Update #8 — “You Don’t Look Like You Have Cancer”

Me, 3/7/15, about 10 days before the last PET scan.

Me, 3/7/15, about 10 days before the last PET scan. Photo by Suszi Lurie McFadden.

But, I do.


I was so tempted to end my post there. Because sometimes it’s that simple. Cancer doesn’t always look like a person in a head scarf. Cancer often looks just like you. Cancer looks like me.

I didn’t really realize this before I got sick. I had the ignorant luxury of presuming that just because someone looked normal on the outside, that they were feeling normal on the inside. I mean, regular ups and downs, yes. I appreciated that. But, I never guessed that the person in line in front of me at the store might have built their whole day around that one single errand, and absolutely dragged their sick ass there by the force of sheer will. Now I don’t go anywhere without wondering who in the crowd might be like me, masquerading as a normal person and feeling anything but. It makes me a much kinder person.

The last two months have been perhaps the roughest for me since I was diagnosed. On its face, this makes no sense. Last year I was tethered to an oxygen tank with the tube up my nose 24/7, IVs in my arm, hair falling out, vomit bowl my indispensable fashion accessory.

Now, I look pretty much myself, albeit with crappier hair. But, I FEEL more like a cancer patient. Last year is a blur. I knew I had cancer, but somehow it felt like a role, a play act. I was waiting for the curtain to lift.

But, this damn show. It keeps going on. Who wrote this shit? Terrible.

The non-linearness of this is just working me over. In the beginning, it seemed more straightforward. Set a goal, work towards it. I laid out a plan: chemo for 6 months, then Xalkori for a few years while the doctors found another treatment, then a cure. What I didn’t realize, didn’t account for, is all the valleys that even the miraculous exceptional stories surely must endure. The side effects, the dodgy scans, the inconclusive tests, the progressions before the regressions. Once, twice, three times even, you talk yourself through it, face your worst fears, peek over the precipice. But by the 8th, 9th, 100th time, you get weary. Can I do this again? Do I still believe? 26.2 miles is not a marathon. THIS IS A FUCKING MARATHON.

As much as I tried not to “look down,” my scan in January scared me. And then came a series of deaths in the lung cancer community that really hurt. My physical symptoms increased: night sweats, nausea and vomiting, extreme fatigue. My oncologist moved up my scan. The (very!) good news is that my PET scan last week did not show any active cancer. There are still nodules lurking, but they aren’t active and they don’t appear to be the cause of my symptoms. My physical symptoms are probably a combination of some difficulties with my miracle drug Xalkori (not always a cake walk!) and/or the various supplements I’m taking, along with a nice dose of depression/anxiety. I earned myself a referral to Stanford’s psychology oncology department. Well done, me.

For now, I’ll conclude with this. My lungs are good. Some other things are not. And in the midst of it all, I’m learning every day. I’m learning how to pull myself out of the muck and go on. I’m learning how to minimize self-pity and maximize empathy for others. I’m learning that I have the strength to travel this road, even though I didn’t choose it, and that doesn’t make me special. We are all capable of rising when we must, even if we don’t want to contemplate that. Strength is all around us. Just take a moment to look a little closer at the person in line behind you. They might not look like they have cancer. But they might.