The Easy Cancer

MAGGIE McCONNAHA | OPINION COLUMNIST

Two weeks ago, I attended a memorial service for a cousin who had died of cancer, leaving behind her young son and husband. I had never met her in person, but she became an important person in my life during the summer of 2015. We were diagnosed with cancer at the same time.

Claire had been diagnosed with advanced osteosarcoma, involving in-home chemotherapy, massive amounts of pain, and the potential to lose her leg. I, on the other hand, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and after reading way too much about it on the Internet, I realized that it would only take a few months of chemotherapy to put me in remission. As one redditor put it “I can see five months down the road, and I know that I’ll be fine then.”

There’s a fear and immediate misunderstanding when you share that you have cancer, and most people’s reactions made me realize that few people know that it can manifest in different ways. Sometimes it’s very treatable, other times it’s nearly always fatal. I was in the former category, Claire the latter.

Over my five months, my friends and I often forgot that I had cancer at all. I stayed in school and kept my job, and the treatment itself never made me lose my hair or lose weight (on the contrary – my face swelled up from the steroids). But besides exhaustion two days after treatment, I experienced few of chemo’s physical side effects.

At the memorial, I felt ashamed as my mom introduced me as someone who had gone through something similar to Claire. Would they find it difficult to be around me knowing that I was in remission when Claire had died?

When I was first diagnosed, both of my grandmothers told me that they had learned that “out of all the cancers there are, Hodgkin’s is the one you want to get.” It was not so much a setback as a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately, once I adopted this mentality, many of the people around me did as well.

I began to feel increased embarrassment – why was I feeling sorry for myself when other cancer patients have it worse? Why would I tell my mom that I was depressed – what in the world did I have to be depressed about when Claire is worrying that her baby won’t recognize her bald?

Depression continued for months after a PET scan that said I was clear. I kept the same confusion about why I was so upset while I rationalized in my head that I had gotten “the easy cancer.” I continued to ask myself – “Why is it still so difficult?” I barely changed anything when I had cancer; my diet, amount of exercise etc. all stayed the same. I hadn’t made any sacrifices, I felt, not like Claire.

Three days ago, I watched a video about Hodgkin’s as the “easy cancer.” It was not until this young woman said “there is no such thing as an easy cancer. Cancer is cancer,” that I really began to feel empowered. Just like there is no point in comparing your busy schedule to mine, there was no reason for me to be ashamed of having gotten a more treatable disease when others had worse. It’s all terrible. And now, a year and a half later, I’m finally beginning to understand that.

The psychological and emotional effects of having any kind of cancer are off the charts – nearly a quarter of all people diagnosed end up getting depression. But coupling that with friends and family who forget you’re sick at all, shame of the identifier of cancer and inward self-loathing about being ungrateful for your arguably better position all lead to dark and difficult places. Cancer of any kind is hard enough at 19 – and I’m glad to say that my journey through the brunt of it is finally over.

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