Processing My Diagnosis –
Fifteen minutes after learning that I had a rare form of ovarian cancer, my Mom and I walked outside into the grey, rainy Seattle afternoon. The fresh cold air provided a momentary respite. I was in the midst of an existential crisis like no other.
I viewed my immediate surroundings through a veil of infantile narcissism as I watched Seattleites go about their day.
I felt a simmering rage burn inside my still wounded stomach when I saw a woman walking out of Starbucks trying to balance taking a sip of her coffee while talking on her cell phone. Despite her multitasking, the woman moved with an ease I could not reconcile. The irony was not lost on me that on any other Friday I would be this woman. But not today.
While learning that I had cancer was the lead story of the day, there were other headlines I was trying to mentally process.
The word “chemotherapy” was flashing in my brain like a neon sign in Times Square, but I still did not have a definitive treatment plan.
My oncologist explained that due to the rare nature of my cancer, he wanted to present my case and treatment options to the hospital’s Tumor Board for review and input. I thought of the countless board meetings I had attended in the past and could not fathom the idea that there was a “board” that would review a PowerPoint presentation full of tumors.
Imagining what this board meeting would be like led to another critical realization.
I had a tumor.
It would no longer be referred to as “a mass.” The fact that the tumor wasn’t growing inside me anymore did very little to lessen the dark connotation of its name. I felt similarly to when my house was robbed. Even though the burglar was no longer there, I could still feel the foreign presence of someone who had invaded my space and took ownership of things to which he was not entitled.
The Tumor Board would not convene for another two weeks, so I was once again in the position of having to wait. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get through the day, let alone two weeks, with the certainty of chemotherapy and the uncertainty of exactly what this would entail.
But if I needed a distraction, I could contemplate the day’s other news.
I was going to lose my hair.
Hearing my oncologist say these words cut deeper than my incision. Cancer, tumors, and chemotherapy felt like hard slaps to my face. Being told I would lose my hair was the knockout blow.
So, let me get this straight, I thought to myself. As if threatening my health and possibly my life isn’t enough, you are going to take my dignity too? You’re a fucking asshole!
To be clear, the fucking asshole! am speaking to here is the tumor. We would continue to have several one-sided conversations, during none of which did I change my opinion.
When my Mom and I got back to my home, we prepared for the conversations we needed to have with our family. We started with my Dad, which was the most difficult.
Looking back on this time, I am more aware of not only how hard it was for the people who love me to deal with my diagnosis, but to do so with my living so far away.
My concern on this front was best exemplified by my Dad. I could hear his voice through the phone, despite the fact that my Mom was holding it to her ear.
I think Christine needs to come home and do her chemotherapy here.
Even though I was practically sitting in the fetal position on my living room couch, my Dad’s statement sent a jolt through my system.
I understood the logic behind what my Dad was saying. We are an East Coast family, Northeast specifically. My parents, my sisters and I all grew up in the shadow of New York City – home to some of the most prestigious healthcare systems in the world.
In times of crisis, one desperately seeks a connection to something safe, something known. For a moment, I considered what my Dad said as a viable option. Would I be better off abandoning the life that I have worked so hard to create in Seattle in favor of something familiar?
I hadn’t gone too far down the path yet – I didn’t even have a treatment plan. If I was going to make a change, the time was now.
Although the time it took to make my decision felt like hours, in actuality, it was only minutes. By the end of the call with my Dad, I had made a decision.
I am going to stay in Seattle.
At this point, there was still so much I didn’t know. But the one thing I was sure of was that I had complete faith in my oncologist.
My decision-making process has always been inextricably tied to my intuition. The times in my life when I ignored what I felt, even when it was in favor of following data and facts, have almost always led to decisions that I would come to regret. Cancer put me in a position where my personal stakes had never been higher, but fortunately, it had a curative effect on any residual analysis paralysis I had with my decision-making process.
I knew that staying in Seattle was the right thing for me, but I also knew it would put a greater burden on my family regarding how best to support me.
That said, I have a strong sense that I relieved them of another potential burden: bearing witness to the ramifications of an almost forty-five year old woman moving back in with her parents and rediscovering Days of Our Lives as she recuperates from chemotherapy.
I think my decision was in everyone’s best interests.
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