It was the first time I’d been out to a restaurant since having a cyst removed, and only a few days after learning I had ovarian cancer.
> Insert record scratch sound here <
Yeah, I know, I know. That’s some big news right there. But hold on, let me finish my lede…
I’d spent the last week and a half recovering from surgery and, up until that November night, had been pretty much down for the count. A Percocet-induced haze of Broad City binge-watching and crushing fatigue. So by the time my friend Shelly came to Brooklyn for a visit, I was ready to shake up my bed-couch-bed routine and feel somewhat normal again. What I wasn’t quite ready for was having to share my big news with the outside world.
We decided to go to a red-booth-and-burger joint right around the corner from our apartment — a place where my husband and I were semi-regulars and would often sit at the bar and order dinner. I’d gotten to know Tommy the bartender a bit, a gregarious, white-haired host who reveled in making us spontaneous cocktails. “Whatcha feel like tonight?” The lot of us would chuckle about being the aged folks in the room — how no one at work remembered ‘80s college bands like Hunters and Collectors. Nor, should they?
But this time, we didn’t want to gab at the bar; I needed a more comfortable seat to house my recovering nether regions, and I just didn’t want to face Tommy. I wanted to eat a quiet meal and not have to deal with explaining anything. Or so I thought.
We shuttled to a back table, but, of course, Tommy was unavoidable. So when he went in with a swing for a handshake I returned it.
“How have you been? Where have you been?” he asked while pulling me in awkwardly for a kiss on the cheek. I got a good whiff of whisky, beer and mops.
“I’ve been sick; I’m recovering.”
“Oh, I had no idea! You’re better though?”
“Actually…” I paused for a minute. I hadn’t told most of my closest friends and family about my two-days-ago diagnosis. Do I tell random bartender? What the hell…
“No,” I replied.
“Aw, I just kissed you,” he laughed, grabbing both of my hands.
I’m not even sure what I said next, but it was something like:
“Cancer. Fine. Early. They think. More surgery. Soon.”
“No…” His face fell into super serious face.
“It’s ok, it’s ok. They think it’s very early, so, you know. It’s ok.” There’s a lot of reassuring of other people when you have cancer.
Tommy looked at me with pained eyes, and I wanted to run away. I thought, Don’t feel bad for me, please. I’m the same person! I am about to try and wolf down your special burger! Which I probably shouldn’t now that I have to go on an anti-cancer diet so maybe I am not but you know what I mean!
Suddenly, I felt a hand plop over my shoulder. It was my neighbor. I hadn’t noticed that she’d been standing right next to me. She was clearly loaded.
“Heyyy!” she said, wide-eyed. “Wow!!”
I didn’t know if she was saying wow because she’d heard what I just said or she was plastered. So I asked.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“That I have cancer?”
“I HAVE CANCER.”
She looked at me like I was crazy and just said, “Wow…”
Now who was drunk?
Me. Drunk with information.
There’s no easy way to share the news. There’s no possible couched, soft-blow lead-in. My husband describes it like, “Yeah, man, did you see that game last night, man? Knicks looked good. Melo dropped 27. Oh, how is my wife? She has cancer.” And then they respond, “What the hell man? Why didn’t you start there?”
Why and how and who and when do you tell someone you have cancer? It’s all very confusing. I am just letting me lead me, which is what they tell you to do. They do.
My husband describes it like, “Yeah, man, did you see that game last night, man? Knicks looked good. Melo dropped 27. Oh, how is my wife? She has cancer.”
Technically, the first person I told was my younger sister. Which is fascinating to me. Here is someone I love dearly but with whom I have drag-down fought with all my life (I once threw a birdcage at her). We don’t talk all the time; in fact, probably not enough. But she was the absolute first person that came to mind. The practical one. My genetic co-conspirator. You realize in a moment like this who truly matters and who is your go-to team. She was also an easier tell than my parents or my husband. I started there.
(Sisterly Edit: She reminded me that I used to make her go first at everything: Getting our ears pierced. Going in for the dentist appointment. It only figures I would tell her about this first. Ouch.)
Everyone had wildly different reactions. The aforementioned Shelly, my B-52’s partner in crime, immediately said, “Think of the wigs!” (Which is why I adore her.) Some people just want to hold your hand. Others want all the gory details, and you can tell they’re seconds away from phoning their own gynecologist. One person, a colleague, actually didn’t say a word; she just kept talking to me like I hadn’t told her any news at all.
My husband, who is African American (it’s sort of relevant here), told one person in his family and his cousin wrote me about five minutes later: “You must have known when you told one person you opened up the family prayer line.” It makes me weep to think about my in-laws calling out my name in a Virginia church. I feel like saying don’t pray for me, I’ll be just fine. But yeah, ok, maybe pray for me.
I debated posting anything on Facebook because, Facebook. But for some reason, when my musical everything, David Bowie, passed away last Monday from cancer — he who wanted a “minimum of fuss” and virtually no one to know — I felt the urge to take the opposite tack. It was the exact same day I was going in for my first chemotherapy treatment. Maybe I needed the likes. No matter. As Rebecca Pedersen suggests in a fist-pumping piece in The Hairpin, “Make a Facebook status letting everyone know you have cancer… The only thing more exhausting than chemo is having a face-to-face conversation with everyone you’ve ever met about your battle of wills with a murderous tumor.”
Sitting in a room at the NYU Langone Medical Center with Benydryl and then Ativan and then steroids and then Taxol and then Carboplatin pumping into my vein, I scrolled through the responses, the prayers, the cheering, the FUCK CANCERs. It felt good. And freaky. This shit was real. Tell someone else, and it’s real.
As the week progressed, the likes and comments edged into the 300s and, of course, the more popular a post is, the more it finds its way to that old boss you forgot you were friends with. People I hadn’t spoken with in years were reaching out. The guy who played a butler to my maid in the high school play. The college buddy turned born-again pastor. Old clients. Now it was getting weird. Especially when a long-ago ex chimed in, “Cancer?? What?” and then never reached out.
And now I’m telling you.
I am a 48-year-old lady with stage IIA ovarian cancer, discovered by my gynecologist after a seemingly benign cyst removal. In two weeks, I’ll give you the origin story; more about the diagnosis, wig shopping, drug-taking and whatever else comes up, but for now it’s good to just get this off my chest.
No guarantees people, we’ll see how this rolls me — but writing is cathartic, and I want to share this with you.
Read more of Margit’s column, Ovarian Rhapsody: