I remember walking into the doctor’s office on that sunny but sharply cold Thursday in February of last year. I proudly handed over my shiny new plastic insurance card like it was the Willy Wonka golden ticket to the receptionist. Finally, I had health insurance which gave me the freedom to choose a doctor, any doctor, to help me figure out the mystery as to why I couldn’t walk up the subway stairs without being on the verge of passing out, walk outdoors and be gasping for air if even the slightest gust of cold wind entered my lungs, wake up coughing and choking every night, and back pain that I couldn’t escape. A few days before the appointment, I was searching on my insurance website’s database of general physicians in Manhattan. I never can seem to make up my mind with very serious decisions such as tofu cream cheese or regular? Flats or wedges? To wear my wig today or not? How was I supposed to choose a doctor in the sea of thousands? I choose what football team I’m rooting for based on the color of their uniforms - this situation was not much different. Scrolling through the alphabetical list of “A” last names, nothing popped out at me. Eventually, I settled on a doctor whose name was at the top of the ‘B’ list (don’t worry, he turned out to be an ‘A‘ list doctor!) He had a website and 4-star reviews on Yelp, and these days that means everything. Most people know to avoid the establishments that get 1 or 2 stars on Yelp and I figured that same rule applied to choosing a doctor.
This was about two weeks after my biopsy in January when I was assured that there was no evidence of cancer by the doctors at Bellevue. That the countless lumps in my neck and on my collarbone were nothing more than what was probably an ‘infection’. They told me to schedule an appointment with one of the general physicians there to find more answers. The earliest appointment they could fit me into was in JUNE. “What is this?” I thought, “I’d have a better chance of getting reservations at The French Laundry an hour before my desired meal time than seeing a doctor at a mediocre hospital with amateur doctors”.
No matter what, I still loathe the anticipation and impending doom of a doctor walking into the bright fluorescent-lit room. I waited nervously, perched on the edge of the exam table that was dressed up in a sheet of crinkly paper. My attempt to open a chocolate peanut butter power bar that was probably made in a laboratory failed due to the sweat on my palms. I could have passed out right there but successfully distracted myself with the quintessential “soothing” paintings hanging on the wall. I made an effort to imagine myself in that pale watercolor painted beach scene, sitting on the peachy-colored sand watching blurry seagulls fly by at dusk. The anxiety was not related to what he was going to tell me, I was cancer-free and any hypothesis or diagnosis was better than CANCER. My heart was racing because I knew he was going to gladly stab a needle into the crook of my arm and take my blood with such ease. Miraculously there are actually people on Earth that can do this and not get grossed out. I knew this after reading on Yelp that he likes to do the blood samples himself instead of the nurses.
He casually strolled into the room accompanied by a smile and friendly persona. I handed over my stack of papers from previous doctor visits and procedures as if we were about to conduct an important business meeting. He skimmed through them, the look on his face slightly puzzled which then prompted a frustrated look on my face. I tried doing a few breathing tests which left me lightheaded and defeated because of my inability to breathe properly. He suggested that I may have asthma along with an infection of the lymph nodes which would probably just clear up on it’s own. I felt incredibly overwhelmed and helpless from my intensifying symptoms, but perhaps they were really just temporary from an ‘infection’. He had yet to take my blood so I assumed it was my lucky day that I somehow got out of it. I was certain that he would send me on my merry way - besides, I had a lot of work to do and needed to get back to the office. He excused himself from the exam room for a moment to make a phone call. I could hear bits and pieces of his conversation through the thin walls and realized that he was talking about me. He entered the room minutes later and calmly instructed me to see the oncologist next-door for a second opinion as he wrote me a prescription for an asthma inhaler. The doctor had already set up the appointment for me, telling me this oncologist was able to fit me in to his schedule with the short five minute notice he got. I was not scared. I was slightly annoyed that I had to spend more time seeing another doctor, especially a cancer doctor, when I already had a biopsy and was told that there was no evidence of lymphoma.
