Every October, I look at the leaves turning gold and red and orange around me and feel grateful that I’m still here. It was in October that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was lucky, though. My own cancer was minor and I’ve been cancer-free long enough now to be considered “cured.” I should forget about it, my doctor says.
But who can do that, especially when reminders are all around us?
It isn’t just the pink ribbons. It’s the people we know and love who are fighting cancers of all sorts, and at all different stages of life. This past year alone, I’ve had friends and family members diagnosed with lung cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, bladder cancer and breast cancer. How do we all get through it, I’ve wondered.
“We get through it one day at a time,” is the standard response. But there’s a better answer than that, I’ve found, as I watch my friend Elsie. (This isn’t her real name, though she wouldn’t care if I used it.)
Elise has rectal cancer. “Not even anything glamorous,” she fumed when I stopped by to see her the other day. “You know, people hear you have cancer, and they automatically look at your boobs.” She pointed to one of her breasts and added, “I have a lot of fun telling them that my cancer’s down here.” She turned around and aimed her rear end at me. “Then I ask them, ‘Hey, does this cancer make my butt look big?’” She burst out laughing.
So did I. And then I laughed harder, tears streaming down my face as Elsie told me story after story. The weird thing is, not one of the stories was funny, but the more stories we shared, the harder we laughed.
There was the one about her surgery to remove the cancer, where the surgeon punctured her vaginal wall and feces started leaking out through her vagina. There’s the one about how her boyfriend of many years was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer as Elsie was fighting for her life. Oh, and how about that massive infection? Gosh, that was a fun time!
“At one point, I was driving my boyfriend to a medical appointment, and you’ll never believe this, but my car caught on fire during a monsoon rain!” she said. “Another time, I was wearing white pants and my colostomy bag broke open, but I hadn’t learned how to reattach it yet!” Turns out she was allergic to her bag, or to the paste that held it to her skin, and that meant it broke open a lot. Elsie got pretty good at putting herself back together.
Once she had the surgery to repair the fissure with a muscle from the inside of her thigh, Elsie had to go into a nursing home for rehab and recovery. Oh, and did I mention that she’s only in her fifties?
“The men in that place couldn’t stop chasing me around!” she said. “I never felt so gorgeous in my life!”
“Drop dead gorgeous!” I agree.
By then, we were both nearly choking, we were laughing so hard.
And that’s when I knew she was going to be okay. Whether Elsie dies from cancer or not, she has beaten it. It has not beaten her. She has seen her own mortality and embraced it. She has allowed herself to be open and vulnerable and therefore closer to people she knows. She has put one foot in front of the other even when she’s tired or feels disgusting or knows her hair isn’t looking the way it did when anyone from high school knew her. She does not recognize herself in the mirror sometimes, but you know what? She is her truest self and she is loved.
Bring it on, cancer. Make us laugh.