Monday, May 7, 2012

Personal: Thank you... all of you.

Four years ago today, I was teaching an afternoon class and noticed out of the corner of my eye that my cellphone message indicator was blinking green. I knew what it was. I'd been expecting the call. I took a deep breath, shook off the willies and the encroaching tears, and finished the lesson on The Great Gatsby. I shooed my students out of the room a little early, I admit. Retrieved the message. And through tearless, breathless astonishment, called back the nurse who'd called me.

She affirmed what the message had told me, what the biopsy had told the doctor.

Breast cancer. Invasive.

Four years ago today, I am quite sure I can say that I knew none of you. And that just about none of you knew me. It was the baby days of the blog, and I'd yet to embrace Louisville's budding social media community. I'd rolled my eyes at Twitter, only used Facebook for old friends. I'd yet to dent the local blogosphere. I was less than two years a Louisvillager, and truly, with the obvious exception of Roommate, who had moved here from New Orleans with me, I had almost no friends at all.

I did not go through my cancer experience alone. From the uncle who flew down for my mastectomy because my father-- his brother-- passed away when I was a child, and he felt I needed a "father figure" by my side, to the mother-in-law of a near-stranger who heard through the grapevine that I didn't have a ride to chemo and picked me up, talked to me for the 5 hour treatment, and later brought me brownies, I was blessed with unexpected support. My students and their parents and my colleagues at school fed me two or three times a week for four months. When I insisted that I wanted to go back to school in August, halfway through my treatments, my school did me the great service of refusing to let that happen and paying me my full wage for part-time work until I did return in October, even though they didn't have to. Roommate, of course, was there for much of the journey. He was the one who shaved my head when the first clumps started to fall out in early July-- in the backyard, as I sobbed, and as maybe he cried a little too.  He was the one who held me four years ago today and assured me that everything would be okay. Mama Lou was a champ, heroic even for a woman who lost her husband to cancer when she was just 26 and now was watching her only child suffer.

That picture above is from the very early days of my treatment. I'd heard that the Newport Aquarium had a penguin encounter program. I told Roommate, "I want to pet a penguin," and he made it happen. Much like he made Bonnaroo happen just 12 days after my mastectomy-- he wrote the organizers, and they upgraded us to VIP handicapped access... I was stoned out of my gourd on painkillers much of the time, but it was amazing.

When I think back on those days, I am rarely bitter or angry. Yes, I hate that I had cancer. I hate that I lost my (huge, beautiful-- just being honest-- the last bra I bought was a 32-E) breasts. I am brutally indignant that my cancer care is still causing me financial trouble; the only way I could be even more passionate about National Health Care is if it could possibly be retroactive.  But all in all, cancer, on a day-to-day basis, is just something that happened to me. It killed my dad. It happened to my grandmother. It happened to my uncle. It happened AGAIN recently to a fellow young breast cancer survivor friend. It happens. It sucks, but it happens.

What makes me sad about Melissa-circa-four-years-ago, though, is that she didn't have you. These days when I tweet or blog about having strep throat or preparing for a root canal, I have dozens of people who offer soup or advice or a ride to the doctor. When I think of that one week that found me calling around to cancer support groups, teary-eyed, looking for a volunteer to drive me home from chemo... when I realize that today I am 100% sure that a single tweet would have solved that problem... I am so sorry for the four-years-ago-me.

I am so lucky.

This year, on the week of my Cancerversary, because of this blog and because of social media, I could be busy celebrating every single day with people I love. Roommate, who has been here through thick and thin. My boyfriend, who is the first I've had since cancer and who makes my hot flashes, memory loss, and wonky body feel utterly inconsequential and sometimes endearing. My amazing friends who want to celebrate this Cancerversary-- not even a milestone year-- by taking me out to the fanciest restaurant in town... every email and text about it makes me tear up with gratitude. Four years after my cancer experience, I am blessed with a stable of amazing friends and acquaintances-- nearly all of whom I've met because of this blog-- beyond what I could have ever imagined during those lonely, lonely days of surgeries and chemo and recovery.

The pop culture cancer narratives of people like Lance Armstrong lead people to believe that cancer makes people better, stronger, more courageous. And that may be true for a handful of folks, and I admire those people. I do.

But four years after I was diagnosed with cancer, I can honestly say I am a different person now. A better person. A stronger person.  A more courageous person.  But it's not because I had cancer.  It is because of you. The hundreds of you who read every blog post. The 1800+ of you who follow me on Twitter. I am a better, different person because of you. You have created a community for me. You have become my friends both online and in person. We're a strange sort of family. And because of you, I am almost never lonely. In fact, unless I choose to be, I can't imagine ever being lonely again.

Four years after the day I first heard the words "you have cancer," I am healthy, and I am infinitely happier. My hair is long again. My heart is full. My life is infinitely improved by your presence in it.

Thank you, readers. Thank you, followers. Happy Cancerversary to me.


Michelle said...

We love you!

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I am so happy we meet and that I can sing:
Happy Cancerversary to you,
Happy Cancerversary to you,
Happy Cancerversary to Melissa, Happy Cancerversary to you.

Julie Faulds said...

First- you are adorable- bald head and all- in the above photo. Second- I am sitting in my car, in tears from reading this post. Third- whether or not you realize it, you have been a blessing to this transplant. Thank you, for your blog, and your kind words on Twitter. You are an inspiration.

Susan C. said...

What an amazing post. Just amazing. Happy, happy Cancerversary!

Becca said...

Melissa, you know Louisville and I don't get along, but when I think back to my time there, you are one of the people I think of who made it, in the end, an experience worth having. And to know that this was going on and you were still awesome...well done, you. Love and hugs from Chi-town.

funambulator said...

Oh Melissa. You have me tearing up at in my cubicle. I so wish I had known you then. But I'm so glad I know you now. You get it. And I feel so lucky to have you in my life! Happy Cancerversary.

funambulator said...

Also, I had no idea your original boobs were that big.

M said...

My goodness, I am totally overwhelmed. Thank you all so, so very much for your kind words and love.

All of this makes me want to do better and be better.

You are wonderful people, and you've totally proved the point of this post. Thank you so much.

xo Melissa

Shiloh Walker said...

Happy cancerversary, Lou

Dianna Ott said...

The world (and Louisville) is better with you in it. Thanks for sharing your best self with all of us.

- D

Stephanie said...

Wow, what a moving story. Who knew that afternoon meeting everyone on the rooftop would bring so many new, wonderful people in our lives?

You are an inspiration and I am so glad to call you my friend! Thanks & Love, Stephanie

Suzi Bernert said...

I could not post a response when I first read this last night, I was so choked up. You are truly a gifted person and you share your gifts so willingly with all of us. Thank you for sharing, you are inspiring.