So it was an exciting week over here at Casa McGuire-Opoulos. First, I got a daily blogging gig at the Seattle Weekly, and then on Wednesday, I was diagnosed with melanoma. (There are three different kinds of skin cancer and melanoma is the worst.)
I had noticed a little mole pop up on my left ankle a couple months ago, after we got back from Puerto Rico. At first I thought it was a shaving cut, but when it didn't go away, I took a closer look and realized it was a mole. A mole that was different colors and had irregular edges.
So I crowd-sourced a dermatologist and made an appointment at Tribeca Skin Center. From the well-dressed peeps in the waiting room and displays of spendy product on hand, it seemed like most of the "patients" at TSC were there for procedures like botox and other cosmetic whatnots. I found myself oddly comforted by the surrounding superficiality. Like my problem couldn't be too serious if everyone around me was just waiting to get botulism shot into their face.
I met my doctor—a pretty woman named Dr. Alvarez—and showed her my mole. I had convinced myself that she'd tell me I was being silly. She didn't. She said the thing looked suspicious and had to be biopsied. She shaved it off, scanned my body for other suspicious moles (none), told me my bra was too tight(!), and that I'd get results of the biopsy in ten days to two weeks.
Almost three weeks later—this past Wednesday—I got a call from a nurse there, saying I had to come in to discuss the results of the biopsy. I nervously laughed, "That doesn't sound good."
Then she asked if I could come in that same day. Everyone knows that when you need to come in to "discuss" your results, it's bad. That same day? Very bad. I started shaking, crying and was positive I was about to vomit. I was wearing a ridiculous working-at-home outfit, so changed into something a little more grown-up. Because how could I have cancer in my cute J. Crew denim pencil skirt?
Dr. Alvarez was out on vacation or something, so I met with a peppy gentleman named Dr. Parikh. He sat me down and told me I have melanoma. While yes, that is the worst of all the skin cancers, he informed me that it is highly treatable and it looked to be stage one or zero. I asked if it was true that of all the cancers, melanoma was the biggest killer. He said no, that was breast cancer. Oh. So it's the second biggest killer. Gulp. Even with that news, he was unstintingly optimistic.
Their office had already made an appointment with me to see an oncologist the following Wednesday. It was the soonest anyone could see me because of the holiday weekend. I don't know about you, but when I get really bad news, I can only partially comprehend it. It's like I hear the words, but actually absorbing them takes a while. But I was pretty sure he told me I was going to have surgery this coming Wednesday, to dig the rest of this fucker out.
Then my original doctor, Dr. Alvarez, called yesterday to check on me. Apparently they don't know what stage it is, or whether or not they're going to also have to biopsy my lymph nodes. Wednesday will only be a consultation while they figure out what to do next. So Dr. Parikh's optimism was premature, and I won't know what's going on until Wednesday. If even then.
I've been very open about my diagnosis—I even Twittered it, because the idea of announcing you have cancer via Twitter cracked me up. I've fielded a lot of phone calls and was reminded of how people dealt with my mom when she had cancer. So in the interest of being servicey, I've written a list of tips for dealing with someone who's caught the Big C (or any other life-threatening illness):
- Don't dismiss my fears. My mom died of cancer when she was just 54, an uncle bought the farm at 40, and the rest of my family tree hasn't fared much better. If I weren't scared, I'd be stupid. This is cancer, not a stomach flu.
- Don't insist I'll be fine. Believe me, nobody hopes I'll be okay more than I do. But unless you're my doctor (and even they don't know yet), you can't guarantee that. It's just irritating to hear, completely invalidates my feelings, and tells me you don't want to hear what I'm saying.
- If you have to panic, don't do it around me. I was panic-stricken most of the time my mom was in the hospital and it bugged the shit out of her. Now I know how annoying I was. If you have to freakout, call a cancer-free friend or scream into a pillow.
- If I have to go into the hospital, you'd better fucking visit me. And bring presents! And flowers! My mom's brother didn't visit the entire time she was sick. Now my aunt (his other sister) is in a wheelchair, so he won't visit her because he "doesn't want to see her that way." What a piece of shit. I haven't spoken to him since my mom's funeral. Nobody likes hospitals—least of all the person who has to stay there. So nut up and get your ass over there.
- While hearing about Aunt Edna's golf-ball-sized tumor on her nose that was removed and now she's fine, is great, don't automatically assume this means I'll be okay. Cancers come in all sizes. And while I like hearing stories of people who lived through similar experiences, I'm still terrified. On the flipside, please don't tell me about people who had melanoma and died. I may have to punch you.
- Let me talk about scary shit. I know I'm being self-absorbed, but this is a lot for me to handle. I have actually walked around my house—alone—saying aloud, "I have cancer." The more I talk about it, the easier it is for me to accept. I know that it's hard to hear, but you'd be doing me a favor if you didn't immediately change the subject every time it comes up. Because you know how new parents talk about their fucking babies 24/7? Cancer is my new ugly, shitty, fucked-up, little baby. It's all I can think about. (BTW, I picture it looking like those scary little trolls in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.) Though you're going to hear about it a lot, on the upside, at least I won't ask you to hold it.
- Don't expect any bravery out of this lady. When I volunteered as an AIDS buddy, I had this idea that I'd get someone like Harvey Fierstein, only dying. Someone facing death with dignity, intelligence and humor. Instead I got a horrible crackhead who informed me that he'd knowingly given a whole bunch of "faggots" AIDS because he hated "faggots," but he'd still suck their dicks for drug money. Charming. In the next breath, he showed me a card from his mom who advised him that accepting the lord jesus christ as his savior would cure him, and asked me to pray with him so he would live. Even if I believed it would've helped him, I would've passed. (I did call the chaplain because I'm not completely heartless.) Though I'm not a scumbag like that guy, I'm sure if I get as sick as him, I'll be just as shit-scared, because I'm pretty terrified now and I feel fine.
- Don't give me unsolicited advice. I realize this is rich coming from someone who's actually written a list of tips you didn't ask for, but I'm more talking about the type of input that involves drinking wheatgrass, having a positive attitude, doing a "cleanse," or going to church. In my own dark little way, I am being positive, but there's no fucking way I'm sticking a tube up my ass or drinking wheatgrass.