Looking back, it seems obvious that what happened to me that summer was traumatic.
I was a fifteen-year-old receiving chemo for Hodgkin’s Disease, and all was going as expected. Scans showed the cancer in retreat if not in remission. A few more treatments of the toxic cocktail C-MOPP and I could resume “normal” life.
Except. I took a short break from chemo to go to dance camp for a few weeks. By the time I returned, I felt a new mass in my neck, a large, obvious bulge of tumor. I recognized this development as the announcement of my death.
I told my parents. I told my oncologist. Cancer that proliferates between chemo sessions? Extraordinary in the worst way.
It has taken me the ensuing 40 years to realize how well I behaved in an extremely difficult situation. My parents never spoke of my cancer, never asked me how I felt, never comforted me or tried to dispel my fears, never gave me any kind words, any sense of meaning, or any indication of how they were feeling.
I was fifteen years old, clearly sick, most likely dying, painfully conscious of what was happening to me, and my parents silently carried on, as if I had just been sent home from school with mono or lice.
Any devastation I felt I internalized, as following my parents’ example, I kept going. I kept going until I could no longer keep going. Until the decades of silence exploded.
Having cancer again, a pretty likely development for a bone marrow transplant survivor, throws me back into my primary cancer like a kitten tossed through a plate glass window.
But I do see things more clearly now. How I was right to be traumatized by events, how I would have been far less traumatized if my parents had exercised any compassion or common sense.
I come out the other side with a certain pride. I got myself through the first cancer; I will get myself through the second cancer. And now I am surrounded by people I have chosen for myself, people who listen, people who care, people who aren’t afraid of feeling, weakness, or vulnerability.
I am fully myself, a mix of despair and possibility.
I love people now who are like me, who are willing to do the hard work, the real work, of love.