So You Have Cancer: Discovery

What do you do when you find out you have cancer? After talking to Mimi, we have a pretty solid list:

  • Tell who you want
  • Delegate who you can
  • Don't make decisions you don't have to make
  • People are going to have crazy reactions
  • Be kind to yourself--you are in shock
  • Let people help you
  • Get over the blame game--it's misdirected anger and a waste of energy
  • Find mindless happiness or distraction--might I suggest 12 hours of silly cats on YouTube?

In retrospect, my own "D(iagnosis) day" was so surreal. I got the call on August 16 at 8:15am. I was getting ready for work, excited to get in early. It was my six month anniversary at this position, and I had a lot to do. The nurse practitioner called to tell me that the breast mass was cancerous and I would absolutely need surgery, probably chemo, probably radiation. I didn’t really hear anything after cancer. Cancer? I didn’t process. I couldn’t process. After she told me, she asked if anyone was with me. I said no. I’m all alone.

We hung up. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know what to do. It’s 8:15 in Boston which means 6:15 in Utah. I am going to ruin everyone’s day with the news. I couldn’t stomach waking anyone up AND ruining their day. So I won’t call family yet. My mind keeps on slipping away from how to tell people. I can’t stop crying.

I can’t go into work, which means that I have to tell them I can’t work. I’ve never called in to this job. Can I text them? Probably not. That doesn’t seem professional. I can send an email. Maybe this is a face to face talk? What do I tell them? I google “how to tell your boss you have cancer.” I get a lot of tell them in person, keep it professional, focus on the job, how this affects the job. My mind keeps on wandering away from the topic. I try to focus on that I have to tell work, how to tell work. I can’t focus. I can’t stop crying. I google, “how to stop crying.”

It’s 9:00 now. I write an email to work about cancer. I write a whole email. Bullet points. But I don’t really know anything. Not really. I know that I can’t work today. When can I work? I don’t know. I should do this in person. This seems like an in person conversation. Which brings me back that I have to stop crying. I have to stop crying long enough to walk to work and tell them in person. It’s 9:30 now. I focus on I have to tell work. I focus on I have to stop crying. I should call someone in Utah. I can’t. What do I say? I have to stop crying. That’s the first step.

I spend another 10 minutes trying to stop the tears. I don't have to look happy; I just have to stop the visible sobs. I put on shoes and make sure I have my keys. I get downstairs and realize I forgot my badge. And I need a tissue. I go back upstairs, get a tissue, walk back downstairs. Remember I forgot my badge. Go back up, get my phone, go back downstairs. Realize I still don't have my badge. Walk upstairs repeating "I cannot get into my building without a badge." Finally get my badge. Walk downstairs, not crying because I am too annoyed at myself for forgetting my badge. Eight minute walk to work, don’t make eye contact, one foot in front of the other. Go into the office, walk into my office, I don’t see anyone, get my laptop. Walk upstairs to talk to my boss without having to see anyone.

As I approach her office, I see my boss leave it, clearly in a hurry, her arms FULL of carpet and paint samples and rushing to a meeting. She sees me. Asks if I’m ok. I shake my head slowly, tell her I need to talk to her and the manager. Right now? she asks. I nod. We walk into the manager’s office, close the door. I sit. My boss is hovering anxiously.

"I say, you know how I’ve been going to a lot of doctors appointments lately? Turns out I have cancer." They are shocked, they are asking questions. I say, "I can’t talk about any of that. I can’t come into work today." My boss says "OF COURSE YOU CAN”T FUCKING COME INTO WORK RIGHT NOW! WHY ARE YOU HERE?"

I tell her I have appointments tomorrow. I don’t know anything, if/how it will affect work, that I will do my best to minimize the effect on the lab. I say, "When I said I could have this job for the rest of my life, this is NOT what I meant." They are horrified. I am amused. My boss says, "let me walk you home." I say that isn’t necessary. She insists. It’s probably a good thing she walked me home. I’m pretty clearly in shock. Probably. I don’t know, can’t focus.

I come home. Next step: tell the family. Who do I call? My mind keeps on slipping away. Most of my conversations go like this from my end:

"Hi. Uh, where are you at right now? What are you doing? Who’s with you? Are you in a place where you can talk for a couple minutes? Ok, so … so I’m going to ruin your day. I have breast cancer. Yes, like mom. I mean, hopefully not dying like mom. Maybe? I don’t actually know. Probably not. I should say definitely not, but I don’t actually know that. Maybe I should say it anyway for the positivity of it, right? Ok, it sounds like you are having a lot of emotions about this. You should… you should talk to someone about this. Not me. I can’t handle this. Call…. call someone else. Ok, I’m gonna go. Have a nice day. No, social niceties are inappropriate here, right? No social niceties. Call someone to help you through this. Ok. Bye."

No matter what, the diagnosis is going to be surreal. You are going to feel like your life got turned upside down, like you don't know who you are or what your future holds. This disconnect is reinforced by how weird you act and how weird everyone around you acts. Everything is just off while you deal with this new shape of the world around you. My dark humor and making everyone uncomfortable got me through. I'm sure everyone wishes I would have picked another coping mechanism.