I strolled through the carpeted hallway and reached the glass door to the oncologist’s office. Observing the oncologist’s name etched into the glass, I snickered at the funny first and last name he had. For the second time that day, I handed over my insurance card to a receptionist. She took down my information and then looked up at me, adjusted her glasses higher onto the bridge of her nose, smiled at me, and instructed me in her thick Russian accent to go have a seat. I looked around the waiting room and noticed this was a different kind of waiting room. This room was not full of relatively healthy people getting their yearly physicals, this was a room full of cancer patients. One woman sat there alone reading a magazine, I could tell she was bald, but had a scarf shielding most of her head. If I scooted to the edge of my seat enough, I could peek into the back room and see a frail older man sitting in a large La-Z-Boy-esque leather chair getting chemotherapy. “I hope that’s never me in that chair”, I thought. It was a somber waiting room and my mind began to wander. “Why exactly am I in this room full of cancer patients? I don’t have cancer, or do I? Did that doctor I just saw really think that I do have cancer?” Eventually the oncologist came out to retrieve me from the waiting room. He was attractive, which was a pleasant surprise and made the visit oh, about .001% better. If I had to be at an oncologist’s office in the first place, then this was the way to do it! I sat down on the exam table across from him and yet again handed over my pile of medical records. I was ready to prove this oncologist wrong. I already had a biopsy and a PRINTED OUT REPORT of my results so clearly stating “no evidence of lymphoma”. He seriously studied my records thoroughly for a good five minutes, every so often giving an occasional “hmm”, or a tilt of the head as if he were attempting to fill in the empty squares of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in pen. He examined the lymph nodes spread throughout my neck and collarbone, taking note of their location and size. Within one minute, he leaned back into his chair and calmly stated with absolute certainty, “It’s lymphoma, most likely Hodgkin’s”. I insisted he must be wrong, that he was jumping to conclusions without considering the fact I’d be totally freaked out. Somehow I thought I could prove an expert wrong about his diagnosis. I was in a state of complete shock, the tears began to pour out of my eyes as I attempted to convince him that “it can’t be cancer, it must be something else”. I had Googled enough diseases within the past few months that are similar to lymphoma to debate this with him. “But wait, can’t it be that sarcoidosis disease thing? I heard people of Scandinavian descent have a higher chance of getting it, right? Can’t it just be an infection in my lymph nodes, maybe a bad case of mono? Maybe it’s from stress...I don’t sleep very much. I don’t know, maybe it’s asthma, I heard adults can get develop asthma and I was actually just given a prescription for an inhaler”.
He wasn’t letting up, his commitment to my diagnosis was unwavering. He IS an oncologist specializing in lymphomas after all. What in the world was I thinking trying to debate with him something he is an expert of? Deep down I knew he was correct, no matter how badly I wanted him to be completely wrong and an idiot like the rest of the non-oncology doctors I had previously been handed off to at Bellevue. It’s hard to even describe how I felt at that very moment. I was waiting for my alarm clock to starting beeping to wake me up from a bad dream, but as the minutes ticked by, the reality sunk in - I just turned twenty-four-years-old and I had cancer. I was going to end up bald. I would have to put my life on hold and go through all of that creepy, scary chemotherapy. I needed to get a port placed under my skin to make the chemotherapy ‘easier’ to receive. My life could possibly be taken away from me at any time. He told me he would need to draw blood, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care. I now had worries far greater than fainting from a needle poke.
