My boyfriend left me a few weeks ago.
Because we were on two different wavelengths, he claimed. Because he no longer had any romantic feelings for me, he realized. We were out to lunch and a movie, and it took him all day to muster up the ability to tell me this. Everything halted and raced forward all at once.
Because I was diagnosed with Leukemia the very next day.
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) is a cancer of the white blood cells. While it looks pretty cool on x-rays, it’s not something I’d wish upon my worst enemy. CLL moves pretty slowly and painfully throughout the body and can be hard to come across in the early stages.
As my doctor was reciting his monologue of the “numerous treatment options available,” I still didn’t fully believe him. This was supposed to just be a check-up appointment. Thirty minutes tops. But cancer? Me? I don’t even look sick. Where is that big malignant tumor I’m supposed to have? The ticking analog clock across the room rang violently in my ears like a doorbell being pressed over and over again. Knock, knock! Reality is here to see you! Ready or not, here I come!
There definitely were some signs though. Those weird bruises on my back, the fever, my abs always hurting (which turned out to be my enlarged spleen — awesome).
But it all just failed to sink in.
I left the office in a pretty weird daze of anger. Luck of the Irish, my ass. Mom was choking on her own tears and saliva and Dad couldn’t even look at me. Right there, in that moment, I felt like I had actually failed them as their own daughter… as a person. Like my one job was to live a healthy, happy life and I couldn’t even manage to do that right. Like I had any control over what happened over the past 48 hours. We got into the car and drove home without saying a single word — there wasn’t much we could say. Or do. So I silently replayed yesterday’s eventful breakup in the back of my mind while listening to John Legend croon romantically on the radio. Because that’s what you do when you’re 19 and you get dumped and have Leukemia. You get to wallow in pathetic self-pity for a little while.
“Cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you…”
It was turning out to be a pretty shitty week.
I started my first round of chemotherapy a few days later. I’d always painted a detailed portrait in my mind of how chemo would be such a dramatic adventure. I imagined the patient being surrounded by a haggle of beautiful doctors and you get zoomed around tiny, dark-lit halls in a wheelchair and take all these questionable drugs and everything is a glorious race against time and fate. Obviously, the closest thing I knew about chemo and cancer was my Netflix binging of Grey’s Anatomy. So for the less medically aware folks out there (such as myself), I can sum it up like this: It sucks. There was no Patrick Dempsey and no excitement. I was pricked and prodded publicly in a sort of morbid cancer daycare center referred to as the pad. This was a quaint sitting area for the nurses to babysit their patients while they received their treatment of the day. I sat for two hours engaged in a staring contest with the plastic bag that was dripping fluid into a needle that was snug in my arm. Overall, it was all fairly depressing.
I had bigger things to worry about, but I was dreading meeting my now ex-boyfriend to trade stuff back. I had his boxers and he had just about all of my belongings (including super attractive spanx). Thinking of seeing him made my face burn bright red in embarrassment and hurt. It was all I could think about. I kept envisioning the relief in his eyes when he would finally shove back all my shit into my arms and be able to escape the relationship for good.
I heard a thud and looked up. A little boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, sat across from me with his arms crossed, staring at a book on the floor. He wore a hat and a plastic tube up his nose and apparently no longer had any interest in reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. His mother sat beside him looking distraught. Bags tugged under her eyes and you could tell she was doing everything that she could for that kid. I felt my heart rise up to my throat and felt fear for the first time since all of this began. Not for myself — but for this lady and her child. Neither of them deserved this. I didn’t deserve this. Nobody did. Why us? Why were we the chosen ones? Just… why?
Once my chemo session was done, I walked over to the tiny boy with the nose tube and handed him back If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. My brain just magically turned off as I tried to think of something funny or clever to say. The right words wouldn’t come out so I just waited for something to happen as my eyes flicked between the book and his lack of hair. He stared at me like I was a crossing between some sort of pedophile and deranged circus clown.
It appeared that cancer had not managed to affect my lack of social skills.
I left in a hurry, bolting passed confused nurses. Some first visit this had turned out to be! I zoomed out of the hospital lobby into my car, locking the door, and I cried. I did the whole ugly crying routine: red eyes, gasping for breaths between sobs, and even mumbling to myself in desperation to find some sort of comfort or steadiness in all of this. I banged the steering wheel repeatedly, listening to the car horn echo obnoxiously off the walls of the parking garage. Life felt impossible. Everything was a mess and I was convinced that there was nowhere to go from that moment.
But of course, there’s always somewhere to go. So yes, I eventually did make it out of that parking garage and I even managed to pull myself together long enough to complete the big trade with the ex-boyfriend. And yes, I went home that evening and puked my guts up because, as it turns out, that is a pretty common thing with chemo. And yes, I thanked my parents for all of their support and love and asked if we had a copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie lying around the house anywhere.
Believe it or not, we did.
This is not a heroine’s story about overcoming some incredible battle. It’s also not a sad tragedy where I waste my days away. It is whatever the hell it is. For now, I’ll call it survival. It’s ugly and whiny and highly unpleasant. I’ve been diagnosed with leukemia for 17 days now. I know I’m just getting started and that there’s a bumpy road ahead of me — but this doesn’t define who I am. I choose to share what I’ve experienced so far so that people understand that cancer comes and wreaks havoc…. yet at the same time, life goes on. We just have to remember not to simple stay in one place. We must pick ourselves up, brush off the dust, and keep trekking forward.