Cancer has been in my vocabulary since before I really even understood what it meant. My paternal grandmother had breast cancer back in the 70s, and upon her mastectomy, my grandfather was so disgusted by her, he demanded they sleep in separate bedrooms.
In sixth grade, my father had a grand mal seizure that eventually led to his diagnosis of brain cancer: malignant melanoma glioblastoma multi form 4. There were no links or prevention as to why his tumor was there; there was little anyone could do to help, let alone his 12-year-old daughter.
I continued on with my life as best I could, watching him decay before my eyes. His life ended in a nursing home surrounded by men and women twice his age.
A few months after he died, my grandmother passed away from her breast cancer that had returned.
And then I never really heard about cancer again, aside from far-removed cancer fundraisers and articles about everything that can cause cancer. The red dye in licorice and lipstick, pesticides from the food we eat, plastics melted in microwaves, too much sun, X-ray radiation. Sometimes it was just simply a mutation within your body with no explanation; no blame. It seemed overwhelming and impossible to avoid cancer.
And then this month, it did.
A family friend who I’ve known since second grade, a woman we are so close with we call her our aunt, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For an entire year she has been having health issues, and couldn’t figure out what it was. Everyone figured, and obviously hoped, it was some sort of bacterial infection, maybe a bug she had picked up, something that a strong antibiotic could remedy.
This is a woman who makes a pasta sauce so delicious, we encouraged her for years to bottle her secret family recipe. This is a woman with handwriting so elegant it looks like a typeset. This is a woman with a melodic laugh that makes you feel so incredibly loved; a woman who exudes grace, humility and joy. This is not a woman with cancer.
But instead, she met with an oncologist. And this woman who never should have had to hear the word cancer, was given three months to live.
Cancer isn’t as foreign as it used to be. Another family friend quietly had thyroid cancer treated. A colleague of mine is currently undergoing cancer treatment. An old childhood friend went through it. A former coworker of mine had it as a child. Is there anyone out there who is safe from it anymore?
Seventeen years after my father died from cancer, I thought that I had experienced the worst of it. I thought I had somehow paid my dues, that I was immune to having people around me who I love be picked off by this epidemic. These six tiny letters, two simple syllables, one monstrous meaning.