It’s hard to describe what it feels like when you’re told you have cancer and probably won’t make it. I’ve heard some people with cancer say they were flooded with feelings of disbelief and fear. But for me it felt more like I’d been ejected from an airplane, one that was carrying everyone I knew, including my nine-day-old baby. At the time, being diagnosed with bone cancer of the maxilla (think Terry Fox with cancer of the face instead of leg) seemed like the worst thing that could ever have happened to me or my family. It meant I’d need extensive surgery on my face and chemotherapy (if I survived surgery, that is). It meant I’d have to spend lots of time in the hospital instead of in the yard with my baby and other children (I have four altogether, including two step-daughters). I’d lose my ability to breastfeed. I’d lose my hair. And I’d have to walk around with a question mark over my head for the rest of my life. Is today “my time?” Tomorrow? Next month? Next year?
But today, 17 months after surgery and 11 months since my last of six rounds of butt-kicking chemo, I look back and see that getting cancer has definitely had its perks. Here’s how:
1. You find out who your partner really is. I’d always known my husband, Derek, was a lifesaver of sorts — he’d rescued me from single parenthood three years earlier — but I had no idea he was capable of banging down doors and lighting up telephone lines to get me into surgery as soon as possible. Or that he’d be by my side through every doctor’s appointment, medical procedure, chemo treatment and follow-up session. At home, he took care of our children, gave me dozens of injections of Neupogen, flushed my PICC line (the chemo tube that was inserted into my upper arm and over to the entrance of my heart) and dressed all the surgical wounds that had left me looking like a human patch quilt. (The surgeons had sliced open my face and taken a buzz saw to my left maxilla and sinus cavity, two lymphnodes, half of my palate and much of my jaw, including seven teeth. Then they used a large patch of skin from my wrist to cover the hole in my mouth, and shredded skin from my leg to patch the gaping hole left in my wrist.)
2. You get to learn a lot about marijuana without anyone hassling you about it. When you’re not into marijuana, it takes some mind-bending to think of the substance as a medicine. I tried it as a last resort, after my first chemo treatment. I’d spent three grueling days in the hospital trying everything possible to stop myself from throwing up — hospital medications, oxygen treatment, peppermint aromatherapy, meditation, praying, chants from Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Yourself. But nothing seemed to work, at least not for very long. Somehow I managed to hold myself together long enough to get released from the chemo ward of the Royal Jubilee. “I’m fine,” I lied. “Really I am. I’ve been holding down food and water and everything.” (It was Easter weekend and I desperately wanted to be home with my kids.) But the moment I crawled into my husband’s Jeep I begged him to let me quit chemo. I just couldn’t take it, even though I knew that my chances of having a repeat experience with bone cancer would significantly increase — from about 30% to 80% — if I didn’t go forward with my five remaining treatments. He begged me to at least try pot. I was desperate so I did. And I couldn’t believe what happened. Two puffs and instantly I was able to relax, drink water and nibble on a cracker. (Three puffs and I could look at my baby in the backseat without gushing with grief at what might become of her if I gave up.) I immediately joined the Cannabis Buyers Club of Canada and began using a range of cannabis products, as needed. I bought mushy hemp lozenges for mouth sores. I smoked a pipeful of hash the moment I woke up in the mornings to stop myself from throwing up, and many more during the course of a day (that is, if I could do the “chemo shuffle” fast enough to make it to the garage in time). And I smoked several strains of marijuana to lift my spirits, make me laugh, and keep me positive about my asymmetrical reflection and hunched-over hairless body that was looking more and more every day like Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons.
3. You don’t care about money. My pre-cancer self was really hung up about money. I was never late paying bills, had a history of paying down loans in a timely manner, and had started building a small RRSP. I didn’t overspend and would rather have my eyes scratched out than be in debt. But all that changed after my diagnosis. Derek quit his job to take care of me and our children, so our only income was my modest maternity leave money. We ended up having to spend everything we had, plus a lot more, to get what we needed to get through the dozens of trips to the hospital and Cancer Agency — hotel rooms and travel stuff, baby gear so our newborn could stay with us in the hospital, medications and supplies not covered by my health care plan, gifts for the doctors and nurses who saved my life. And then there were all of our basic living expenses like rent and food and school supplies and hot dog days. A year later we were $30,000 in the hole, a figure that in the past would’ve had me teetering toward suicide. Having money problems just doesn’t seem as scary when you’re faced with something really scary.
