Calling a spade a spade

Dena - Austin, Texas
Entered on November 20, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: illness
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

If you asked me a year ago if I appreciated life; if I was trying to make the most of it; if I was grateful for my family, my friends, my health, I would have said an unequivocal “Yes.”

I spent much of my 20’s thinking Mr. Fantabulous was going to come along and my life would be filled with caring for our family, home and various pets. Perhaps I would even learn to cook—or at least think about it really, really hard. But then I turned 30 and Fantab was nowhere to be found. Maybe he was marrying some other girl or becoming some other girl. All I knew was that I had to stop waiting and start living. So, I got in touch with my creative self, changed careers and moved to another state. By 39, I was writing for a living, enjoying an active lifestyle and planning a trip to Italy for my 40th birthday.

A month before my trip, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. “But I can run four miles without cussing,” I thought. “And I don’t eat fast food (very often). How can this be happening? What does this mean?”

While hunting for answers in an astonishingly high pile of survivor stories, I came across some intriguing perspectives, including, “cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me,” and “my cancer was a gift.” I couldn’t imagine thinking of cancer in this way but I was desperate for a reason and decided to give it a try.

My list of what cancer did for me would make Debbie Downer seem like an attractive dinner guest. Thanks to cancer, I endured a bilateral mastectomy (all breast tissue and sensation, gone); chemotherapy (bald and sick like your worst hangover plus the flu plus foggy thinking); thousands in medical bills; nauseating insurance quagmires; and I would now forever battle the worry of recurrence.

If cancer was a gift it was of the white elephant variety, and the elephant was having the last laugh while I was trying to keep my head warm and my saltines down. I needed cancer like I needed my identity stolen. Besides, I already had my epiphany, thankyouverymuch.

Maybe, whether by some genetic glitch or environmental anomaly, I was simply unlucky. Sometimes bad things just happen. And while I’m not going to let cancer drive me to despair, I’m not going to sing its praises, either. And that’s okay. In fact, I believe it’s okay to think cancer sucks; to growl every time I write a check to the oncologist; and to utter obscenities when I have to call the insurance company about another mistakenly denied claim. At the same time, while my new role as survivor—another example of cancer’s reach—is not a post I signed up for, it’s one I’m willing to take.

To that end, I believe in calling cancer what it is: an ugly disease. And I believe in doing everything we can to find its cure.