A blow from left field
Less than three weeks ago, to my immense surprise, I became a woman with cancer. I had always thought that my fatal weakness would turn out to be some form of autoimmune disease, and this belief was reinforced two years ago when I had the DNA decoding company 23andMe assess my genome to determine my health risks. Because six out of my nine top genome-linked tendencies were autoimmune in nature, I never dreamed that cancer would snag me instead. But perhaps it will be shown one day that autoimmune tendencies support certain cancers, in which case 23andMe won’t have been so far from the target.
My cancer is MMT, Mixed Mullerian Tumor, which attacks the female reproductive organs. I’d already had a hysterectomy so the disease went for my ovaries. Fifteen days ago I had major abdominal surgery to remove large cancers from both ovaries. The smaller one was the size of a lemon; the bigger one was at least twice that size. Countless small “granular” cancers remain inside my abdomen and will need to be targeted with chemotherapy.
Because I’m a journalist by profession, I see no reason to censor the flow of information. To link shame to a diagnosis of cancer seems to me to be a vestige of the 1940s and ’50s, when doctors often didn’t tell their patients that they had cancer at all, and spoke of it to their relatives only in hushed voices, behind closed doors. I’m all for openness and truth, not shame and obfuscation, which is why I’m writing this essay. Those who don’t feel the same can simply stop reading right now.
Cancer has lessons to teach us, if we’re open to the experience and don’t flinch. Lung cancer claimed the lives of my two dearest women friends from college days, and sorrowfully watching their painful deaths taught me a powerful lesson. It’s not just how we live that affects people around us for better or for worse, it’s also how we die. One of these two women collapsed into fear and anger at her diagnosis and shut herself off from all her friends and acquaintances, refusing to answer phone or email messages, and refusing to let people come over and hold her hand and tell her how much they loved her. The other woman reached out to all her friends and asked for their emotional support, and basked in their love until she succeeded in wresting a year-and-a-half remission from her 99% deadly form of cancer. What I learned from the deaths of these two women was that the support of friends is heartwarming and immensely valuable, and that fear/anger rubs off on the survivors who are left behind.
So I have resolved to tell everyone the facts about my disease, and to be as courageous and brave as I can manage. The mortality rate for MMT cancer is not at all good, but those mortality rates are based on the average American who struggles with that disease. And I’m not an average American by any means. Average Americans too often eat junk food, drink to excess, have messy personal lives, and are overweight. I eat organically, I have always taken care of my body, I am surrounded by a loving and close-knit family, I’m happy and optimistic by nature, and to my astonishment (with heartfelt thanks) I have discovered that scores of people value me and are rooting for me to defeat this disease. And all these factors can be extremely powerful when it comes to influencing the mortality rates. I’ve been an outlier all my life; so I think it entirely possible that I can prove to be an outlier when it comes to cancer as well. Time will tell, but I see many reasons to hold onto my optimism right now.
Tomorrow I get a baseline CT scan and my chemo port. Wish me well!