Cancer Doesn’t Make Me a Victim

I danced at the edge and came back stronger, and happier. So I'm good, thanks.

by Lindsay Jean Thomson; illustrated by Kitron Neuschatz
Dec 13 2017, 6:00pm

This is the 14th entry in a multi-part series. Read the rest here.

I thought for sure I'd miss my connecting flight. The redeye I was on—only three hours, not really long enough to sleep—landed late and we taxied for an unusually long time before waiting to disembark, then board a bus for the terminal. Efficient, I think, but my sarcasm gets me nowhere. By the time we get to the terminal, I have 40 minutes to get through immigration, customs, and security. Maybe it's a sign.

But I make it, so I board my next flight with a mix of relief—I've never missed a flight before, and you know I’m keeping score—and trepidation. Why am I doing this? This being three flights to spend the weekend with a bunch of strangers. Strangers who also have (or have had) breast cancer. My people, but not my people. I'm on my way to a retreat in Mexico and I'm a little nervous. Other than one event I went to nearby, in San Francisco (and didn't talk to anyone because I brought my friends with me), I haven't spent any time with other people with cancer.

There's another layover in Mexico City before the final flight to Zihuatanejo. I know from an email earlier this week that there are two other retreat participants on my flight so I pass the time trying to figure out who they are. I spot one easily, not because she looks like she has cancer but because she looks like she feels like I do.

The three of us share a shuttle south to the resort and they're both very nice. People with cancer! They're just like us!

I'm being unusually awkward. Are we supposed to introduce ourselves in way that justifies our presence here? I'm Lindsay, Stage IIIC HER2+, diagnosed last year at 33. Of course not, weirdo. Though some of those things do come up organically over the weekend. I find myself wanting to ask the same stupid, morbidly curious questions that people ask me.

I'm here because this is a free trip and because I wonder if I've been holding back. There was that bad spell for a few days last month, but I mostly feel great and I'm suspicious of it. What am I hiding from myself?

More women arrive as the day goes on—they're all about my age, except for one woman in her sixties. At the opening workshop, we're asked to introduce ourselves by spending one timed minute in the middle of the circle sharing our deepest, darkest secrets or something like that. This seems like it might be irresponsible, but I'm game. We go around the circle one-by-one and I'm surprised no one abstains. There's the usual confessions—use your imagination. Then it's my turn. Honestly, I don't know what I'm hiding. That's why I'm here. My cheeks flush and I try to will myself to come up with something hidden deep down, but it's just not there. I mean, I keep a public Dear Diary. What else could there be? I'm red-faced and ashamed that I've done the exercise wrong, that I haven't been as open as the other women in the circle.

Not that any of them seem to be judging me. Everyone is lovely, though one woman grates on my nerves. I do my best to avoid her, but she insists on commenting on everything. And she seems to think that her experience is universal, wrapping everyone else into her blanket statements. At one point she says, "Well, we're all broken."

Nope. Not me. Speak for yourself. You may be broken but I am not. I’m fucking invincible. I danced at the edge and came back stronger, happier. So I'm good, thanks.

I don't think the facilitator is equipped to work with cancer patients or survivors. I let most of it go but when she says the root cause of all disease is energy or some other woo-woo bullshit, I push back. What the fuck does she know? She's never had cancer. I know she has good intentions, but fuck.

One of the words that comes up a lot is “survivor.” I understand why people use it, but I don't like it for myself. It feels too closely related to “victim” and I am not a victim. I haven’t found a suitable word to replace it, but whatever it is I am officially one as of a week ago. A survivor, that is.

When it finally happens, it's pretty anticlimactic. My oncologist and I are meeting on the phone instead of in person, so I'm half listening and half checking my email or Facebook or whatever I'm doing. The new drug that she was maybe going to put me on (but I've secretly already decided I'm not going to take)? She’s not going to include it in my treatment plan. She says something about Kaiser's official party line on the new drug, but I'm ready to move on.

"So does this mean I'm in remission?"

She gives me the same spiel has before, peppered with "technically" and "but.” Why can't she just fucking say it? Why do I have to keep asking? But I do and this time, with apparent reluctance, she concedes. Yes, I am officially in remission. Her lack of enthusiasm dampens the moment but I guess she has her reasons so I let it go. I'm onto the next step already.

"So what happens now?" I'll have to see her twice a year and get a mammogram once a year, unless, of course, I find something. She wants to see me in person before my reconstructive surgery or have the breast surgeon see me (both, it turns out).

Remission, from the Latin remittere: to send back or restore. But there’s no going back.

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