Cancer Really Does a Number on People

I re-watched the show “Life Sentence” this weekend. It only ran for one season before it was cancelled, and it is drama to the max. Everything that can fall apart does—I’m talking divorce, drugs, jail, business failings, heart attacks, multiple love triangles, and cancer all in 13 episodes. Even though the CW was probably just trying to use “unexpectedly surviving cancer” as an interesting hook to draw in audiences, and even though it’s highly fictional and insane, it’s the third time I’ve watched the show.

The premise is that the protagonist Stella, played by Lucy Hale, has terminal cancer, so she lives life to the fullest and makes decisions based on only having 6 months left to live…but then her cancer is “cured.” (LOL did they consult an oncologist for the show?!? Based on Stella saying she’s not in remission; she’s “cured,” one wonders. Doctors don’t say “cured” with cancer; they say “remission.” I digress…) Suddenly, she faces “uncertain life” after having faced “certain death” for years, and she has to live with the consequences of living in the moment and living life to the fullest, starting with her marriage to a man she met on a last hurrah trip to Paris when both thought it would be a 6 month marriage at most.

My cancer had a really favorable prognosis, so I never felt like I was under a “death sentence.” Subsequently, I’ve also not felt like surviving cancer has been a life sentence. And virtually none of the dramatic events in the show happened to me. Still, I resonate with it if only for the underlying current running throughout of what a paradigm-shift cancer is. And in a much less dramatic way, the “What do you do with your life now that you have it back?” dilemma has been on my mind a time or two before.

Each time I’ve watched the show with all of its drama and all the fallout from Stella’s cancer—not just on her life but on each of her family members’ lives—I’ve thought, “Man, cancer really does a number on people.” I felt that again while binge watching the show a third time this weekend. No one’s left unaffected, or even really unscathed, likely the better description. It’s true in the series, and to a much less dramatic degree, it’s true of real life and cancer.

Two episodes in particular stand out as having moments similar to ones I’ve walked through. In the first instance, the family is selling their house, and Stella gives an emotional speech about how this is the place she always felt safe despite the terrifying uncertainty and odds she faced. I realized the first time I watched the series that that was 410—my childhood home—to me. Thank you, my parents’ Netflix account and the CW, for providing that free therapy for me to make that connection.

I found out I had cancer at a mall while everyone was Christmas shopping and probably escaping family on the day before Thanksgiving. What a bizarre and decidedly unsafe place to hear that news. I immediately drove home to my safe place, 410 Forest Oaks Drive, where, locked inside and closed off to passersby, mall loudspeaker announcements, and the world, we processed the news and started to make our plan of attack. And even though I moved on and away after cancer, 410 was super symbolic as a safe place for the next decade, a significant reason why selling it last year hit so hard.

The second moment which resonates so clearly is when Stella’s in the doctor’s office on a non-cancer-related visit, and the doctor says the innocuous phrase, “We ran a blood test” and pauses. Stella says, “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?!” It isn’t, in the end, but the news is about chemotherapy-related long term side effects. In terms of why this resonates, look: my cancer was the “good kind” and it’s not coming back at this point. I’m far more likely to come down with a secondary cancer related to my treatment for Hodgkin’s than I am to have a Hodgkin’s recurrence.

But that fact doesn’t mean when I find 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck, I don’t start looking up what it could be if not Hodgkin’s—my equivalent of “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?” And even though I know they’re likely related to some random infection, that tumors don’t just “pop up” 3 in a row suddenly, and that tumors don’t usually hurt like one of these does, when these swollen lymph nodes haven’t gone away after a week, you better believe I’m starting to run through all the scenarios and potentialities for what I’ll do depending on news a, b, c, and more.

Here’s a glimpse into just some of my train of thought [neuroses?] along those lines:

  • “It’s 99% likely that’s it nothing, just some viral infection.”
  • Then, “Maybe it’s covid! I’d actually really prefer it to be covid over anything swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck could mean and have meant before.”
  • Then, “Well, if it’s Hodgkin’s, okay, great. I know how to do that.”
  • But then, “Almost 12 years out, I know my Hodgkin’s isn’t coming back…so if this isn’t Hodgkin’s, it’s gonna be a lot worse, and that’s an actual possibility.”
  • Then, “If it’s not Hodgkins, yikes, and it’s probably not great at this point if it originated somewhere else but has now traveled to my lymphatic system.”
  • And finally, “If it’s worse, do I fight it? Do I let this be my swan song and make a quick bucket list and start tackling it?”
  • Oh but there’s the special 2020 bonus: “Could I even do anything bucket-list-like in 2020 anyway when nothing’s open?”

These thoughts would surely lead to a clinical diagnosis of hypochondria or paranoia…for anyone but a cancer survivor, that is—and specifically a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who just discovered 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of her neck (the Hodgkin’s side) which haven’t gone away for over a week now.

