At the time, I called it a shard just to have an echo of the “sh” sound.
But I’ve come to realize that the shard I have in mind is really that – something that cut me and left a scar.
I can point to the place where the chemo IV used to be put into the back of my left hand. No one can see it but me, really, because it’s so faded. This memory is like that, healed and faded, but I know exactly where it is.
Most of the time, I like to keep things light on this blog. But this week is National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week, so it seems an appropriate time to tell this story.
If you don’t want to read about cancer, feel free to skip the cut. (I also curse when I talk about cancer, because it’s ugly and rude, so I don’t feel it deserves any courtesy from me.)
I was 27 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
No family history, just the Number One risk factor: being female.
Fortunately for me, there was a support group in the San Fernando Valley, where I lived, that was dedicated to young adults with cancer – the 16 – 30 demographic. It was called Vital Options, and as I look it up today, I see that it is still in existence, and has gone global.
I remember Cory, our young, handsome facilitator, a survivor of testicular cancer. He was diagnosed at 22. Now he had a Masters in psychology, and volunteered for Vital Options.
Most people, newly diagnosed with cancer, spend a lot of time asking, “WHY?” Eventually, we all get to the point where we realize the question is actually, “Why not?” It’s the Unlucky Lottery, and nothing made that clearer to me than sitting in a room with teenagers and twenty-somethings who were going through cancer. My story, shocking though it was, was just one of many, in that room.
There was Tasha, sixteen years old, African American, who wore a long wig of cornrows, with gold beads on the ends.
There was Linda, twenty-two, who had lymphoma, and was scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant. She was bald from many months of chemo. My biggest fear (aside from the actual dying, of course), was losing my eyelashes and eyebrows. (I didn’t; they only thinned.) But Linda was so vibrant, even without a single hair, that I stopped worrying about that. (Mostly. I was 27. Still young enough to be vain.)
There was Marie, the young breast cancer survivor who dropped by one night just to check in. She’d been cancer-free for five years – diagnosed at 23. It just so happened that I really needed to hear from a young survivor that night, and there she was.
There was the 24-year-old who told her best friend about her diagnosis … and never heard from her again.
There was the woman whose husband left her, because he couldn’t deal with his wife having cancer.
Many survivors, many stories.
One night Cory asked us to think of something we had gained from the cancer experience … a “gift” of cancer.
Bitterly, I thought how I hated the psycho-babble that forced us to see the good in even the shittiest of things.
Because I liked Cory, I tried to come up with an answer.
“My husband,” I said. “He lost his mom to cancer when he was seventeen. He could’ve freaked out and run away when I got my diagnosis, but he didn’t. He’s been amazing. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here without him.”
I was surprised to find that I actually felt happier, having shared this small, yet enormous, fact.
“My mom,” said Tasha. She spoke in her customary soft voice. “She was getting ready to go out one night, to a party. And I asked her to stay home with me.” Tasha smiled. “And she did. She didn’t ask me why I wanted her to stay home, she just sat down next to me, and we watched TV. That really meant a lot to me.”
[Oh God. All these years later, that shard still cuts.]
A couple of weeks later, Tasha wasn’t at group. Cory told us she “wasn’t doing very well.” He didn’t expand on that. When someone with cancer isn’t doing very well, it can mean any number of things. Side effects from chemo or radiation … depression … bad news from the doctor … etc. It doesn’t always mean The End.
I skipped a few weeks of group. Sometimes you don’t feel like talking about cancer.
When I went back, Cory told me that Tasha had died.
Sixteen years old.
Cancer is so fucking mindless and destructive.
I wrote to Tasha’s mother. I wanted to tell her about Tasha’s “gift” story – that she’d been happy her mom stayed home with her that night she was supposed to go out.
A few days later, Tasha’s mother wrote back to me:
I thank God for you. I thank God for your letter. I carry it with me always.
After Tasha passed, I went through everything in her room, hoping to find some sign. Something that would tell me I was a comfort to her. But I didn’t find anything.
Then your letter came.
You gave me what I had given up hoping for – now I know that I DID help Tasha. I wasn’t sure until I got your letter.
Thank you so much for writing to tell me. It means more than I can say. I will pray for your recovery.
For a long time, I carried Tasha’s mother’s letter with me.
And sometimes, to this day, I think the reason I had cancer was to place me in a room with Tasha, so I would hear her words, and carry them back to her grieving mother.