Cancer Was My Identity, Until I Created A New One

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Cancer taught me a lot about Kim Kardashian. After spending many hours in countless hospital waiting rooms, I discovered one universal truth: They're all stocked with year-old US Weekly magazines. On the day of the surgery to remove my tumor, I was relieved to see my old tabloid friends, ready to transport me to the simpler times of yesteryear, before Kimye and cancer. Confronted with my own mortality, I was desperate for distraction — any story was preferable to the never-ending crisis that was my daily existence. But, all US Weeklys must come to an end, and when the nurse called my name, I was jolted back into my own troubled narrative.

That summer, I had moved in with my boyfriend. Two weeks later, he had broken up with me. Next, I had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. I became desperate to make sense out of this chaos. What does it all mean? But the universe never supplies an answer to this question, so I believe it's our job to write the story. It's like a high-stakes Choose Your Own Adventure novel — but it seemed like the Adventure was choosing me. I lost control of my own narrative, surrendered to victimhood, and allowed my trauma to define me. I cast myself as Super Victim, lighting rod for misfortune, doomed to suffer eternally.

That day at the hospital, I was ushered to the OR wearing Super Victim's spandex. Terror, depression, and self-pity seized my mind as the nurse strapped me to the operating table. The room was cold and buzzed with an undercurrent of anticipation. I looked up at the anesthesiologist.

"Just let me know before you put me under," I said.

I was eager for a warning — something life had denied me recently. Crisis was my new normal, and I allowed these events to shape my identity. I came to expect the worst, giving up hope of anything better. Everything was rushed, urgent, and unplanned. But, here on a cold table, as I squinted into the LEDs above, was a single moment to prepare. One last chance to check in before this chapter, with all its disease and heartbreak and turmoil, might finally come to a close.

I awoke an hour later with one testicle and no cancer. A few days afterward, my family and friends threw a party. I could barely walk, but I could sit on a couch and eat multiple slices of cake while high on painkillers. It was time to rest. It was time to rebuild. This story was finally over.

Or, so I thought.
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
A week later, I went to the doctor for a post-surgery check-in and a clean bill of health. But my oncologist had a surprise in store: "An ambiguity appeared on your CT-Scan," he said.

This was not the sentence I had expected. I had expected "We got it all, babe! Break out the Veuve!" But, as it turns out, I was not headed to a champagne brunch. I was headed to another oncologist for a second opinion on that ambiguous CT-Scan. "At this point, we have to stage the cancer at 2A," this one said. I had been previously staged at 1.

For those of you not versed in the cancer-numbers game, it goes a little something like this:

1 = Crisis

2A = Fuck-everything-how-did-we-get-here-am-I-going-to-die?

The issue: My lymph nodes had lit up on my CT-Scan. That's where testicular cancer usually spreads first. When lymph nodes are highlighted on a CT-Scan, they're typically enlarged — swollen with cancer. What was "ambiguous" about my scan was the fact that my lymph nodes lit up but were not enlarged. Neither doctor had seen this before, which is always fun when you're dealing with a life-threatening disease.

"The recommendation is RPLND," the oncologist added. RPLND is short for retroperitoneal lymph node dissection — a fancy way of saying, "we're going to slice your guts open in an extremely rare and dangerous operation, rip out your cancer-ridden lymph nodes, and keep you in the hospital for three months to recover. Oh yeah, and we might need to re-teach you how to walk and you may never be able to ejaculate again. Smooch!"

M
y world collapsed all over again. I had thought I was finally in the clear, but I was now in potentially deeper shit than ever. And, in a weird way, I welcomed it. The narrative of victimhood is bizarrely alluring in times of depression. You get addicted to the anger, which poisons even the positive things in your life. You're determined to prove that, underneath the civilian garb, you're still rocking that signature Super Victim cape.

The rest of my life was suddenly in limbo. In two weeks, I was scheduled to move from New York to Los Angeles for a major professional opportunity. But, see? Here came life, with its typical V for Vendetta against my happiness. Might as well surrender now, and blow up the entire move. I was set to press the self-destruct button on my soul when the universe intervened again — this time with a better option.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Because RPLND is such a hardcore procedure, it was determined that I'd be given a PET-CT before we headed back into the operating room. A PET-CT is sort of a CT-Scan on steroids, and one that could shed new light on my situation. So, wait, now I might be okay again? Quite suddenly, I was back to the beginning of my story: more waiting rooms, more ancient US Weeklys, more tests and tears. More unknown.

As I waited for the results, depression returned, and Super Victim's sweaty spandex called to me from my closet: You're a victim, it said. You always will be. Why try to change the script now? Stay in bed, miserable. There's plenty of ice cream and early-'90s rom-coms on Netflix.

But, when the tests came back, everything changed. The PET-CT deemed my lymph nodes as non-threatening, though still in need of monitoring. Once so certain I'd be back on the operating table, now the doctors decided that surgery would be unnecessary, and instead we would "watch and wait."

"Watch and wait" is a medical phrase used to describe a period of surveillance in which frequent tests are performed to ensure that cancer does not return. But, "watch and wait" could also be a description of my whole attitude that summer. I had been stuck in self-pity, watching and waiting for the next crisis to come along. I was paralyzed by the sad, scary story I'd told myself.

So, I made a decision: I'd tell myself a new story — one of survival and strength. It was time to shed the Super Victim costume and forge a new identity. I would fake it until I made it. Without a looming surgery hanging over my head, I moved across the country as planned. And with that one act, I made a valuable discovery: True power is acknowledging the narratives at work in our lives, and then choosing to take control of them.

With space and time I found the perspective I needed to shape my own story. But, arriving at that place of strength and clarity wasn't easy, and I found it helpful to consult other tales that bolstered my own. In my new favorite book, Keep It Fake: Inventing An Authentic Life, author Eric G. Wilson emphasizes how, if artfully composed, our "fake" narratives can actually lead to wonderful realities:

Let's just go ahead and say it is made up; then at least if we don't like how things are, we can change the script, write a new, more pleasing plot, fashion the character we'd most like to be. And, we might discover, strangely and paradoxically enough, that some fictions are truer than facts, and more revelatory, and beautiful, and good.

The fact: I'm a person who got cancer.

The fiction: I'm a survivor; I'm not going to give up.

Okay, so I may have plagiarized Beyoncé a bit, but I stand by my fiction. It's a story I told myself (and told myself and told myself) until finally, it came true.
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