When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my life was in a weird place. I was about one year out of the worst relationship of my adult- scratch that- ENTIRE life and, therefore, I was still in the midst of the great rebuild of my previously demolished social community AS WELL AS being knee-deep in my first serious restaurant management job. Woof. Timing for any bad news is always bad, so I’m not going to say, “The timing was really bad.” You know, even though it WAS. Obviously, there’s no good time to hear bad news. Bad stuff sucks ETERNALLY.
I decided initially not to tell anyone I was sick. I thought, man if nobody knows about it- well, maybe I won’t feel so sick! And, boy isn’t that the foundation of every cancer-free success story! They believed the river would heal them, and so it did… I mean, RIGHT? I am NOT JOKING. I’d barely been faced with the disease in my life, so I was really throwing my faith into the deep well of tragedy-based cinema, theatre, books, blogs, etc. SUPER PRACTICAL, I KNOW. And in line with my choice to remain quiet about my illness, I’d also convinced myself that I’d found a cancer treatment loophole. I am so smart sometimes! I thought that saying “I have cancer” was somehow like speaking the name “Voldemort” in a Harry Potter movie, and I was all “HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED” MOTHER FUCKER. Except that I was even taking it to the NEXT LEVEL, and I wasn’t even saying THAT. Yeah. I had, “THAT-WHICH-DOES-NOT-EXIST” BECAUSE NOTHING IS HAPPENING OVER HERE, EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY COOL! MOVING RIGHT ALONG!
YES, I AM A TOTAL BUTTHEAD. I AM AWARE.
After the first few cycles of chemo, and a lot of illustrative lying (mostly to myself), the symptoms started to betray me. I started puking. A LOT. And when I wasn’t puking, well, I was thinking about puking! IT WAS MAGICAL. I was a living, breathing PUKE MACHINE. I spent a lot of time thinking and dreaming about puking, and developing an intimate relationship with the cool and relaxing tiles of my tiny bathroom floor. No bathroom floor feels like anything other than complete and utter relief when you’re that sick, no matter how fucking filthy it is. No judgment, floor! YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL AND FEEL NICE ON MY SWOLLEN FACE. Thank you, FLOOR.
But, hiding things… well, it proved to be a slightly trickier issue at WORK. And THAT’S where my creativity really flourished. What with booze being a common staple/vice in the restaurant world- you know, I’m going to say that it was the easiest and most obvious scapegoat in my particular situation. Something that linked my behavior and REALLY TIED THE STORY TOGETHER. SO nicely. Because drinking when you work in the service industry is something people IN the service industry are altogether VERY SENSITIVE TO and EXTREMELY WARY to be judge-y about, and therefore they are not! And, I mean- it wasn’t entirely off the list of highly likely scenarios for me then. It’s not like I hadn’t done the HARD LEAN (on multiple occasions) in the bathroom at work a considerable number of times (ALL THE TIMES, SO MANY) at that point in my career… so, I stuck to that for a good bit and it seemed to work! In fact, it worked a little TOO good. I feel like my memories of that time are of a staff that really thought I was their fucking badass ROCKSTAR BOSS who don’t-give-a-fuck about NO SHIT! GIMME ANOTHER SHOT OF FERNET, NO BIG. I GOT THIS, BOO. And that was that! I was their wacky and consistently hungover manager who had some crazy awesome nightlife, apparently, and you know- who still could manage to get it all done! A real Gal-Friday, I was!
The onset of PukeTrain 2012 at my job still was problematic though, and frustratingly obvious to every person working with me- including my bosses. I started blaming it on not enough sleep, anti-depressants (in addition to the rampant hangovers, OBVIOUSLY) because that seemed like a better option! I mean, I wasn’t getting wasted and popping Wellbutrin at the bar, or anything QUITE so FANCY. Nope! I was just being open and good humored about the fact that I’m not perfect! I spoke readily about my recently failed attempts at committed relationships and authentic romance, and like- FEELINGS AND SHIT and how weird I feel pretty much ALL OF THE TIME. I reflected OUT LOUD about all of my mistakes, my trips and falls. And I never held back, I just put it ALL OUT THERE. And I laughed at myself for it all, in front of them all! I laughed for the fact that these things had happened, and the fact that I’d shared them with my staff, and even for the fact that I knew I was finding true comfort in this strange and inappropriate emotional process I’d stumbled upon, thankfully, and in lieu of that one piece of information that was the driving force behind it all: I HAD CANCER. Yeah, nah! Nobody needed to hear ALL THAT. PLEASE.
