An Identity Crisis after a Cancer Diagnosis

The importance of maintaining a positive attitude during cancer treatment

by Linda Yellin
illustration of broken egg
Photograph: Justin Fantl

I owe my long history of good health to Mrs. Danzinger, my grade school nurse. She’d stick a thermometer in your mouth, pull it out three minutes later and scream, “You’re faking! Go back to class!”

Over the years, even I believed any cold, flu or deadly rashes I manifested were fake and I was really just fine. So when the vascular surgeon I see for cosmetic vein shots found a lump in my leg, I didn’t blink. Even after the biopsy, I never thought anything was wrong.

“Cancer?” I said. “No. What’s it really?”

With my doctor escorting me from his fifth-floor office to the hospital’s 11th floor, I didn’t have time to process the news. Somebody took my blood pressure. Normally it’s 110 over 70. Now it was 160 over 80. Five minutes later, I was sitting in front of the man who was my oncologist. I had an oncologist?

The diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A curable cancer. “Seventy thousand people get this every year,” he told me. I frowned. “So first you’re telling me I have cancer, and now you’re saying I’m not special?”

I’m the opposite of an I-am-my-own--advocate patient. Instead, I chose to trust my Yale-educated, Castle Connelly top doc and immediately adopt a policy of upbeat obliviousness and no Internet surfing. If ever there was a place to read scary stuff, it’s the Web. Dr. Grossbard would take care of my health crisis. But only I could handle my identity crisis: Holy shit! I’m somebody who has cancer!

I waited until that evening to tell my husband, practicing painless ways to deliver the message.

Honey, would you mind picking up my cancer prescriptions at CVS?

Hey—guess who’s going bald before you are?

We were feeding our pet fish, George. A relaxing setting. Randy cried. Then rallied. He’s my prince.

That week I started doing all the things a person with cancer does, even though I still didn’t think of myself as a person with cancer.

At my PET scan, I filled out paperwork about my medical history, something I’d always been smug about. No this. No that. Then I got to the question, Have you ever had cancer? I answered: Yes. But added: For only two days. Next, I was given a radiation-laden “berry” drink. It tasted like liquid gummy bears. I half expected to be told, after the scan, “Good news! You don’t have cancer. The bad news: You now have diabetes.”

A part of me was fascinated by my new experiences. I felt as if I were watching somebody else have a bone biopsy, somebody else buy a wig. Wigs were for aged movie stars, newscasters and, well, people with cancer. Not for me. When I told the saleslady I wasn’t interested in the pricier, real-hair wigs, she warned me that you can’t go near a stove in synthetic wigs. I asked, “Are they a problem near a takeout menu?” But the human hair did look much more human.

Though I was now prepared to go bald, I still didn’t think of myself as Linda Who Has Cancer. I felt fine. Plus, I was helped along by all the euphemisms associated with chemo. The chemo infusions in the chemo suite. I was waiting for the radiation to be called “tanning booth.”

My first chemo session lasted six hours. After sitting for six hours, I want to arrive in London. But my hospital has a music therapist, an art therapist and a reflexologist. And, oh, those cozy Barcaloungers! Maybe I was at Canyon Ranch.

Still, it was the chemo that made my life seem more canceresque. I left the hospital carrying my antibarfing drugs, which included four days of steroids. They produced such a burst of energy that I wanted to clean closets, scrub floors, bang out a couple of new novels and compete in the Tour de France. But then the steroids stopped and the tired set in.

I am not someone who stays in bed all day. I am someone who gets up and makes the bed before she brushes her teeth. I wondered if the doctors had gotten confused and instead of giving me chemo gave me coma.

A friend who had survived breast cancer started sending me spiritual e-mails on how I’d now joined the Sisterhood of Cancer. I didn’t want to be in the Sisterhood. I wanted out of the Sisterhood. Another friend informed me that “the underlying emotional causes of cancer are usually unexpressed anger and unresolved resentment.” Now I was pissed! I put that friendship on hold.

But so many people volunteered to visit during chemo that I was afraid I might need to schedule additional sessions. And everyone I’d ever met wanted to come watch while I got my head shaved. What was with that? Only Randy got the honor. Afterward, I sent a photo of my new shiny pate to my sister in Chicago, who wrote back: You’ve had worse hairstyles.

I dubbed myself SinĂ©ad O’Cancer. A big step toward my new self-image as a cancer patient.

 Were there perks to being Linda Who Has Cancer? Yes. Homemade soups and flowers from friends. E-mails now signed love. People kept telling me I have a nicely shaped head, an asset I never knew I had. Or needed. And every morning Randy brought me coffee in bed. True, it had Miralax in it, but I was touched.

After infusions two and three, my complexion looked great. A PET scan technician informed me I have extra-long, skinny lungs. I now knew my lungs would look good in jeans. I also learned my scan was clean. No green glowing critters! I was ready to graduate to radiation and a free suntan.

Weeks later, my energy started coming back. I felt healthy. I felt like me. I’d be bald longer than I’d be in treatment. But a few days after getting the news about my clean scan, I spotted a donation card for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the grocery store. I slipped in a quarter, thinking, My society! And on my way out, I passed a woman with no visible hair, wearing a turban. I smiled at her. We were Sisters.

LINDA YELLIN’s new novel, What Nora Knew (Simon & Schuster), pays tribute to Nora Ephron.

Next: Postdivorce, I'm a Solo Act

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First Published Wed, 2013-10-09 16:34

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