By Abby Myette
Cancer means chemotherapy. It means radiation. It means surgery. It means major changes to your body. It means a new regiment of pills every day. It means you have to fight something that is trying to kill you.
These were all the thoughts running through my head when my doctor told me the nodule in my neck was cancerous. I’d seen what cancer means firsthand, first in high school when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’d seen it again when my father had surgery for melanoma. The night my doctor called with my test results, I was with my sister as she recovered from her most recent reconstruction surgery after her second fight with breast cancer. My family knows cancer. We know what it means. And now it was my turn to hear a diagnosis. You can understand that my first reaction was
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
The second thing running through my head was imagining what treatment looked like, how my life would be impacted. I had a trip I was really excited about in a few weeks, would I still be able to go? There was an important event at work I needed to manage. The holidays were right around the corner, would I be celebrating or spending the time on my couch recovering? Hearing the big C word sent my imagination into a tailspin. It wasn’t pretty. And quite frankly, at this point, I didn’t have any facts or information to accurately answer the question of what’s next. My doctor was still talking, but I didn’t hear it. My mind was in a fog. It was a few days later when I went to meet with the surgeon that I knew my questions would be answered.
It’s okay, because really if you’re going to get cancer, this is the good kind.
That’s what the surgeon said to me. And I heard it again from another doctor later that day. And I heard it from my college roommate who received the same diagnosis ten years ago. The good kind of cancer? What does that even mean? How can cancer have a good side? Nothing I had seen my family go through over the last twenty years was good. This whole commentary confused me. But I listened to the surgeon. My treatment plan was surgery, take out my thyroid. It would last about 4 hours. I would probably get to go home that day. I’d be out of work for a few days. There wouldn’t be radiation. There wouldn’t be chemotherapy. My heart rate returned to normal and I took a deep breath. Okay, I could handle this treatment plan. This wasn’t even close to any of the theories my imagination had concocted over the last few days.
As the week passed and all of this settled in, I started to understand what everyone had meant by good cancer. But I still felt like it was the wrong word. We want good things to happen! We want to go on good vacations, eat good pizza, drink good wine, read a good book. But good cancer? I didn’t want good cancer, no one wants any kind of cancer. But if I was going to get some diagnosis, this one was going to be relatively easy to manage. The impact on my life would be minimal. The surgery was not complex. Those phrases felt better than the word good.
As I spent time with my family and looked at each of us, each with our own diagnosis, treatment plan, and varying impact on our lives, it made sense. Cancer sucks; every kind, for everyone. But each cancer story is different. We put a weight, a value to that difference as a means to comfort ourselves in the face of something scary. People told me it was good cancer as a way of offering comfort, as a way of saying you’re going to be okay. And they are right, I am going to be okay. I’m grateful the treatment plan is just surgery. But I’m also still scared and anxious. All these different emotions, even when they conflict, are real and true. And maybe that’s what cancer really means, it means a complicated mix of emotions and reactions. It means people showing you they care. It means moving forward and thriving under new circumstances. It means my future still looks pretty damn good. And if you just heard your own diagnosis, your future will be different than mine, but it is still going to be a good one.