The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

An Open Letter to My Cancer, Dirty Gertie 

by Allison PerkinsSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJune 6, 2024View more posts from Allison Perkins

Dear Cancer (a.k.a. Dirty Gertie),

I hope this letter finds you unwell. More accurately, I assume—with fingers crossed—that this letter finds you dead and gone. Unfortunately, my total confidence in your demise has been restricted by a single, nagging whisper that constantly threatens: “What if it comes back?” Most cancer survivors learn to live with that empty threat, eventually realizing that they are stronger than the weak voice inside their head. My whispered threat, however, became a deafening, screamed promise mere months after we killed you the first time. You were gone; we were sure of it. I, especially, was acutely aware of the great lengths we went through to make sure you never came back.

I was all-too present when the doctor cut you out of my neck. My body was the medium through which poison was fervently delivered to you. It was a shadowy outline of my body in the cancerless PET scan images. The Narrative and Impression report used confusing medical jargon to explain that you were gone. Everyone and everything shouted your death. Months after I gleefully posted “Dirty Gertie’s oBITCHuary” on social media, you returned. An embarrassing slap in my face. The echoes from the bell I so proudly rang three times hadn’t yet faded into the distance, and you were back.

When we first met, you were merely an annoying lump that appeared out of nowhere. I used humor to talk about you. I named you. I made you your own Instagram account, and you quickly amassed a rather large number of followers, annoyingly. Because of you, I received Cancer Flowers and Cancer Desserts (both very different from regular flowers and desserts). You activated my Cancer Card and let others use it without my consent. You created a limelight I never wanted. Like a socialite at a party, you made a grand and sudden entrance, obnoxiously made your presence known, and then left as quickly as you appeared.

Getting rid of you was almost too easy. Too quick. Where was my Cancer Horror Story? Why wasn’t my chemo awful, like everyone else’s? It should have been more difficult. Somehow you managed to ruin my life . . . nicely. So many people reminded me of how lucky I was, because I got the good cancer, the easy to kill cancer. It could be worse. I felt guilty that the nicest Disney villain tried to kill me.

Once I accepted your speedy death, I bragged about you. “Hey, remember that time I had cancer for what, like, four months?” I turned our brief relationship into a positive one, mostly because I felt like I had to. I should be grateful, remember? “I love my short, curly, chemo hair better than my normal hair, anyway.” “Honestly, it’s awesome not having to shave my legs.” OK, so maybe this lady doth protest too much, but I was coping as well as I could at that time. I told myself lies, minimizing your impact. You were merely a bothersome anecdote.

Too soon after I accepted my new role as “Cancer Survivor,” you returned. Like any villainous antagonist, you waited until my guard was down, and then you reappeared. My own personal Michael Myers. While bartending in August 2023, a cancer-curious bar patron asked me, “How did you know that something was wrong in the first place?” I explained to her that I felt you in my neck early one morning as I was getting ready for work. At that moment, as I reached up to my neck to show her my biopsy scar, I felt your ugly, lumpy body, instead.

You were round and hard, about as big as a nickel. You lost weight while you were on your hiatus; you were much fatter when we first met in 2022. Though slimmer, your body still felt like a boulder in my neck. According to my customer, I turned a pale shade of gray when I felt you under my fingertips that night. I immediately ran to the bathroom, abandoning the sea of beer-thirsty guests who were all competing with you for my attention.

I retched into the toilet. I tried to convince myself that I was imagining your return as I examined you in the mirror. It’s scar tissue, right? I poked you and prodded you; I tried to push you down and deflate you. I hoped that I’d be able to push you—and my memories of you—out of my life forever. There was absolutely no way you were back. Impossible. Denial.

It was because of your second act, Gertie, that I endured more chemotherapy in October 2023, and then a hellish stem cell transplant in December. Again, we did everything in our power to annihilate you. And, like before, you left as quickly as you appeared. While cancer-free last year, I imagined 2024 looking vastly different than my current reality. I assumed that I’d be training for the annual OutRun Ovarian Cancer (OROC) 5k, not receiving monthly maintenance chemo and getting winded after walking up a single flight of stairs.

Your reappearance has changed me. My feelings are confusing and more negative than ever. You robbed me of my happy-go-lucky attitude, and of my optimistic outlook on life. Textbook depression. You stole my ability to plan for the months and years ahead without being distracted by that familiar whisper. I can no longer make any long-term plans without a lingering feeling of naïveté. People ask, “What is your five-year plan?” My response? “To survive.”

You stole valuable time away from my family and friends. You stole sunrises and early morning coffee. You stole my familiar reflection. You stole the version of myself that dated and married my husband, ran around with my kids, and took care of my home. You stole my four-year old son’s carefree attitude and replaced it with worry. Now when I leave the house, he asks, “Mommy, are you going back to the hospital?” I hate you for that.

While I should have nothing but vitriol to spew at you; I’m conflicted. You’ve replaced those stolen things with necessities I didn’t realize I was missing. You’ve given me love like I’ve never known before: I’ve loved and have been loved, but the love I’ve received since we met has been something I can’t adequately describe. You’ve rewritten the definitions of commitment and devotion, and rewired my brain to truly feel gratitude. You’ve helped me boldly create new relationships, and bravely release ones that no longer serve me. You’ve given me the courage to ask for help, and the humility to accept it when it’s offered. Because of you, I realize that my body is strong, valuable, and resilient, and I value all it has done to keep me alive. You’ve given me the motivation to take care of my incredible body and treat it with the respect it so deserves. You tried to weaken me and steal my strength, but I’m even stronger now. Thank you for that.

Whenever I’m bothered by your whispered threat, I will read this letter. I will read it, reread it, and read it again and again until the whisper is silenced. I pray that my words sear and sting. I hope my words paint a picture of the badass I’ve become—both because of, and in spite of you. I hope wherever you are that these words are a reminder that you did not, and will not, win. So, go ahead and whisper.

Never Yours,

Allison

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