The Gift of Cancer by J.S. Foote
Cancer has its benefits. For one, you don’t have to shave. That’s a big one. The sudden disinterest in food also helps. But what is the best thing about having cancer? The inevitable reorientation. What used to matter so much to you, suddenly seems trivial. Now the only thing on your plate is to survive—for yourself and your loved ones. And then having survived, to live a better life.
My cancer diagnosis was truly surprising. It doesn’t really run in my family. Plus, I had no symptoms. Zero. Actually my life was running relatively smooth right up to the point that it fell completely apart. I was in the midst of planning my wedding in November. I’d received good reviews for my book, The Heart of Annie. Then, randomly one night I did a self-exam and found a lump. That was Saturday. By the following Thursday I had been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Seven days after that I learned I would probably never have children. Life turned completely upside down in less than two weeks.
My prognosis, however, was a good one. I had caught it early and it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. Plus, it was an estrogen positive cancer, so, according to my doctor, would likely be receptive to chemotherapy. I had, if you were going to have to have cancer, the type you’d want….moderately slow growing and treatable. There was a lot to be grateful for. And so I began my treatment—six rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation. My fiancée and I postponed the wedding and faced the fight together.
Ironically, my book had been tangentially related to fighting cancer as well. The character Annie, for whom the book is named, was struggling with the disease and, wanting to be authentic in how I captured this struggle, during the writing of the book I’d read a number of writings from cancer patients on what they had gone through and how they coped. I remember thinking while doing this research, how fortunate I was to have had so little experience with the disease, when in all likelihood my tumor had already begun to grow. But a year later this research would serve as a playbook for me on how to deal with my own cancer, because from those writings I learned this—that those who suffered from the disease were inevitably stronger for it. The cobwebs of anxiety that so often obscured the attitudes of the healthy were shunted to the side, to be replaced by the singular focus of wanting to live another day. Oh, the luxury of having sifted away and pronounced unacceptable any other choice but to make the best of things.
My diagnosis has also strengthened my relationship. Admittedly, the odds were in my favor. My fiancée and I were deeply in love when I was diagnosed. But living with someone who is fighting cancer is not for the squeamish. Your body revolts in painful and embarrassing ways from the poison passing through your cells. Your hair falls out, leaving you staring at the reflection of a woman that at one time may have actually been pretty, but now pretty much looks like a walking hybridization of Archie Bunker and a de-masked Darth Vader. Your skin cracks from dryness and your body bloats from all the steroids. You are living through absolutely your worse moments, and they bear witness to that vulnerability. In a nascent relationship such as ours, such unedited humanity could prove fatal to the bond. What I found, though, was a man who could still tell me I was beautiful (and somehow actually mean it) and who could make me laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I found a man who would stay with me no matter what.
And so, while I would never wish the disease on anyone, I do feel somewhat lucky to have had my version of it. I say this because cancer, you immediately learn upon diagnosis, is a complicated disease and manifests itself in people in such varied ways that it is futile, if not dangerous, to draw comparisons. But in my case, my cancer has given me several gifts. It has introduced me to an even stronger version of myself and my relationship. It has borne witness to the fact that I, and my loved ones, can laugh in the face of adversity. It has reoriented my attitude and my approach toward life. Ultimately, one day, I may die from this disease and honestly, that is not a reality I relish carrying the rest of my days. But in the meantime, I have been shown that where before I took life for granted, I will now take life as a gift.
J.S. Foote is a writer and lawyer living in Austin, Texas. Before relocating back to Texas in 1998, she worked as an editor at Family Life magazine (published by Wenner Media, LLC and Hachette Filipacchi Media, Inc) and as a writer in New York City. The Heart of Annie is her first book; she is currently at work on the sequel. Follow her on Twitter twitter handle is @JSFoote.
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