Getting diagnosed with a chronic form of cancer at age 25 has left me ill-equipped to deal with anyone else’s medical issues now, at age 26. It has taken time for me to remember that me getting dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean that my family and friends are now immune to hardships or medical problems of their own. When I was newly diagnosed and recovering from surgery, I tried to shut out all the problems around me. But now that i’m feeling good–great, even –more often than not, I have been slowly trying to emerge and let the other problems in a little. They’re part of life. And my support system isn’t just there to support me–i’m supposed to be there to support them too.
I am. It is just awkward and new for me to be on the other side of the conversation. My good friend told me the other day that she’s getting checked out for some of the same symptoms that I had before I was diagnosed. In all likelihood, she doesn’t have cancer. But she might have something–and I don’t want her to have anything. Can’t I just have cancer and deal with it well emotionally for both of us, to save her the trouble of dealing with anything else? Now that I’m already sick, I don’t mind being a martyr.
It doesn’t work like that–remember?. Even though I know her doctors aren’t thinking cancer, there were just so many memories running through my head when she was talking about heartburn, a visit to a GI specialist, high liver-function tests, and an endoscopy, that I couldn’t keep myself from saying something. Well, a lot of things. About diet and about endoscopies and about liver-function tests and about blood tests and stool samples. I probably said too much. But all I have is my own experience. My own experience says: young people can get diagnosed with chronic conditions. I’m probably cavalier about chronic conditions, but especially about cancer. Just because i’m in a good place with cancer right now doesn’t mean that A) Things can’t change quickly and, more importantly, B) The word “cancer” or the idea of being “sick” forever isn’t really freaking scary for someone else.
So instead of freaking people out all the time (except maybe my friend–I hope I didn’t freak her out), I just walk around all day diagnosing people with cancer in my head. I would make a terrible doctor because anyone who came to see me complaining of heartburn or nausea or vomiting or diarrhea (my symptoms), would probably get sent directly to radiology for expensive imaging and other tests. How could they not have cancer? The truth is, these GI symptoms could be almost anything. But now that i’ve seen the zebra, it’s hard to see the horses.
My perspective on medical problems, or even just simple colds and flus, is forever skewed. If someone isn’t feeling well, I say the requisite pleasantries like, “Get better soon,” and then I think about what a luxury getting better is. Imagine getting better being that simple. Throwing up sucks all the time, but throwing up everyday for 5 months…
It seems my bar for things being a big deal–for “being sick”–has been set higher. I will soon start the liver transplant evaluation process. I throw the idea of a liver transplant around, but it’s a big deal. I had a really big surgery. I’m on hardcore drugs that screw with my immune system and my ability to process alcohol and any number of other things. Nothing else really registers. I know, everything is a big deal for the person it’s happening to…but I can’t relate anymore to most of the small things my peers complain about. Maybe i’m even guilty of complaining about comparatively small things–like the stupid shot I get once per month. Nevertheless, I try to be sensitive by taking myself out of the equation. It doesn’t always work.
Even as I say all this, it’s terrifying, but true, that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime (a startling statistic from Emperor of All Maladies). That’s a lot of people. I have a lot more than 5 people I love who could fall into that statistic range. Sorry–why aren’t I already sick enough for all of us?