One of the first roller coasters that I ever rode was the Yankee Cannonball, a 1930s wooden roller coaster at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH. It’s nothing like the modern day all-metal launch roller coasters that exist today. Launch coasters are silent and are designed to make you feel like you’re almost flying. They are designed to thrill instead of scare.
Wooden coasters are merciless. There is absolutely no padding to shield you from the thumps and bumps at every corner. It’s you, a small lap belt, and a metal rod across your thighs to keep you moored. The rest is you fending for yourself against the hard wooden sides of the coaster car, against the shaking of the car on the tracks, and against the eternal shifting and swaying of the tracks underneath you.
The emotional aspects of being diagnosed with and dealing with cancer feels like you are trapped on a wooden coaster forever. At least, that’s how it feels for me. There are moments of calm when life is sailing on by as usual, followed by the hard knocks of turning a corner or landing from a relative high. It is bruising and it hurts.
It’s not having cancer itself that is the scary part. That part is what it is. There is cancer and a wonderful surgeon will, at some point, get it out of me. The scary, hard part is riding the ups and downs that come with a final diagnosis. The phone call of “you have cancer” is the beginning of the ride; not the end.
Since June 30 when my doctor confirmed the lump and suggested I get it checked out, my conversation with an endless array of health professionals have ranged from “this may be cancer” to “you might have cancer in both breasts and should think about removing them” and back to “you have cancer, and there may be more cancer over here and over here.”
The problem with all of this is my Scary Cancer Monster rides shotgun in my mental roller coaster car. He kind of looks like a scarier version of Gossamer from Looney Tunes. He is all teeth and eyes and vagueness. I probably sound insane for even giving this fear a shape, but it’s how I can compartmentalize and go on living my day-to-day life like a normal person. I beat him back as much as I can. We fight. Often.
Every cancer is different and every person’s cancer journey is different. Unfortunately, having breast cancer means that people think you can slap a pink ribbon on it and you’ll be okay. “It’s the best cancer to have” has been said to me more than once. I get that sometimes people don’t know what to say, but I’m really not sure there is such a thing as a “best cancer to have.”
If someone you know has been diagnosed with a major illness like cancer, it’s okay not to know what to say. Sometimes a “how are you doing?” or “I am thinking of you” is more than enough. The physical aspects of cancer are obvious and can be made well, but the emotional aspect is invisible. Remember that.