Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holiday Cheer, With A Little Death Mixed In

I realize I would have thrown up this morning, had I let myself.  This morning, all of last night, and probably all of yesterday had I not been occupying my time playing video games.  My mother came down at eleven to say goodnight.  “Are you going to bed?” she asked.  I told her I would.  “Are you worried?” she asked.  I blew up in her face, because I’d been marathon-ing Skyrim precisely so I wouldn’t have to think about how worried I was.  It was some time before we were able to settle the issue and she went to bed.

This morning was six days after the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the turkey coma, and the mashed potatoes with the butter poured in the middle to dip in.  Six days after I’d made all the pies: an apple, a pumpkin, an apple dumpling, and a mighty scrumptious pumpkin cheesecake.  I’m still home for the holiday.  My girlfriend left on Sunday, and I wasn’t able to go with her.  We found a mass Wednesday night, just before Thanksgiving.  I had been diagnosed with cancer in 2011 at the age of 25, so I kept my potential recurrence to myself through the holiday, since I’d seen the effects of this kind of news firsthand, and I didn’t want to ruin the festivities for everyone.

This morning was also four days after the champagne toast my mother arranged to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the completion of my cancer treatment.  “What’s the best kind of champagne?” she’d asked me just days before.  “Can you get some cheap?”  I’d learned from a college roommate that Korbel was the best cheap champagne and I told her so.  I immediately knew something was up, because she only asks me questions like that when she’s getting me something.  And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she would be getting me champagne.  Cancer was that far from my mind.  Then I found the mass, and I had felt like a fraud, clinking glasses, smiling around the table, knowing full-well that I might once again be actively dying.

No matter the outcome of the poking and prodding that was to come, I was once again faced with the knowledge that I had had cancer, and that I’d had three surgeries and an awful, year-long treatment to prevent it from coming back, all in my mid-twenties.  And that being so young, I had significant reason to think it might rear its ugly head sometime down the long road ahead.

There was a New York Times article about this over the summer.  The quoted findings, from Dr. Alex J. Mitchell at the University of Leicester, stated that 18% of young adults remain severely anxious about their experience with cancer two to ten years after being diagnosed.  In couples, that number rose to 28%, with 40% of spouses reporting above-average levels.  The anxiety is real.  I feel the complete set of fears rise up in my neck, the pain of every hair on my body standing sharply at attention, whenever I think I might have found something suspicious poking out.  And that will never change.  I feel guilty every day because I’m in a happy, healthy relationship with someone I truly care about, and what all this must mean for her.

Studies also suggest the same is true of depression, though I’ve personally avoided the brunt of that.  Aside from a stint with chemical depression induced by my immunotherapy treatment, I’ve been my father’s son -- an unfailing optimist.  When I was first diagnosed, and during the ensuing year of treatment, which some refer to with such cavalier terms as “battle,” “struggle,” or some other equally obnoxious buzzword, I went to therapy regularly to work through a healthy episode of PTSD.  According to a study done by Dr. Mary Rourke at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, I’m not alone there either.  By evaluating one hundred eighty-two survivors of pediatric cancers, she found that 16% had PTSD.  Dr. Rourke concluded that young adult cancer survivors experience more psychological problems than the general population.

It’s no wonder then, sitting over my healthy serving of dark meat, watching my family laugh and drink, watching my girlfriend for any obvious signs of hating my family, that I felt a sense of dread underneath it all.  What if I don’t have many more occasions like this?  No more holidays, no more fun times with the family, no more hoping my girlfriend will get along with the craziest, most inappropriate members of my clan.  Looking around the table at the smiling faces, I asked myself, what if I don’t have any more holidays at all?

This morning I had an ultrasound at the local hospital in town.  My family doctor doesn’t have the little stick thingy or the gel at his office, so they made me wait while the hospital took forever to schedule an appointment for today.  To my (pseudo) relief, the tech didn’t see anything unusual.  My Physician Assistant best friend reminds me that techs are not doctors, and the official results are still pending.  I am not fully relieved, nor will I ever be.

I am now 28 years old, and this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.  I love my family, and my friends, and I hope to have a long, prosperous life in a career that satisfies me, with a partner by my side who complements me and fills me with joy.  There is a dark cloud that lingers above me, threatening to take it all away at a moment’s notice.  I willingly pay it no mind when it’s unreasonable to do so, but that only means that when I have a legitimate scare, it comes back in full force.  It took a long time to come to terms with this pattern, but I realize that it will always be a force in my life.  Only at times like Thanksgiving, when I can sit around a table with the people who are most important, laugh, play games, and drink cheap champagne, that I realize how lucky I am to have had any of it at all.


  1. I once heard someone describe cancer as "the wolf at the door". I'm not sure if this is what he meant, but I took it in the context of the 3 little pigs and not knowing if your house is made of straw, sticks, or bricks.

    In any case, your post really stuck with me. I am sending positive vibes your way and I hope that your official results are clear.

  2. I've never heard that before, but it certainly seems like an appropriate metaphor. It feels like there's something dangerous lurking very close by, and sometimes you forget about it altogether. But every now and then you remember how much it has the power to hurt you and those you love. And when you stumble across something suspicious during a self check, all the feelings and painful memories come back and you have to shut down for a while.

    Thanks for the support and the well wishes. I appreciate it.