And it was easy information to leave out! For the most part, I was beyond suspicion. Because, well- anyone sharing that level of unfiltered and embarrassingly intimate parts of their life, their fears and utterly unbelievable and astoundingly detailed AND completely accurate daily depictions of acute personal failure and humiliation has got to be PRETTY FUCKING BELIEVABLE. Because, WHY ELSE? WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT? WHY? WHY TELL PEOPLE THAT STUFF IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO? Well, I had NO PROBLEM doing it! WHY? IT WAS EASY. Because it feels good to be honest about A WHOLE BUTTLOAD OF OTHER CRAP when you’re trying SO HARD to hide a big stupid secret from everyone! And it builds a healthy muscle memory, which I can totally vouch for! It really works! Sharing the things that are simultaneously the hardest and most hilarious details of your existence is GOOD PRACTICE for ALWAYS DOING IT FOREVER. Take it from me! LIFE! And I like to share them with people I know very well just about as much as I do with the complete strangers I encounter on the day-to-day, IF NOT MORE. People welcome that sort of thing for the most part, in my experience anyhow. I feel as though that kind of information is at least a LITTLE compelling to anyone living and breathing in this tricky messy world. I also know how to READ A ROOM, PEOPLE. I AM NOT SOME CREEPY INSANE PERSON. I KNOW WHEN TO TURN IT OFF. (…)
OKAY. STOP IT RIGHT THERE, SHIELDS! (That’s you, that’s what you just said to me right then- in my imagination.) You’re all, “When is she going to talk about the CANCER STUFF.” HOLD ON A MINUTE!
OKAY FINE. Eventually, when the fight got too hard and I had to leave my job, I decided to fill everyone in. I had to exercise that Secret Thought Demon and move on to the next level of battle. I needed focus, and secrets are the enemy of focus. It’s so simple, and so fucking true. Secrets take up space in your heart. EVICT THEM, send them packing. They’re not worth the rent money, trust me. And, listen- it was SO worth it to get it ALL OUT. Sometimes my more MATURE self thinks back and wishes I’d done it sooner. But… nah! Because, what’s THE FUCKING POINT in thinking about THAT? PSSHT. Would I do things differently now? Sure! Absolutely! But it’s also easier now because I’ve already BEEN very sick and everyone already KNOWS I was sick and- let’s face it, when you get THAT sick nobody is never NOT expecting you to ever get sick again. It’s the harsh reality of something so harrowing and insidious as cancer. Even when it leaves you, in never really leaves. Whether you’re the victim or the human sword standing alongside, nobody forgets- not completely. Nope. It’s a obnoxious little asshole parasitic thinky-jerkface juggernaut of a thought that’s constantly pinging around in your brain. It kind of… never goes away! It’s a quiet hum in the back of your THINKball, sometimes as quiet as leaves brushing up against each other. And sometimes as loud as that fucking J.G. Wentworth commercial, “I HAD a structured settlement, but I NEED CASH NOW!” You know, but more like, “I HAD Ovarian Cancer, and I HOPE IT STAYS A-WAY! Call S.M. Kettering, 877-NOT-NOW!”
What I do know is this: I got close to people during that period. It came more naturally to me than I had the ability to remember it being. A couple of years in an abusive relationship had left my personality so utterly peeled down and completely emotionally unwound- I WAS A MESS, PEOPLE. I certainly didn’t know how to find that place I’d lost inside of me because I couldn’t even recall it ever having been there. I was like an emotional amnesiac with with vague recollections of poop and fart jokes- but too far out of reach to really SMELL the farts. They used to be so stinky… (Think: “This used to be my playground…” from A League Of Their Own)
What I eventually came to realize/remember is that my fearless and unapologetic need to share with the world who and what I am AND do- that didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d always been that way, and I’d been working on making it work for me for YEARS. I’d just forgotten over the course of two years in hiding. I guess I probably chose to forget, if I think about it – I opted out, guys. Because that was easier than feeling like I was missing out on anything and/or missing out on myself. I didn’t want to miss ANYTHING. I wanted to be like a comatose pod hanging from the ceiling in a creepy dimly lit hospital in a slow-burner 80’s sci-fi movie. WHO PUTS RED LIGHTBULBS IN A HOSPITAL? WHO? REALLY.
Deep down I’ve always been that quirky and slightly clingy little girl, just yearning to be known for exactly how messy and fragile and goofy I am all at the same time. Hoping to make some new friends! And it makes sense, now that I think back on that time. The Cancer Time: A life and story by Sarah Roxanne Shields. I was like Stella, getting my loud-mouthed and uncoordinated GROOVE back. I wasn’t searching for anything in particular- I just wanted people to get to know me again. Because I wanted to remember, and I needed the practice figuring out HOW! And, in addition to a lot of struggles, getting cancer ALSO gave me this rare opportunity to find out who I was again and to, more IMPORTANTLY, find my Come-Back Story, guys! YES!!!!!!!!!!! And I have so many people to thank for it, it’s REALLY FUCKING OVERWHELMING TO THINK ABOUT SOMETIMES. Like to think that, without anyone even knowing it- you know, all of these people I’d shared a majority of my hours with every day had become my loving and unflinching support system. I was undergoing the most emotional and physically challenging obstacle in my life, and they all helped me do it every step of the way. They were on the frontline and they were fearless, and they inspired me to be fearless too.
And, sometimes I see someone I was close to during that time post something on Facebook or Instagram- or, you know, sometimes I hear a story about them. And I think, “Man, I wonder if they even know how much they meant to me and like, that they still DO.” No matter how many months go by, or how many years- they were my army. They attacked my fears and helped give me the strength I needed to want to fight back. Because you have to want to, there’s no rule in the book of cancer that says you WILL. You have to WANT to fight and in order to do so you must knowingly reach out your sticky, brunch-service hands and accept it from all of the other beautiful sticky hands in the universe.
The truth is, being diagnosed with Cancer was essentially the catalyst for all of the best beginnings in the best chapters of my adulthood. I met the best of friends in the most expected AND most unexpected of ways. I have embraced my love of working in restaurants, proudly and with great intentions to continue to for many years to come. I OFTEN sing along to “Colors of the Wind” on Saturday mornings, just as BEAUTIFULLY and EMPHATICALLY as I did when I was thirteen and it was just a teaser trailer on my VHS copy of The Lion King. I admittedly ENJOY Vienna Sausages, and recently admitted that I sometimes crave them upon smelling my CATS food when I FEED them. YES, THAT’S RIGHT. IT FELT GOOD TO ADMIT. I also eat peas straight from the can. DEAL WITH IT. I watch ALL THE TV, mostly while starting-and-never-finishing about a thousand little mini-projects, scattered ALL over my apartment. I don’t wear shoes when I take out the trash. I forget about my laundry, and have collected the largest collection of HANES COMFORT-SOFT UNDERWEAR in response to that fact. I’m too competitive when I play cards, but not competitive ENOUGH when I play Settlers of Catan. I’m a great loser, but a TERRIBLE & INSUFFERABLE winner. I still love and sometimes sleep with my stuffed animal, Miss Bunny (she’s an INDEPENDENT SINGLE BUNNY MOM, for the record). I’m quick to invite a new friend over for dinner. I love getting to know people and working hard to prove it to them. I miss my old friends. I think about the past a lot, to varying degrees of sadness and happiness and GREAT RECOLLECTIONS OF EMBARRASSMENT. I like my mom a lot even though she’s a crazy person- and I definitely call her A LOT MORE than I used to which, turns out, isn’t as hard as I thought it would be and makes me feel really good! I wear a fanny pack when I run. I buy brightly-colored things because they’re often CHEAPER and not because I’m just a total spaz. I AM A TOTAL SPAZ. I’m messy AND organized. I CHOOSE my messes, and they don’t choose ME- not anymore, or not all the time at least! (OKAY- so, THE RATIO IS BETTER, let’s say THAT). I’m VERY proud of my silk shirt collection, and my increasingly large amount of animal-print attire. I HATE when I’m a know-it-all and I’m trying to be better about that. I LOVE when people think I’m strong or funny. I HOPE that people know that I’m scared too. I have a hard time watching a movie all the way through. I am slightly scared of lightening somehow making it through my bedroom window and burning a flaming line of FIRE down the center of my apartment- separating me from my beloved CATS! I love my dad. He’s the funniest guy I know, and I’m really trying to remember to call him more. I still check my closet for monsters every night, well- when Joe doesn’t beat me to it! I pretend I like to write on chalkboards, but it really just stresses me out! I don’t pretend to like talking about wine because it’s SO MUCH FUN, and I’m proud of how much I’ve learned and continue to learn about that and anything else really. I love reading and completing a good book, but I also VERY MUCH ENJOY finding and reading a VERY BAD ONE. I like sending postcards, but I wish I sent more and wrote more letters to people. I love taking stupid pictures of myself and showing off my hauntingly beautiful double chin. I LOVE MY HUSBAND. He is- GUYS, HE IS JUST SUPER THE WHOLE DANG BEST. And I am sometimes (a lot of times) a total effing butthead, and will continue to be- and he MIGHT even love me for it (AND, despite of it).
I often remind myself of how freeing it feels to change my mind, and to trust someone new, to share my insecurities, and speak my process, to make a point to really hear other people, to make sure people know how much I hear them and love them in return, and find time to surprise people who deserve it and need it, to be kind and patient and nice and for no reason at all even when someone is being a pain-in-the-ass, to forgive other people AND myself, to wear stupid t-shirts and proudly adore my CATS, to drink better wine and WORSE wine with reckless abandon, to listen to songs that make me feel good, to dance in public AND at home when Joe’s still asleep because it’s way too early to wake him up, to tell crappy dad jokes and laugh at them loudly and proudly and often ALONE, and ESPECIALLY to admit when I’m wrong.
I was WRONG to ever hold anything back. And I have a RIGHT to a little blind faith sometimes, I think we all do. But GOD DAMN, it feels good to be wrong sometimes. I’m so happy I was wrong that time, and I have everything to be thankful for because of it.