In my mind, my mortality was never really in question.
The loss of my hair and the scarring of my shoulder – those were at the forefront. I have very superficial concerns for what I consider to be my very superficial cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma.
“You will be fine,” my dermatologist repeated twice, adding that I have “the best skin cancer you could want.”
I already knew that I would be fine. After all, I’m not the first one in my world to suffer from cancer and survive.
In 2006, I watched from the sidelines as breast cancer ravaged my mom’s body. Not only were her breasts torn apart, reddened and disfigured, but her whole body was transmuted. She lost her sense of smell. She lost the ability to enjoy food, which was poisoned by the radiation treatments that left a distinct after taste of metal in her mouth. Once, I caught a glimpse of her in the garden wearing a baseball hat that shielded her barren head from the sun. She was a middle-aged woman, but I had mistaken her for a pre-teen boy. This figure who had always been larger than life to me was suddenly, inexplicitly diminutive. I cried.
Some time later my sister’s gynecologist found a lump in her throat during a routine check-up. Tests revealed it was what they had feared: Thyroid cancer. Suddenly my beautiful, newlywed sister was tainted by a cancer mass. She would “be fine,” she told me. Her assertions didn’t stop the tears I shed when I was alone and had the time to think of life without her.
No one shed a tear for me when I was diagnosed with cancer.
I know this is true because my cancer is not attempting to kill me. It’s not quietly advancing through my blood and bones. It isn’t wreaking havoc on my endocrine system or latching onto my lymph nodes. No, my skin cancer is neatly tucked where it’s always been – living on my shoulder like a parrot who repeats backs to me as I look myself in the mirror: “You did this to yourself. You did this to yourself. You did this to yourself.”
My sore and I have been living together for the better part of two years. I call it a sore because that’s what it looks like – a shallow, superficial scab that won’t heal and has become engrained in my physique just as much as my freckles. My sore arrived around the same time I moved to Manhattan. I ignored it for the most part, dismissing it as an agitation that was caused by friction from my purse strap.
The trouble was that it wouldn’t heal. Instead, it would scab over and then a little time later it would bleed again. I made small efforts to slather it with Neosporin and bandage it, but for the most part I ignored what I had done to myself.
And, I had done it to myself. Years of lying out by the pool and beach had exacerbated what I am certain truly caused my skin cancer – the years I spent baking in a sunless tanning booth. I’m of Welsh and German descent and am naturally very pale. Every year I would strive to reach what I considered to be a more healthy and lively skin tone, but each year I would just capture more and more freckles and moles.
“This is from the sun,” my dermatologist repeated time and again. Yes, I’m aware. I’m aware of the times I spent tingling and crawling in my own skin from over exposure. I remember the bright red puffiness of my stomach and legs. I remember taking delight in peeling off the sheets of dead skin from the damaged areas.
I may be genetically predisposed, but the truth is I aided and embedded my skin cancer. Every summer I sent cancer an invitation into my life and at 29 years-old, it finally RSVP’d.
I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. I’m not dying and I did this to myself. My treatment will consist of this: I will have Mohs surgery where a cosmetic surgeon will strip off my skin layer-by-layer until the examined pieces are cleared of cancerous cells. Then, I will be stitched up and prohibited from running or doing yoga for one month so as not to agitate the sutures.
I won’t have to sit in a hospital room with other cancer patients and be drip fed a treatment that destroys other parts of my body. I won’t be shocked by radiation that will tinge my sense of smell and remove the pleasure of taste.
But, just because my cancer will be dismissed in a surgery that is no more invasive than when I had my tonsils and wisdom teeth extracted doesn’t mean I don’t want pity. I may not deserve it, but I want it. Having cancer – or being a “cancer survivor” – which I am not yet, opens up the door to another level of attention. I’m ashamed to admit that I knew right away I would revel in the attention my diagnosis would receive. Once you’re in the cancer club, you’re always in it. I looked forward to the pity. I looked forward to the reactions of my friends and family.
“What? Hannah! No!” said one friend. “That word alone is so scary.” Some squirmed in their seats or rested their heads in their hands not knowing what to say to me. I understood; I had been there once. I had at one time not known what it felt like to be betrayed by my own body.
Yes, I enjoy the pity. I embrace the attention. But when I revealed my diagnosis on Facebook I knew I was undeserving of it once the responses started rolling in.
“My dad passed away from Melanoma two years ago on Father’s Day. You can imagine my thoughts about this topic,” wrote one friend. Said another, “A very good friend of mine just turned 40 earlier this month and due to skin cancer, it will more than likely be her last birthday. She is a wife and a mom of two, including a 16 month-old baby. She was diagnosed with melanoma two weeks after her second son was born and is now fighting to live each day. Skin cancer is no joke.” I will be fine; I reassured them, as I took pure joy in the support their reactions reflected back on me. Conversely, when I told my boss my cancer diagnosis and that I would, regrettably, be missing time from work to undergo surgery, she dismissed it. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said. I felt belittled. I felt unjustified.
But, she’s right. I will be fine – for now. One day my moles might betray me and turn into melanoma. But, until then I will be fine, as my boss said. I will be fine, as my dermatologist said. I will be fine, as I continue to tell myself. Until one of my moles betrays me – or doesn’t – I will continue to dye my hair blonde because there’s no threat of it falling out from chemotherapy treatments. Until that happens, I will forget about the inconvenience of suspending my yoga practice for one month. Until that happens, I will grow used to the sizeable scar on my shoulder that will remind me: I did this to myself.