The moment I walked out of the double doors of his office, I burst into tears. Real tears. Not the bewildered, stunned, trying-to-suck-it-up and be tough tears I had while I was sitting across from the oncologist. I hailed a cab while calling my mom to deliver the news. I took the cab back to my office, swiped the credit card, my vision blurry from the tears I forcibly pushed the buttons on the pay screen and the screen froze. My card didn’t go through and I gave the driver attitude when he snapped at me, so I forced a wad of cash into his hands and slammed the car door shut. I sat down at my desk and slowly broke the news to anyone that inquired why I looked upset, that was not easy to do. I ordered a ton of sashimi because damnit, it’s overpriced to get it delivered and I never normally did that but in the moment it didn’t matter. At all. Nothing seems to make me lose my appetite, not even a cancer diagnosis. I soon realized that it was no coincidence that I randomly chose that general physician. Of the thousands in the massive city of New York, he just so happened to be friends with and work directly next door to an oncologist, specifically an oncologist who specializes in lymphoma and would take me under his wing to get all of my tests, surgeries, and treatment underway as quickly as possible.
It was a significant day, a turning point in my life. Suddenly I received an answer to what was wrong with me after months of uncertainty. The following week I went to the hospital for a second biopsy and to have my port placement. Little did I know that I would end up spending three weeks surrounded by numerous doctors, surgeons and nurses while having surgeries on my heart (pericardial window) and lung areas and spending plenty of time in the CCU and ICU. I had to receive my first chemotherapy treatment immediately after getting my official diagnosis from the second biopsy (which ended up being Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) because not another day could go by and there was no time to waste. God is an excellent planner, I can say with absolute certainty that The Lord carried me through those three weeks, giving me the strength to be in ‘fighter-mode’ and survive the pain and torture I went through. I honestly look back now and cannot imagine enduring all that I went through there, I do not know how else to explain how I did it all, and with a smile on my face every single day. Trust me, there were plenty of tears as well but I was in good spirits more often than not and I know for a fact it was not just the morphine helping.
This time of year is strange for me. Although in a way this all seems so distant because I have moved on in my life, it all still seems so fresh in my mind. I wake up every morning thanking God I am cancer free and I pray that I continue to stay in remission. I am extraordinarily blessed to have survived this and that I had my family and friends supporting me every step of the way. I grew closer to God and my faith became stronger. The suffering endured has and will continue to teach and remind me of the way I want to live my life. Not a day goes by that what I experienced crosses my mind, oftentimes bringing tears to my eyes. Sometimes they’re tears of joy, sometimes they’re tears from anger and sadness that I even had cancer in the first place. I probably look like an emotional basket case on the subway at times but the beauty of NYC is that you usually won’t ever see those same people again.
Cancer did not so simply just vanish out of sight-out of mind once I finished chemotherapy. I was so eager to move on with my life the moment I was told there was no evidence of disease left, and so I did just that. It is liberating to no longer be constantly monitoring every ache and pain, dragging myself to doctors appointments, chemotherapy, and scans, continuously speaking about cancer and being ‘that girl with cancer’. Suddenly I was dropped back into regular life but I wasn’t the same person as I was before, I had just been through a life changing experience, one that at many times was very traumatizing. Navigating life after cancer is challenging, more challenging than going through the treatment itself, as crazy as that sounds. During treatment I was so focused on surviving and getting through the physical aspects of the treatment that I never took into account often enough how I felt. It’s as simple as this - I’m happy it’s gone, I’m angry and sad at times it occurred. Many times during and after treatment I couldn’t help but think “stupid, stupid cancer. You almost took my life. You took my hair. I still feel like crap sometimes, probably from all of the chemicals I’ve been exposed to. You made me vulnerable. It could come back again. Forever I will have to get scans and be reminded that I had you in the first place”.
This is why I have chosen to forgive cancer. There are many sayings out there about how harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die. It does no good to hold onto bitterness, to have a grudge weighing you down. Cancer is sad, it is grueling and terrifying, but it has been a phenomenal teacher that I have loved to hate and then learned to accept. Every day is a fresh start, a new beginning. I am excited to see what adventures lie ahead. I have learned that you never know what can happen within one short year. Thank you, cancer, for challenging me, scaring me, and showing me just how much of a badass I can be. Even when I feel weak, I remind myself of how tough I was. So cancer, I forgive you.