When you have cancer, what matters isn’t strength or courage so much as resilience. Keep going. Stay alive.
The first post in a series about life’s obstacles and the strength to overcome them. From first-time FP contributor and major inspiration, Deanna Pai.
The first time I was diagnosed with cancer, it felt like a camera flash had gone off in my otherwise dimly-lit world. Before I knew it, a surgeon had removed the tumor from my liver, and I was sent on my way to navigate the aftereffects — constant scans, a huge scar, and the realization that I, a 23-year-old assistant at a magazine, had had cancer — alone.
The second time I was diagnosed with cancer, I was terrified. It was my worst fear realized: Because there’s no real prognosis for the very rare liver cancer I’d had, no one knew whether or not it would return. And it did. It was like my liver couldn’t pull itself together. I didn’t want chemo. (I got it.) I didn’t want to lose my hair. (I did.) I didn’t want to be in my own body. (Too bad.)
The third time I was diagnosed with cancer, which somehow managed to rise from the dead after several months of remission, I replied, “Okay, then” to my doctor on the phone, cried a little, and went back to watching Cheers reruns on Netflix. Really, nothing equips you for handling a cancer diagnosis quite like receiving one every year for three years straight. If my doctor told me that I had cancer again, I’d just sip my coffee and shrug.
When people find out you have cancer, they try to encourage you with dumb platitudes. “Stay strong” was a common one. “You’re so brave” was another. (The only thing I really wanted to hear was, “You’re cured and also won the lottery.”) And while these are trite, I think there’s a grain of truth to them. What people are trying to offer isn’t really strength or courage so much as resilience. Like, keep going. Stay alive.
I was not born resilient. (Ask anyone who saw me after my high school boyfriend dumped me the day after prom). And I didn’t just become resilient after my first appointment with my oncologist. You don’t learn how to pick yourself up when there’s nothing to steamroll you in the first place. Even my initial diagnosis didn’t change me that much: My boss still scared me; my boyfriend and I fought; and I still got shaky when I had to slide into an MRI machine for check-ups.
The second time around was harder, since chemotherapy comes with so many demands on the body. I had to freeze my eggs (as the drugs affect fertility), a process that involved me, a crybaby needle-phobe, giving myself shots in the thigh. My hair came out in clumps in the shower. My hearing became so sensitive that I had to leave my office’s holiday party early, because the chatter hurt.
I was forced to figure out how to wake up in the morning and face all of these things that I did not want to do. What else was I going to do? That question followed me everywhere, and I knew the answer: Nothing. I had no other options. I had to get out of my warm, cozy bed while it was still dark outside to go to chemo. I had to answer work emails while getting a third blood transfusion. I had to put the needle in my own damn leg.
The last time I had cancer (knock on wood) I had no choice but to get a liver transplant. “Maybe it’ll give me superpowers, like a comic-book mutant,” I joked with my donor and oldest cousin, Nick. And it came true, in a way. Once I had my new liver — okay, half of Nick’s — and was declared cancer-free, I felt different, almost in awe of myself. I can do anything now. I am so much more capable than I thought.
It’s been two and a half years since then. I’m not some calm, swaggering hero without weakness. Please, I could probably use quality time with a good therapist. But I know myself so well. I know how to put myself back together if I need to. And I know that I can handle anything that comes my way. (Were I to have a personal mantra, it would be, “If it’s not cancer, I don’t care.”) And sure, while I’d swap this for a healthy, pristine body with my own liver in a heartbeat — obviously — I can still recognize a silver lining when I see it. And that makes all the difference.