After months of illness, it’s hard not to sometimes bitterly take stock on what you’ve missed out on. Today, I heard about something else I can’t attend while I have the immune system of an infant, but I’m OK with it. Other opportunities will arise.
There are some days when I’m not OK. I’m tired of being poked and prodded and not getting on with my life. The most frightening thing to me is the thought that this stem cell transplant and radiation didn’t eradicate the cancer and there will be no getting back to “normal.”
I don’t want cancer to become my life. But for some who have stubborn cancers, it can end up being something you live with for a while versus something you get over. I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to do the former, but there’s a small chance I might.
What I’ve lost, I can get back—for the most part. I’ve been robbed of some time. But when I look back at what I’ve lost, I can’t help but see what I’ve also gained. Not that I’m one of those everything-happens-for-a-reason people. I honestly don’t think that everything happens for a reason. If anything, I’ve always personally been more of an existentialist.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I needed to get cancer to give me any fresh perspectives on life. I was doing just fine. Dealing with this has changed me a little bit, but I still don’t think it had a profound impact, not one that I can tell. I already appreciated life and what I had. I didn’t need to slow down. I didn’t need this.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything, though. It doesn’t mean I can’t see some silver linings to my clouds. What have I gained? Most importantly, I hope it’s a cancer-free prognosis. I’ll find out in August if that’s the case. After more than a year I’ve treatment, I’m beyond over Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I just hope it’s over me.
What I’ve gained:
Mental strength. I’ve lost weight, and most of it is muscle. When I look at my wasted body, I try not to mentally calculate the hours in plank or in utkatasana it’s going to take to get me back to form. Right now, I’m walking to keep my energy up, and I’m probably going to start to do walking DVDs and extremely gentle yoga.
What I’ve lost temporarily in physical strength, I’ve gained in mental strength from enduring the treatments. As I mentioned before, I was perfectly happy suspecting I might be weak if it meant I could go untested. It turns out I have a little bit more fortitude than I thought.
I’m extremely squeamish. I don’t faint at the sight of blood or anything, but I generally don’t like to think about bodily functions or fluids or anything to do with the inside. But I’ve endured things like tubes in my chest and IVs in my arms. I’ve given myself injections. I can do some of this squeamish business; I still would prefer not to.
A sense of hair adventure. As I mentioned, I feel smug and superior when I see women’s beauty advice pop up in my Facebook feed, since it no longer applies to me. I don’t need to know how to have glossy, voluminous hair or know how to get curly, long lashes, since I have no hair or lashes.
Of course, I never worried about it much before, either, so my hair loss really hasn’t bothered me much. I would wash my hair and occasionally brush it, but I would never blow-dry or put any products in it. Sometimes I’d get a dreadlock and cut it out. I feel like there was some sort of session about being a woman and caring about beauty concerns that I missed as an adolescent.
I didn’t wear makeup until I was 25, at the urging of a friend who told me it was good for job interviews and looking professional. She took me to a few beauty counters, where I discovered they make you up for free (!) in hopes that you buy their products. I feel obligated to buy everything from people who work on commission, so I never take advantage of this. Anyway, that’s how I’ve applied makeup since—just simple eyeliner, shadow, lip gloss and blush. I draw the line at concealer because I don’t see the point of putting something that looks just like my skin over my existing skin. If I’m going that far, why don’t I just wear a mask and call it a day?
I stopped wearing makeup at 13, because I hadn’t known how to apply it. I’d put eyeshadow on my eyes and then, inexplicably, I’d put a swath under my eyes. No one told me I was doing something wrong until a fateful day in the lunchroom freshman year of high school, when a well-meaning friend asked me what was wrong with my eyes. I’d put pink eyeshadow above and below my eyes, creating bright pink rings. For some reason, I thought this made me look better.
“Nothing,” I said.
“But your eyes are all red,” she insisted.
“That’s my makeup,” I replied. It then dawned on me that I really must look like something was wrong with my eyes, because she seemed genuinely concerned.
“Oh,” she stammered. I must have looked hurt, and I think my other friend must have looked defensive on my behalf. “I just thought… It looks… I didn’t mean…” I will take the apologetic look on her face with me to the grave. Now she thought that I thought she’d insulted me on purpose. It was that point where someone has accidentally insulted you and that person visibly feels so bad that you feel worse for the person than yourself.
What she did, however, was helpfully shape my life for the next dozen years. I went to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and washed off my makeup and didn’t put any on again for more than a decade. I didn’t know how to wear makeup, so I just mercifully stopped. Sometimes I’d dabble, but I had no interest in really learning, until my friend took me into the mall to finally help me learn how to apply makeup.
So my beauty routine falling by the wayside is a bit of a relief. I’m not big on wearing my wig. All my little cancer hats are in the wash, so I’m wearing a do-rag like Bodie Broadus from The Wire, and I’m totally fine with it. I’ve been tying my do-rag with a bow in the back, and I’m kind of hoping it catches on in the street. I’m going to sit out on my stoop more so the guys from the neighborhood can see and emulate.
I wish I could say that my aversion to makeup is some sort of feminist statement, but I’m just lazy. Also, I believe in setting expectations low. When I do wear makeup, people compliment me on how great I look. (Almost to the point where I wonder how hideous I may usually look, but just shy of that point.) My attitude is: This is what I really look like. Deal with it. If you’re special, one day I’ll make myself up nice for you.
I think I look OK. I’ve looked better, for sure. But I probably looked worse when I put eyeshadow under my eyes. That may have been my low point.
As someone who has had the same hair style forever, this has made me more adventurous in that department. I’m looking forward to trying short hairstyles, like that girl from the Halt and Catch Fire previews (but brunette) or maybe the Claire Underwood (but only if it makes me ruthless).
A sense of mortality and health. This one’s tough. When I was getting the radiation explained to me months ago, I almost cried when the nurse told me that I’d have to eat heart-healthy and exercise for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t the eating plan and workouts that made me sad. I eat generally healthy anyway, though I eat more candy than I should. (If I could sustain myself on sugar, I would.) And I enjoy working out. It was the permanence. For the rest of your life. The radiation doesn’t come without consequences—and they’re lifelong. My heart and lungs are a little weakened from being zapped. I’m at higher risk for some cancers later on.
I’m losing things that won’t come back. I might go through menopause very soon. I have to take extra efforts to be healthy because of what my body’s gone through. Things got real right then.
Even more perspective on how great my friends are. I’ll lose some gardening time this summer. As it turns out, everything I love—cats, gardening—can give me toxoplasmosis. I’ve gained some garden helpers who I can supervise over my garden plot this year.
In fact, I’ve gained a lot of help and support—more than I ever expected. The outpouring of kind words has been humbling. I don’t know what I did to deserve such a great group of friends, but I’m going to try to keep doing it. I’ve been inundated with cards, thoughtful little gifts and well-wishes. And, in many cases, it’s been from people I’m not always in touch with, so it’s been nice to reconnect with people. Even though the Internet is junky and boring these days, I’m grateful that social media lets me be in touch with so many people. Being sick is no fun, but it’s really shown me what a great network of support I have around the world!