I genuinely do not think about cancer every day, or at least about my own cancer or about getting it again too often. But “Man, cancer really does a number on people” is my concluding thought when cancer creeps into the realm of possibilities and I go all-case-scenarios in my mind. I don’t think about it all the time, but it’s inescapable in some ways and inevitably comes back to mind. What’s hidden underneath that general conclusion I make—that cancer really does a number on people—is more likely the truth that I’m part of that people group. Cancer has done a number on ME, much as I don’t like to admit it.

I want to say I’ve totally moved on. I genuinely think I have in so many ways. It’s almost like cancer is the wound that’s scabbed over and so close to becoming a scar that you wouldn’t even notice it…but it’s still capable of bleeding since it hasn’t quite transformed into 100% scar yet.

It’s hard not to start cataloging everything else that’s been off lately, thinking, “What else have I missed? Will I find out I had all these symptoms I just wrote off?” And that’s not even because of my own experience since I found my only symptoms—tumors—by stage 2. I mean, I didn’t find the tumors in my chest, but because I had symptomless Hodgkin’s, the tumors above my collar bone were my only sign something was wrong, and praise the Lord I noticed those early. Wondering if there are other things I’ve missed now comes after my grandma, aunt, friend, athletic trainer, professor, and more have passed away from cancer after months of explaining away symptoms and being diagnosed too late as a result.

This weekend has felt paralyzing in some ways, but not because of fear. I’m not actually that afraid. I’ve been through “the worst” before, and I can hang (honestly because I know God will hang and give me what I need if it’s something). Rather, I think what’s paralyzing is the not knowing. If I can find out what’s going on, I can at least make a plan, but right now, I’m sitting between, “This is some painless viral infection that’ll go away totally on its own and I’ll roll my eyes about it” and “This is bad.” It’s hard to move to action because it genuinely might be nothing, but sitting around waiting just feels so aimless. There’s a shadow hovering, haunting. Doing anything or making any plans feels futile if life is about to be turned upside down again. But planning for the worst seems equally pointless and an overreaction when it’s likely just some rando-harmless infection I’ll be ashamed to have even mentioned.

So why mention it, then? I almost didn’t. It feels really self-indulgent and probably foolish to say anything when I think these are just swollen lymph nodes and they’re going away. On a basic level, if you want to pray that these swollen lymph nodes are what I very likely believe is that rando harmless infection, I’d love that. But I also thought I’d let you in on how life post-cancer looks sometimes. Most of the time, it’s super normal. But with the first strange symptom, all the potentialities are fair game, and I hate that.

I hate that any time I go in for any symptom of anything, the doctor I see WILL scan me or run the test even if it’s not what they’d do for 95% of their patients; that I will pay out of my deductible every single year without ever quite reaching the “now everything’s covered!” amount because we need to run a test or scan “just to be safe, given your health history.”

I don’t like the shadow of cancer that I genuinely keep at bay most of the time but which occasionally comes back, dredging up all of the past and threatening the present and future. I hate seeming like some wounded animal or vulnerable target, which is what I feel when things like this pop up. And I’m one of the lucky ones, by the way! I am in remission and have graduated from annual oncology checks. I realize that as I write and know how fortunate I am. Though 92% of the time, I’m great, that other 8% of the time—when I find the swollen lymph nodes or have unexplained symptoms elsewhere or watch a show like “Life Sentence”—is a weird and lonely place to inhabit (92/8 feels like the most accurate percentage split, btw. I actually debated what percentage I feel normal most of the time).

I think one of the nodes is shrinking as of today, and that’s good. Viral infection, likely. But man, what a strange and terrible space the intervening times between finding a symptom and waiting for it to wane or get tested can be. By this time next week, the nodes will very likely have gone away and I could’ve just never said anything. But as I’ve seen with most other aspects of cancer survivorship, if I’m feeling it and thinking these thoughts, I’m not the only one. Cancer really does do a number on people.

I try to usually have a point with what I write. Call it the English major and former teacher in me, but it feels meaningless for me to just write on and on with no true thesis or takeaway. Tonight’s point is different, however—just a window into what cancer can do. There’s so much it can’t do, but it sure does haunt and wreak havoc here and there. I’m so grateful for most of the small handful of friends and family I’ve told about these dumb lymph nodes following up with me to see if I’ve actually scheduled an appointment yet, pray with and for me, and just check on me. Especially in that lonely and weird space of not knowing, their follow up is huge.

I guess my point is: cancer patients and survivors out there, you’re not alone. You’re in a really lonely and strange place, but you’re not alone. If you know someone who’s a cancer patient or survivor, check in on them, listen to their concerns about health scares, and let them know when you’ve been praying for them. And to everyone cancer’s done a number on—patient, survivor, caregiver, loved one, bystander—I feel you and I get it. Hang in there. As the “Life Sentence” theme song says, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing; you’ll learn to live again.” You’ll learn to live again, maybe with a shadow and probably with some scars—both seen and unseen. Cancer really does a number on people, but it doesn’t have to have the final word, so keep learning to live again and again.