This is hard for me to admit, especially after so many people have told me how tough I am and have complimented me on my positive attitude. But I’ll let you in a little secret: I’ve been bursting into tears recently.
Most of the time, I can’t even tell you why. Usually, it’s not even real crying—it’s more of a passing wave of sadness that results in 10 seconds of tearing up or a single whimper.
Usually, I’m kind of a goofball, joking around and making light of situations. So it’s been really hard for me, personally, to deal with the seriousness of this cancer situation.
I’ve seen a lot of articles with titles like “10 Things Not to Say to People with Cancer” or “Things to Never Say to Cancer Patients.” Those definitely apply to some people, but I’m pretty hard to offend. In Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life, author Wendy Shanker, who has a rare autoimmune disorder, has a great chapter on things not to say to people who are ill—and she has an amazing sense of humor, which I appreciate.
I myself am horribly awkward in these situations—including the present one. I don’t know what I would say to myself. And I generally clam up when someone tells me something awful, or stick with the honest, “I don’t know what to say.”
With a few exceptions, no one has said anything wrong or shocking. When people talk to me about my own cancer, I’m still often the awkward party.
I suppose the compliments I get now are different. “Your hair looks full.” If someone commented about my hairiness pre-chemo, I don’t know how I’d feel. But it’s currently a good thing.
Some people have expressed worry that complaining about other things when I have cancer seems selfish or trivializes my situation somehow. I don’t think so. I don’t expect the world to stop for my health concerns. There will be heat waves and heartbreaks, and I will still be here to listen.
I sometimes wish I could stop other aspects of my life, but then I think having less to do might be part of the current crying situation. I’ve kept myself busy with work and social obligations. Now that work has stopped, I continue to book 9 to 5 and beyond with job search, applications and freelance pitches and work.
I’ve been working really hard at working really hard. I’m not sure if I’m avoiding dealing with cancer or this is my way of dealing with it.
So why the crying? I feel a little helpless and scared. So many things seem out of my control right now—including my own body.
Whenever I’ve been sick with even something trivial, I feel so betrayed. I’ve done yoga since the late ’90s, when Madonna made it trendy. There’s a lot of talk about the mind-body connection, but I still feel as if they’re at odds. Even my preferred form of yoga—Bikram yoga, a series of 26 postures in a room heated to 105 degrees—doesn’t focus on harmony. You’re often pushing your body to a limit, very carefully.
This isn’t the first time I feel as if there’s been a struggle for control. Nine years ago, I had panic disorder. It started while I was in a waiting room while getting a tire changed. Suddenly, I felt dizzy, and my extremities started to go numb. I was a little nauseated and started to sweat, then I couldn’t breathe. I also felt like my brain was trying to escape my head. The best way to describe a panic attack is that you feel as if you’re dying and losing your mind at the same time.
Panic disorder happens when you’re so worried about having another panic attack that you keep inducing panic attacks. It’s a fear of fear itself.
A panic attack itself is your body’s fight-or-flight response at the wrong time. A rapidly beating heart might help if you’re being chased by a predator, but when you’re waiting for a tire to be changed or driving, it’s extremely inconvenient. It’s a physical thing—something a lot of people don’t understand. People often tell you to calm down, but it’s not an emotion. It’s a physical reaction that’s happening for seemingly no reason, and that’s why you also feel crazy.
When you end up in the emergency room a few times because you feel like you’re dying but the doctors don’t find anything wrong with you, it’s really hard to not feel like you’re losing your mind. You’re often not taken seriously. Doctors openly scoffed at me and mocked me. At one urgent care, a sympathetic nurse who suffered from panic attacks after the birth of her first child listened to me and made me feel somewhat sane. I’m not saying panic disorder is worse than cancer, but the latter is taken seriously by the medical community.
Panic disorder makes you feel so alone. And you often alienate yourself, compounding the problem. A lot of people become agoraphobic or self-medicate with alcohol with panic disorder. I feel as if I lost about a year to a year and a half of my life to it. I was able to overcome panic disorder through a mixture of medication, cognitive therapy and educating myself about it. Writing an article about panic disorder and learning so much about it really helped more than medication. (If you want to read a great book about someone overcoming panic disorder, I highly recommend Priscilla Warner’s Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life.)
I found myself talking a lot about panic disorder, but I haven’t talked as much about the cancer. But I talk about the panic attacks more openly because they’re in my rearview mirror. They’re in the past tense.
I haven’t told everyone about my diagnosis. There was no Facebook announcement. I don’t link to my blog on my own social media. I’ve been telling people on a case-by-case basis. And even when I tell people, I follow up with a quick, “But I’m going to be fine!” and reassure them that things are going well. (Both are true.)
In fact, my boyfriend goes with me to my doctor’s appointments not only for support but to also make sure that I don’t downplay my symptoms and side effects. I want to reassure the doctors that I am fine, but he keeps reminding me that they really need to know about any symptoms.
So a lot of people don’t see the dark side—only my boyfriend in many cases, and that’s because he’s around. And my two cats, who sometimes hear me announce, to no one in particular, “I’m sad.” Though sometimes I address the nearest feline with, “Oh, kitty. I’m so sad.” Just a sad cat lady talking to her cats.
I generally find it difficult to talk about my Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s why I write about it. Maybe I’ll feel more comfortable discussing it in the past tense. I certainly hope that’s the case by the end of the year. I tell myself if I got through panic disorder, then surely I can get through this, with support and some of the best medical treatment around, even though my instinct is to try to deal with this alone. Like I’m some sort of wild animal who will be left behind or eaten if I show weakness.
But doubt lingers, like the sore throat I’m experiencing. (Not another cold and eye infection! Please!) This is irrational thinking, but that last time I randomly burst into fits of tears was at the very beginning of my diagnosis, so I wonder if the treatment’s stopped working. It was, of course, also a time of great uncertainty.
At that time, right after my diagnosis, I was also experiencing night sweats. At night, I would lay down a yoga or beach towel on my bed and put on my moisture-wicking workout clothes, with extra clothes by the bed for the nights I would wake up drenched and have to change. I felt as if the night sweats were my body’s way of grieving for itself and what was happening—as were the bouts of crying. It was like my body was a sponge full of sadness that couldn’t escape through my tear ducts and had to seep out my pores at night, when I couldn’t be on guard.
My next PET scan, which will show the chemo’s progress, is in a few weeks. Even if I need longer treatment or stronger treatment, I’m expected to get better.
For now, I will let myself cry and will move forward, until I can say, “I had cancer.”