I think a lot about cancer now.
I didn’t for a long time. I don’t remember being scared as I drove those four hours back to Philadelphia to be home when she got her results. I do remember when she and dad came home and told us it was cancer, nodding and saying, “Okay, what’s next?” because reacting any other way didn’t seem natural to me. I don’t recognize a lot of strengths in myself, but this was one of them. When the world falls apart, I clap my hands together, ask how we can make it all easier, and try to crack a joke to make everyone smile again.
I didn’t read anything about cancer. Whatever story someone had to tell had nothing to do with my story, or my mother’s. Theirs was theirs, ours was ours. I don’t regret this because it was my way of survival. I was optimistic because her doctors were optimistic, so I didn’t need anyone telling me “it’ll be okay,” or, “so-and-so beat it, so your mom will, too.” I appreciated people’s support, of course, but those words were encouraging pats on the back while I was riding a bucking bronco; I was too busy hanging on else to really notice.
I went to her first day of chemotherapy. I had been imagining a cold hospital room with beeping machines and that lingering scent that every room seems to have, a mix of disinfectant and tears. And old people. Instead, it was a bright room with tons of windows where all the patients sat together. There were nooks of two or more chairs. The nurses were really nice. Mom had hair.
Next time I came home, mom was wearing a scarf on her head. She took it off to reveal a nearly bald head. There were some long, thin strands that were clinging to her scalp. I begged her to shave it (“Mom, you look like a terrifying mummy, and that’s not supposed to be funny word play. Shave it.”) but she refused. “They’re survivors,” she explained. “Why would I reject the parts of me that are surviving?”
I never thought of it that way before. My mom has a way of doing that. Of taking what I know and flipping it, putting it on its bald head.
It took me years to read anything about cancer, and still now, it’s selective. I took me years to read a new book by one of my favorite authors (and yes, waiting to read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was well worth it, what an incredible story). A few years ago, I couldn’t have sold jewelry that had painted pink ribbons all over it, or talked to the customers about their stories.
But now I think about cancer and I feel more afraid for mom now than I did when she “had” cancer. They don’t really use the “remission” word anymore, but she’s been doing well for a while. But I feel more anxious about her appointments and tests than before. I reconsider before I order soy, and I think “ORGANIC!” when I go grocery shopping because if it gives me a .01% less chance of getting mom’s disease, then it seems worth it.
When it comes to cancer, I still don’t like hearing other people’s stories. Maybe that makes me selfish, but if being selfish keeps me going, then so be it. The only story that matters to me is my mom’s. And she’s a survivor.
And she always will be.