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.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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Catherine 05.13.2014

I so identified with this dear lady’s experience, though she was much better about telling her husband than I. Healthy all my life, and unfamiliar with cancer, I equated it with death. I announced my intent to rent a seaside cottage – until my time to go; then I would contact him. My husband cried; my daughter yelled at me, for quitting. Yes, I pursued treatment and am alive to write about it but Cancer tested me, the reality of my Christian faith. Did I really believe in life-after-death – yes I did. At the moment I thought I was dying, it wasn’t sadness I felt, but unmitigated joy and release. I’d lived my life, mostly true to my faith, and knew with no trace of doubt that the One Who accompanied me through life – Jesus – would greet me on “the other side” of death.

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