One of the issues I worked on with my favorite therapist was my intense feeling of being left out and rejected. This was perhaps left over from being the youngest of 7 children. Too young to accompany my older siblings on fun adventures. Too young to hear or understand family gossip, “Don’t tell the baby.” We came up with a mantra for when the familiar loneliness of perceived rejection bubbled up: I’m okay doing my own thing.
This mantra has been exceptionally helpful over the years but mostly in the past few months as I’ve dealt with melanoma. I realized very quickly that all skin cancer is not created equal. The big ugly spots that my dad had removed from his face and hands were not deadly, but my tiny inconspicuous mole, in fact, could be. I channeled my inner Meredith Grey as oncologist, excision, sentinel nodes, biopsy and infusion became part of my new vernacular, and my veins began collapsing under all the attention.
For several months, when people asked how I was, the only response I could muster was: Okay. While my husband is always by my side, and I have fantastic friends who have been unbelievably supportive, I still feel very alone a lot of the time. I read an article that said if you want to feel loved, get cancer, and that is legit. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and concern both from people I love and people I barely know. And yet it’s my body getting pumped full of Opdivo. It’s my arms and hands getting stabbed by the sweetest, most apologetic nurses. It’s my back that aches for weeks. I’m the one jumping up from dinner and cutting walks short because: Nuvilomab-induced colitis. So even with a ton of love and support, I still have to be okay doing my own thing.
Lots of people have said, “I’ve been thinking about you, but I didn’t want to bother you.” You aren’t. I mean don’t call me, but text away.
My best friend said, “I didn’t realize you were still having these side effects.” I don’t always want to talk about it because sometimes the best I can do is ignore it or remind myself it could be worse.
Speaking of things being worse, please don’t find silver linings for me. I’ll get there, and I’ve become quite adept at finding my own. So when people point out the ways it could be worse, or try to one-up my melanoma story with how their aunt or cousin or neighbor had it “worse,” it feels like they’re minimizing what I’m going through, and that makes me want to stab people. I know it could be worse. My heart has broken watching people deal with way worse. But as one of my friends pointed out, “Just because it could be worse doesn’t mean your issues are not valid.”
Sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing it feels like they want reassurance that I’m okay, and sometimes it feels like they want reassurance that it won’t happen to them. When a marriage falls apart, people quickly point out the risk factors: “They got married very young” or “He travels A LOT.” When a baby tragically and mysteriously dies, whispers of “Well, you know she smoked when she was pregnant,” swirl in with the grief. People quickly want to attribute others’ misfortune to some outward condition that absolves them from a similar fate. When someone gets melanoma, people say, “She has fair skin and light eyes” or “She rarely wore sunscreen” and that’s true. I also had some bad sunburns as a child.
We want reassurance that we’re safe. We want to believe that the horrible thing that happened to someone else can’t happen to us because we don’t carry those risk factors. Can I let you in on a secret? We’re not safe. Terrible things happen all the time to kind, good, undeserving people. And you know what’s worse? Sometimes wonderful things happen to shitty people.
When my kids were little and not-so-little and uttered the phrase, “That’s not fair!” I would remind them that life is not fair, and once they came to peace with that they would be less shocked and disappointed when things that seem unfair happen.
Of all the things I’ve felt since this cancer experience — I tried not to call it a journey as we’re watching the Bachelorette and journey is so worn out — started a few months ago, I never felt it was unfair or wondered why me. I have kicked myself for logging hours of time in the sun without protection. I have embraced the shade. I have spent time trying to be present and learn what cancer has to teach me. I have tried to talk less and listen more. Mostly, I’ve just tried to be okay doing my own thing.