When my cancer and I woke up this morning, we were plunged into worry and depression. In fact, waking up is pretty much the worst part of the day when you have cancer, because every morning, for just a few seconds, I think to myself, “What an awful nightmare! Thank God none of that was real!” But the relief melts away when I realize that actually, every single part of it was and is totally, completely, undeniably real.
On the day after Christmas, 2012, a surprisingly calm doctor really did call to deliver the news that I’m cancerous. The little lump I’d felt in my breast back in August was and is, in fact, growing unchecked, ready to ravage my body and choke out my organs with its immortal life force.
“I think you’ve made a mistake,” I said, numb. “I’m 25 years old. And also, I never even grew boobs. I’m wearing the exact same size bra I wore when I was 13.”
“I know this is hard for you,” the radiologist continued. “It’s not uncommon for patients to experience the five stages of grief.”
Ah, the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. She didn’t really give me a timeline for experiencing these, and I would say I experienced all five of them within the first 30 seconds of her phone call, and not necessarily in the order she predicted. Or an order that made any sense at all.
Then, as the days went on and I continued to wake up in the morning to the horrible Groundhog Day realization that I Have Cancer, I realized that those five feelings are not really sufficient to explain the completely unsafe, small-town, carnie-run emotional rollercoaster that is a cancer diagnosis. So, these are my new and improved:
FIVE STAGES OF FINDING OUT YOU HAVE CANCER
Stage 1. Temporary deafness. I don’t know what it is, but when someone says the word “cancer” as it relates to you, you lose your ability to hear the rest of the sentence. I know I was on the phone with this radiologist for like 20 minutes while she explained what the next steps would be for my now-cancerous self, but the call might as well have been a text message that said “u have cancer lol” for all I remember. Even afterward, when my parents and brother tried to talk to me about it, I felt like I was lying at the bottom of a pool and they were shouting at me from above the surface, their words distorted and muted.
Stage 2. Manic inspirational Pinterest quote searching. A few hours after my temporary deafness subsided, I morphed into Oprah. I was like a fountain of crappy needlepoint sayings, spouting out bullshit like, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!” and “God wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle!” I wouldn’t call it hopefulness, exactly; it was more like last minute, panic-induced mania, probably induced by the same biological response that causes all your capillaries to explode in a futile attempt to warm you moments before you die of hypothermia.
Stage 3. Public crying. Once I realized that no amount of typographic posters talking about hope and love were going to undo the fact that I would have my breasts cut off, my body pumped full of poison and my bald head on display for all to see for at least six months, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I mean, like, not even for a few minutes. I cried when I woke up. I cried over the breakfast I couldn’t eat. I cried while watching CNN for hours, hoping to hear news stories of people that were even worse off than I was. I cried while looking at Facebook. I cried on the toilet. I cried in the shower. I cried in the car. I cried in the yard. It didn’t matter who was around or if they were looking at me or if they appeared alarmed or what. I cried on an airplane, and as I was sobbing hysterically, the woman next to me said comfortingly, “Oh, honey, what’s wrong? Boy troubles?” At that moment, the fact that I was truly too young for this shit hit me.
Stage 4. Googlemania. If you are ever diagnosed with a deadly disease – and I pray to God that you never are – STAY. THE. EFF. AWAY. FROM. GOOGLE. Dr. Google is not a very good physician. He’s full of statistics that will get in your head and make you certain – and I mean certain – that you are going to die. After a few hours of googling horrible things like “how long before breast cancer metastasizes,” “how many people are stage IV breast cancer at diagnosis,” “what if my lymph nodes are enlarged with breast cancer,” I was pretty much ready to roll over and wait for the cancer to ravage my body and leave me a dead, hollowed-out shell of myself before age 28. Finally, I vowed that I just didn’t care what Google or the stats had to say. Only 0.3% of breast cancer cases occur in women under age 30. Statistics already screwed me once. I ain’t listening to them again. Suck it, Google.
Stage 5. Finding the funny. Finally, the realization began to sink in that self-pity doesn’t cure cancer. No matter how many tears splashed down my reddened cheeks, they were not soaking into my pores and eliminating cancer cells from my body. So why not laugh? Why not see the humor in the situation? I’m 25; I get emotional when ModCloth is sold out of the dress I want, and God help you if your establishment doesn’t carry cake batter-flavored frozen yogurt when I roll up with my frequent customer punch card. When that’s the level of your emotional maturity, it’s tough not to find humor virtually everywhere. After chemotherapy, when your long brown hair starts coming out in tufts so thick you actually, literally look down at them and considering making a braided bracelet out of them, I dare you not to laugh-cry. I know I did, and I was in public.