I was diagnosed with cancer in a hospital emergency room one winter day in 2005. After a year of on-again, off-again pain in my ribs and back, I went there because the pain in my back was suddenly so intense I couldn’t walk. A young resident at the hospital told me that what I’d thought was a slipped disc was actually a type of cancer. It was called multiple myeloma, and it was causing fractures in my ribs and spine.
Not only had I never heard of this kind of cancer, I had a hard time pronouncing it. For weeks, I kept telling my friends that I had melanoma, instead of myeloma.
What followed was a blur of hospitalization, radiation, medication, chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and lots of visits to the doctor. All this took two years. Right now, I’m treatment-free, but living with the knowledge that my myeloma will inevitably return.
For me, living with cancer is like inhabiting two worlds simultaneously. In one, I’m unchanged, the same old person with the same responses and expectations. In the other, I’m someone new, with a different perspective and a different future. In this second world, I’ve lost a kind of innocence that most of my friends still have. (In fact, once you’ve been diagnosed, there’s no undoing it, no going back. In this respect, getting cancer is a little like losing your virginity.)
One of the hardest parts of my cancer experience has been going through it alone, because I don’t have any immediate family. Friends I have, in abundance; but there’s a big difference between even the most devoted friends and someone who’s bound to you by ties of marriage, blood, or partnership.
The way I see it, dealing with cancer is like navigating whitewater rapids. When you have someone to share it with, you’re in a canoe. No matter what it’s like, you face it together. When you do it alone, you’re in a kayak. Yes, your friends may be running along the shore, waving from time to time, but sink or swim, you’re out there on your own.
This isn’t meant as a grumble. It’s just the way life has turned out for me—and lots of others, too. Though I’ve gone through times when, because of side effects or physical weakness, financial worries or simple terror, I really missed the presence of someone I could turn to—someone who remembered the details that are important to me, someone who saw me during my ups as well as my downs, someone who could knowledgeably discuss alternative solutions to problems my friends wouldn’t be able to understand.
After my transplant, I found just such a person in the shape of a social worker at CancerCare. Unlike the support group I attend regularly, she’s there for me alone one hour a week. Her attention and understanding, not to mention her sense of humor and font of information, have been invaluable to me.
As time passes, I’m reaching out more myself. I’m serving as a mentor to newly diagnosed myeloma patients and seeking ways to let more patients know about the services available to them. I don’t have any idea where my cancer experience will take me. But I do know that CancerCare will always be an essential part of my journey.