4. You become more compassionate. The first thing I did when I got my diagnosis was turn to Derek and apologize for all the things I’d nagged him about over the years — the messy state of our garage, his failing to file his taxes on time, the way he drives sometimes. None of it seemed important anymore. Nor did any of the ill feelings I’d ever felt about anyone or anything. Even Derek’s ex-wife’s continual clawing at us for increases in child support payments didn’t gnaw at me the way it used to. It just made me feel sorry for her for her unwillingness or incapacity to grasp what was happening to us. I only wished I could win the lottery and give it to her. In my darkest hours, when I felt like one of the drowning POWs in The Deer Hunter, I dreamed about apologizing to every person I’d ever wronged — a high school friend I’d shut out, a university boyfriend I’d cheated on, a former colleague I hadn’t been fair to. (Thanks to Facebook, I’m well on my way to reaching this goal.)
5. You change your tune about time. When I was first told I’d be doing six chemo treatments three weeks apart, I took it seriously and marked up my three-month calendar with appointments. I figured I’d be done before my 40th birthday in July and would be back to work by the first of September. (That’s how I’d run most of my life before I had cancer —make plans, fill in my calendar, and meet my deadlines no matter what.) But soon I learned that you can’t tell your body what to do when Cisplatin and Doxorubicin are coursing through your veins. Three weeks between treatments turned into three-and-a-half weeks, then four weeks. My white blood count wasn’t bouncing back very gracefully, so my treatments were repeatedly delayed. And when at last I was well enough to continue with chemo, some other snag would often mess with the time in a new way — my PICC line wouldn’t work properly, so I’d have to first go for tests to find out why, the pharmacy would be too busy to mix my chemo concoction on schedule, and, once, my red blood cell count was so low I needed a blood transfusion in order to proceed with chemo. I had to wait six full weeks between my last two treatments and I wasn’t happy about it. But then I realized that I wasn’t the general manager of the universe and couldn’t control anything, let alone time. (These days, if I do put something on a calendar, it’s only because I’m still too chemo-fried to remember stuff. And I write in pencil.)
6. You feel lucky. When you’re tangled in tubes and bandages and struggling to do normal new-mom stuff, you can’t imagine anyone having it worse than you do. But then you look across the hall and remember that the guy over there just learned he has 10 tumours in his trachea and a case of HIV. Or you have a flashback about the woman you shared a room with who had a lump in her gut, didn’t know where she was, and couldn’t move a muscle for more than a month. Or you recall that mom with young kids who said she had to do not six but 17 chemo treatments, and then radiation, and even then “they’re not really sure what’s going to happen.” You remember and you feel lucky because, no matter what, there’s always someone worse off than you are.
7. You lose weight. I didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did. They say marijuana gives you the munchies, but in my case it only stopped me from throwing up and giving up. Between having a quarter of my mouth removed and having no appetite, I could hardly eat. And what I did eat was mostly fruit and vegetables cut into tiny pieces. I lost 40 pounds and eight dress sizes. (And I’ve kept it off!)
8. Your life becomes raw, real and more enjoyable. When you almost die — and still have a question mark above your head — something inexplicable happens to your daily life. Every single thing you see, hear, taste, smell, feel or think seems somehow magical. You don’t want to waste your words or time on negativity. You focus on big, beautiful things — truth, peace, justice and love. Especially love.
Make no mistake, cancer totally sucks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are a few things about being touched by the disease that have markedly made my life better.
Nicole Bodner is an author, freelance writer and publications officer for an addictions research organization. She lives in Powell River, B.C., with her husband and children.