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Dear Cancer, Isn’t It Ironic?

by Quinn FitzgeraldSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJune 27, 2024View more posts from Quinn Fitzgerald

Dear Cancer,

Read those two words again, isn’t it ironic? “Dear cancer.” Two words that should never be side by side, but here they are placed together so carelessly and yet also intentionally. It’s almost laughable because there’s nothing dear about you, but here I am choosing to put those two words together as I write to you. It doesn’t make any sense at all, but then again, neither do you.

I was first introduced to you in the same way many of us are. You were the tragic plotline accompanying novels, TV shows, and movies, never failing to kill your victims. And then you became the unfortunate circumstance affecting distant relatives of my friends or someone who knew someone who knew someone. Sad, of course, but it was difficult to really understand or connect to those stories when it was never anyone that I knew. You eventually found your way to my grandfather, but as he was an elderly person with a laundry list of other health problems that were taking their toll on him, somehow your plotline in his story seemed somewhat less significant.

I then came to know you on an entirely new level as I completed my undergraduate degree in microbiology. You showed up in immunology classes, in cell biology, and I even got to work with you in the lab. Somehow, this all piqued my interest to understand you better, and I went on to take an elective in my final year called The Molecular Basis of Cancer. There were detailed stories of tumor suppressor proteins, DNA repair enzymes, and the various components of the immune system that interact in beautifully complex mechanisms to keep our cell growth in check. These genes—p53, Bcl2, Ras, Myc—sound more like words from a foreign language. But it was a foreign language that I learned to speak fluently, knowing every detail of the pathways those genes are involved in, and how even the slightest of errors in their functioning could lead to uncontrolled cell growth and eventually, to you. Even though I was starting to understand this side of you so well, in hindsight, I realize that I actually didn’t know you at all. Isn’t it ironic?

That was until one day in December 2022, when I felt something at the base of my neck above my collarbone. A lump approaching the size of a golf ball, it perplexed me that I had not noticed anything there before. My first instinct was not to think of you, instead I imagined a cyst, a lipoma, a Dr. Pimple Popper situation of epic proportions. Then the thought that maybe it could actually be you appeared and quickly disappeared as fast as I could suppress it. Nevertheless, I saw my doctor who asked me all the questions that I’ve since become so accustomed to hearing: “Any fevers? Any night sweats? Any itching? Any unexplained weight loss?” I was sent for some bloodwork, a chest X-ray, and an ultrasound, all of which came back normal except for the ultrasound, which confirmed a suspiciously enlarged lymph node . . . and so it began.

Everything in the CT scans eventually pointed to me most likely having some kind of lymphoma, but nothing could be confirmed until the results of my biopsy came back. “If it looks like a horse, walks like a horse, and smells like a horse, it’s probably a horse and not a zebra,” they told me. But naturally, I convinced myself it had to be something more like a cougar or a grizzly bear. Something obscenely aggressive, untreatable, an imminent death sentence for sure. Those anxiety ridden weeks between getting a biopsy and waiting for the results are still by far the worst weeks of my experience with you. I was so afraid.

There’s no rule book for how a person is meant to react when a doctor tells them they have cancer. Breaking down silently on the bathroom floor? Seems reasonable. Screaming into the void? Also, not a bad idea. Punching a wall? I can see why. But for me, it wasn’t any of these. When I finally met you for real and my doctor called to say I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief. And maybe for a very brief moment, I even cracked a smile. Isn’t it ironic? I felt relieved to no longer be in the dark, to finally have an answer, and to know that the thing that looked like a horse, walked like a horse, and smelled like a horse, was in fact a horse. Relieved that even though you, cancer, were part of me, there were effective treatments available. Relieved to know chances were that you would end up dead long before you ever had an opportunity to kill me.

I’ve been reminded time and time again that I have “the good cancer.” If I had to choose one, you were “the one I would want.” And truthfully, I am grateful. In fact, I’m grateful for a lot of things when it comes to you, including my competent and compassionate medical team, who reassured me I would get through this and that you could go away, most likely for good. I’m grateful that my experience with you has been relatively easy. It only took a few cycles of chemotherapy before there was no longer any sign of you, my side effects were manageable, and I was never rushed to the hospital or admitted for any of the long list of very serious side effects that I was vulnerable to: infection and neutropenic fever, blood clots, organ failure, the list goes on. I didn’t even lose all my hair. Most importantly, I had and continue to have constant support from my family and so many friends. I’m grateful for the wonderful young adult cancer communities that opened their arms to me, and for the opportunities to have candid conversations and connect with others who actually “get it.” I’m even grateful for the internet memes, the dark humor, and especially for the wonderful people I now know because of you.

But isn’t it ironic that my gratitude so often coexists with grief, frustration, sadness, and even guilt? I’ve had to learn that these feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I miss the person I was before you, before you crippled me with so much fear, anxiety, and worry. I miss when my life was relatively so unproblematic, when the biggest adversity I had to overcome was a poor grade on a midterm in university. I was excited for the future, unafraid to make ambitious plans. Now I fear that those ambitious plans could be ruined so easily by you coming back to knock on my door. Often, I feel a powerful longing to return to the person I was before you. To be “someone with prospects instead of a prognosis,” as author and leukemia thriver Suleika Jaouad so cleverly writes in her memoir Between Two Kingdoms. I’ve also felt the guilt that afflicts so many survivors, questioning why I get to be the one with “the good cancer,” why I get to make it through my treatment relatively unscathed when I know this is not the same story for so many others, some of whom are my friends. It’s an incomprehensible guilt when the voice in the back of my head is telling me to be thankful, but then again, everything about you is incomprehensible.

As cancer patients, we often hear people tell us, “You’re so much more than your cancer” or “Your cancer doesn’t define you.” I do believe that these remarks are wellintentioned, but the reality is that there is a misunderstanding of how all-consuming you can be in so many ways. Not only did you consume so much of my time with a never-ending series of appointments for bloodwork, visits with my oncologist, treatment, scans, and more, but you also consumed my mind. You were all I thought about for so long, and even now as I navigate survivorship, you continue to find your way into my thoughts.

The truth is that you became a new part of my identity that I never asked for, accompanying all the other parts of me that I did choose, the ones I am proud of. So yes, you do define me, at least in part. And maybe what’s more important now is how I let you define me and how I can turn my story with you into a force for good. I don’t exactly know what that looks like yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I’ve been told that you’re gone now, but now I know I will always carry a part of you with me, and maybe that doesn’t have to be such a bad thing. Isn’t it ironic?

This article was featured in the June 2024 Dear Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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