the ones that are still there and the holes where some used to be, wondering which ones will be the treacherous ones. Wondering if they'll all turn out to be superficial and non-life-threatening, or whether they'll do me the courtesy of itching when they develop that hankering for human flesh.
And then I feel ridiculous, because I didn't even have the dangerous kind of cancer. I don't have a right to all of these scared and morbid feelings I am feeling. And yet: There they are.
*Fun fact: That first biopsy was from my, ah, upper buttock. It was a "crescent-cell nevus," completely benign, but apparently unusual enough that my dermatologist used the slide at a conference. So yeah, my butt has been of scientific interest. No joke.