Tuesday, January 29, 2008


There's nothing like mentioning ya got cancer to kill a conversation.

It would make an interesting PhD dissertation for some social psychologist to analyze anecdotal survey data on what people of different gender, culture and age do when someone mentions casually that they are going through chemotherapy. As I meet fresh batches of friends who just think I've always been super skinny with short thin hair, I find myself unsure of how or if to convey to them that this new and related to a prominent aspect of my life: cancer. I mean, in describing my extracurricular activities, don't you think that spending hours at the hospital each week is at least as relevant to understanding me as the fact that I do yoga for two? And, don't you think that spending a year in bed retching and aching is at least as pertinent as the year I spent teaching kids in Japan in shaping who I am today? I am neither seeking sympathy nor would I dream of causing discomfort, but I am an open person who would like to just be who I am without freaking people out.

When I was bald and in a wheelchair, this was easier. The light bulb over people's heads would accompany a facial expression that said "aah, so that's what's wrong with her". Now, most people are just at an uneasy loss as to what to say if I accidentally/casually/purposely mention my treatment experience. Some patients seek to hide their illnesses; I, on the other hand, am so grateful when folks are brave enough to express their curiosity and mature enough to realize that people are not all that they appear to be.

I'm not sure if I'm making much sense in this blog post. I guess what I'm noticing at this stage of this experience is some difficulty in assessing when and how it is appropriate for me to mention my cancer/chemo. When we went around in a class last week each stating something unique and interesting about ourselves that one couldn't read on our resumes, I battled internally over why it seemed expressly taboo for me to joke that I haven't felt my toes since January 2006 (neuropathy). I find it pretty funny. A hunch told me my class wouldn't.

I recently consulted Fletcher's office of career services about when I'm queried in an interview about challenges I've overcome and whether it was appropriate for me to use the fact that I basically earned a master's degree while going through chemo. I'm pretty damn proud of that and think it demonstrates some relevant qualities about me. After giving it some thought, they said to avoid mentioning it. "I would just hate to see their prejudices or fears get in the way of you being hired", they said. And, they're right- if I didn't get the job, I'd never know if it was because they thought I'd be a sickly and therefore unreliable employee. [the only person worse than a recently married woman of child-bearing age to hire is probably a damn cancer patient. sigh.]

One last example of biting my tongue involved being in a friendly group conversation where a woman was telling a hilarious story about how she didn't read the instructions on a bag of "lavender-scented" mothballs, inadvertently exposing herself to dangerous amounts of para-dichloro-benzene. It was funny and in adding to the natural flow of the stories and conversation, I wanted to say- "yeah, that shit is nasty! the gasoline sumps that oil companies buried in my neighborhood growing up actually emitted benzene- which is probably why I got leukemia..." Um, no. Obviously I couldn't say that. Well, I could, but no one wanted to hear that. I can only imagine how the conversation would have ground to a halt.

I know that one of the reasons why I find most of the cancer experience easy to discuss is that I have great hope for remaining in remission. So, really, all of this is not a complaint, but observation.
Still, how do I remain true to myself while still being conscientious of people's comfort zones?


petvet said...

You know me - I say be brutally honest and let the chips fall where they may. If people don't like it - tough. Those aren't people you need in your life - they will only drag you down. Be strong - live strong.

Love ya!

Jen (had to create yet another account to post this - getting old bites the big one you know!)

Anonymous said...

i must say that i agree.. sometimes people need a little reality and shock--it can help them grow and you get to be a catalyst for this. if they do not want to grow, do you want to be stagnant with them? hell, no. so Erica, i know who you are. yea, cancer has molded you--but that's something to be proud of because the person you are today is a great, strong woman. maybe you'll find that someone else will now be empowered and get strength to say, hey i went through ___ too..
you should do what feels real to you. (except when ur bus driver is an asshole, then you play the C card.) i love you.

** SAVE MICHELLE ** said...

Hi Erica,

My name is Michelle and I was diagnosed with AML last February. I found your blog through AADP's website and it's been entertaining me ever since. I totally relate to this entry. I never know what to say now that my hair is growing back in full force (I kind of look like a soccer mom). Sometimes people will ask me why I cut my hair and suggest that I never do it again because it doesn't look good. I want to reply that I didn't cut it by choice and I actually lost it during intensive rounds of chemo, but I don't want them to feel bad Mentioning the c-word is always a great way to kill the mood so sometimes I stay mum just so I don't make people feel awkward.

Anyways, keep up the good fight. From your blog I can tell you are a feisty fighter. Know that there's a gal in the bay that is thinking about you!


student said...

I agree with you. Just tell them about all your experiences with chemo because it does show that you are a bad ass. If they don't hire you it is their loss. I helped a student with his personal statement for college and he talked about being a recovering meth user. I told him that it was not a conventional essay, but you have to play from the heart.
Mike Muscio

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing. Open the door. Period. It's your life, it's your story and it's "what's going on," so don't ever feel you have to hide that from the world...

And here's the other thing. THEY think that YOU don't want to talk about it. (Not always the other way around.)

I recall when my mom died, it was a really long time before ANYONE asked me any questions...and you know what? I was DYING for them to. So...bring it up! Drop it as casually, purposefully, accidentally as you want to - because people will continue to avoid talking to you about it as long as you have any "shame" about "dropping the bomb" on 'em. :)
love, gab