Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

My Story: Writing Off Cancer

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I don’t think of myself as a survivor, but I guess I am.

There was no dramatic climax along the way, no Scarlett O’Hara vow against hunger and pain, no fists in the sky. There was only me, huddled under a stack of prayer quilts from friends and family, doing what any normal person would do.

Sure, there were interesting moments. I went through a time of pretending, both to my family and myself, that Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is really kind of a good thing to have. Jackie Kennedy had the same form of cancer I did, so it was kind of like I had a sudden mystical bond with Camelot—very quickly I, too, would be graceful and lovely and filled with faith in the midst of my suffering. For a while, I sweated it out under a wig that made me look like a deranged Jennifer Aniston, vainly drawing on my eyebrows and telling my two kids that everything would be all right.

I told my co-workers that, too—until the day I had to acknowledge that the chemotherapy had blurred my thinking to the point where I couldn’t do my freelance writing job any more. So I went home and sat on the couch crying about my lost productivity and, quite possibly, my lost life. It wasn’t exactly heroic behavior.

Then, one particularly negative “I’m not going to make it out of this” day, I made a decision. I was going to start writing again. Not for work, but for my two young sons. If something happened to me, I wanted them to understand their heritage.

I had a stack of stories about my dad and his three brothers, who grew up in an alcoholic home during WWII. I’d start there. My book would be like Little Women, only with boys, booze, and neglect. My dad was a smart kid who did what he wanted—including tapping the neighborhood phone lines, scaling the attic roof, and even attracting the notice of the FBI. His stories showed humor in the midst of trouble. I could dig it.

So my laptop joined me on the couch, and the writing began. Page by page, I laughed, I cried, and I began to accept—and even hope. So did my family. Every day after school, there would be a new bit of prose for us to read together and connect over. We even started to find the tiny bits of humor in our own situation.

Is that unusual? I don’t think so. Lots of people write when they’re sick—in journals, in blogs. I was just lucky in that I was able to finish the book, get through the chemo, and—miracle of miracles—find a publisher willing to take on a sick person with silly hair. (Editor’s note: Stephanie’s book, Victory on the Homefront, published under the pseudonym D.S. Grier, came out this spring. Look for it on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.)

A year later, I was ready to go back to work. Well, sort of. I had a new problem. What they never tell you about chemo is that it includes steroids and crazy hormones, which lead to weight gain. I couldn’t fit into a single one of my work outfits. More tears ensued.

So I was ready bait when a flyer came in the mail from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, telling me how it sponsors runners to train for races through its Team in Training program. It was a win-win: I’d raise money to advance medical knowledge about my illness, and I’d lose weight at the same time. I mailed off solicitation letters to the people on my Christmas card list and started training.

Six months later, I’d finished a half marathon and raised $11,000 for cancer research. I cried most of the way through the race (it’s hard to cry and run simultaneously, let me tell you) and lost the first 20 pounds. I can now get into at least some of my old clothes.

After the race, I got all these comments from people about how my story was so inspiring—the book, the run. But I don’t think of it like that. My book is a happy coincidence, and so is the fact that the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society people use a weight loss strategy as a way of raising money.

I did what anyone else in my circumstances would do. Probably nobody will make an Oscar-winning film about my experiences (though if they do, I hope Tina Fey gets the role). Surviving cancer doesn’t play out like a movie. It’s like a car wreck in slow motion—such slow motion you can’t actually see the action happening.

In the end, it’s really just about the slow work of getting through. But right now, that’s enough for me.

Photo courtesy of matryosha.