Cancer is full of surprises. None of us can be fully prepared, but we can help each other figure out what to expect...at least a little bit.
I wouldn't be able to put into words how surprised I was to hear the words "you have cancer", but I could write a novel about all of the things that surprised me about having cancer.
It feels as though every day there was a new surprise for me waiting around the corner; whether it was side effects of treatment or my evolving support system or just how I felt emotionally about having cancer. Here are some of the biggest surprises that I experienced.
1. I didn't know anything about the type of cancer I had.
I have a family history of cancer so even before diagnosis, I used to imagine what it would be like, what I would be like if I had cancer. Also, my 20s weren't exactly the healthiest decade of my life so I also figured if I ever did have cancer it would be due to my sun-worshipping, no SPF-wearing years, or lung cancer from the 10 years I (socially) smoked. So, the most surprising thing for me when I was diagnosed with cancer was the type of cancer I had—Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer. I had heard of Hodgkin’s, but really didn’t know that much about it. Breast cancer, glioblastomas, skin cancer, I knew about those, but not blood cancers.
2. I was a much different "cancer patient" than than I expected to be.
The second most surprising thing about having cancer was my reaction to being a cancer patient. When I used to imagine having cancer, I used to see myself as the brave, fierce, fighter—I wouldn't let cancer get me down, I wouldn't let it change me, I would keep working, I wouldn't let it have an effect on my daily life.
I surprised myself by not quite being that person I imagined I would be. I tried to keep working; I tried to keep running; I tried to keep up with my friends, but eventually the chemo, radiation, and side effects sidelined me.
3. I wasn't prepared for the side effects - physical or emotional.
During my treatment for cancer, I underwent six different chemo regimens, each with varying degrees of side effects. During my first appointment with my oncologist, he mentioned that I would have nausea and would lose my hair, but no one can really prepare you for what you’ll experience—physically or emotionally. The nausea and vomiting were like nothing I'd ever experienced. There were some other surprising side effects—mouth sores, everything having a metallic taste, sense of smell changing. There were so many little changes I just wasn't prepared for.
4. I didn't realize how MUCH hair I would lose.
I was surprised by my reaction to losing my hair. I’ve always been one to try different styles with my hair because it’s just hair, after all. The day I shaved it, I felt bold, brave, in control FINALLY of this disease. The next day, I woke up, looked in the mirror, and cried like I hadn’t cried in a long time. In that moment, the reality of being sick hit me like a ton of bricks. Yes, I was on my second chemo regimen and had already had two different rounds of radiation, but my bald head just made everything so real.
Also, when my doctor told me I’d lose my hair, he didn't mention I would lose it EVERYWHERE. I wasn't prepared to look in the mirror and not have eyebrows or lashes. I wasn't prepared to look at my arms and not have any hair. On the plus side, it did mean I didn’t have to shave my legs (look for the silver linings, right?).
5. I experienced a lot of changes in my relationships
I wasn't surprised when my relationships changed, but I was surprised by which ones changed and the direction in which they changed. I was surprised by the people who eventually fell by the wayside, but I was just as surprised by the people who showed up—with food, thoughtful notes, or just a text letting me know they were thinking about me.
I try to prepare others for some of the surprising aspects of a cancer diagnosis so they’re not caught off guard like I was. I offer helpful tips for dealing with side effects, and always lend a sympathetic ear when they need to vent or cry. The truth is, though, no one can ever really be fully prepared—the cancer journey is different for everyone and we'll each have our own little moments of "whoa, I was NOT prepared for that."
Even though cancer presents all kinds of surprises to you, you may just surprise yourself by how strong you really are.