Cancer Becomes Me

By Marjorie Gross

So I'm sitting in the doctor's office, he walks in, just tell me straight out, "I was right - it's ovarian cancer, so I win. Pay up."  And I say, "Oh, no, you're not gonna hold me to that, are you?" And he says, "Hey, a bet's a bet."  You don't know what it's like to leave a doctor's office knowing you've lost a hundred dollars: suddenly everything's changed.

Well, OK, I've exaggerated a little. What really happens is the doctor walks in and gives you the sympathetic head tilt that right away tells you, "Don't buy in bulk." The degree of tilt corresponds directly with the level of bad news. You know, a little tilt: "We've caught it in time"; sixty-degree angle: "Spread to the lymph nodes"; forty-five-degree angle: "Spread to your clothes." In her book about cancer, Betty Rollin wrote, "First, you cry" However, she didn't mention what you do second, which is "Spend, spend, spend." You're sort of freed up, in a weird way. Suddenly, everything has a lifetime guarantee.

So I had a hysterectomy, and they found a tumor that they said was the size of an orange. (See, for women they use the citrus-fruit comparison; for men it's sporting goods: "Oh, it's the size of a softball," or, in England, a cricket ball.) I languished in the hospital for ten days, on a floor where everybody had cancer, so the sympathy playing field was level. You can't say, "Hey, can you keep it down? I just had my operation." You might get, "So what? I'm on my fifth. “Poor thing” doesn’t really come into play much on this floor. My mother, who also had this disease (yeah, I inherited the cancer gene; my older brother got the blue eyes, but I’m not bitter) – anyway, my mother told me that for some women a hospital stay is a welcome relief. You know, to have someone bringing you food, asking how you are, catering to you every vital sign. See, she wound up in a room with five other women, and they would sit around talking on one bed, and the minute the doctor walked in they would jump into their own beds and re-create the “incoming wounded” scene from ‘M*A*S*H*”, insuring that they would not be sent home early.

Which now leads us quixotically but inevitably to chemotherapy. What can I say about chemotherapy that hasn’t already been said, in a million pop songs? I was prepared for the chemo side effects. I had my bald plans all in place. I decided to eschew wigs – all except the rainbow wig. Once in a while, I’d put that on when I didn’t want to be stared at. Luckily, in my life-style (Lesbeterian) you can be bald and still remain sexually attractive. In fact, the word “sexy” has been thrown my way more times this year than ever before. I’ve had dreams where my hair grows back and I’m profoundly disappointed. The bald thing works on other levels as well. The shortened shower time – in and out in three minutes easy. Shampoo-free travel. Plus, I get to annoy my father for the first time in twenty years. He hates to see me flaunting my baldness. I thought I’d lost the power to disgust him, but it was right there under my follicles all along.

The other side effect is that I’ve lost twenty pounds, which has sent my women friends into spasms of jealousy. I think I even heard “Lucky stiff.” I said, “I think I’m closer to being a stiff than lucky!” But it fell on deaf ears. I suppose it’s a testament to the overall self-esteem of my fellow-women that, after hearing all about the operations, the chemo, and the nausea, the only thing that registers is “Wow, twenty pounds!” and “You look fabulous!” It’s a really good weight-loss system for the terminally lazy. I mean, a StairMaster would have been preferable, but mine wound up as a pants tree.

Then, there are my other friends, who are bugging me to go alternative. So now I’m inundated with articles, books and pamphlets on healers, nutritionists, and visualization (which I know doesn’t work because if it did, Uma Thurman would be running around my house naked asking me what I want for breakfast). I was also given a crystal by a friend who was going through a messy divorce. She was given the crystal by a guy who died of AIDS. As far as I was concerned, this crystal had a terrible resume. As far as the healing power of crystals goes, let me just say that I grew up eating dinner under a crystal chandelier every night, and look what came of that: two cancers, a busted marriage and an autistic little brother. There, in the healing power of crystals. Enjoy.

This is not to say I’m completely devoid of spirituality. I mean, when you’re faced with the dark spectre of death you formulate an afterlife theory in a hurry. I decided to go with reincarnation, mixed with some sort of Heaven-like holding area. Then, of course, we could also just turn to dust and that’s it. I come from a family of dust believers. They believe in dust and money: the tangibles. The thing about death that bugs me the most is that I don’t want to get there before all my friends. I don’t even like to be the first one at the restaurant.

The hardest part of this whole thing is that it has completely ruined my loner lifestyle. I’ve never felt the need to have anyone around constantly. I mean, I never wear anything that zips up in the back, and I hate cowboy boots. And now I get ten times as many phone calls – people wanting to come over and see me. When I’m well, I can go months without seeing someone. Whey the rush to see me nauseated? I especially don’t believe in the hospital visit. People come in, you’re lying there, you can’t do anything, and they start talking about their plans for the night.

I hope with all this negative talk I haven’t painted too bleak a picture and therefore discouraged you from getting cancer. I mean, there are some really good things about it. Like:

(1) You automatically get called courageous. The rest of you people have to save somebody from drowning. We just have to wake up.

(2) You are never called rude again. You can cancel appointments left and right, leave boring dinners after ten minutes and still not become a social pariah.

(3) Everyone returns your calls immediately – having cancer is like being Mike Ovitz. And you’re definitely not put on hold for long.

(4) People don’t ask you to help them move.

(5) If you’re really shameless, you never have to wait in line for anything again. Take off the hat and get whisked to the front.

So it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve done things I never would have done before. I even got to go to Europe with a creamy-white pop star. I used to use the word “someday,” but now I figure someday is for people with better gene pools.

----------This is taken from a book entitled “Surviving Crisis”: Twenty Prominent Authors Write About Events That Shaped Their Lives; edited by Lee Gutkind, 1997------------