I am a superhero.
Stronger than a shot of Lovenox into my body — twice a day! Powerful enough to withstand my first surgery ever! (Wait, make that two surgeries in two months.) Able to shave my entire head and utter, “Pssh that tweren’t so bad.”
You see, even though cancer, chemo and the ensuing side effects are hellish, there is a bright side: Sometimes, I actually feel like a badass.
I strut into Duane Reade, bald head shiny and a-blazing, all sweatpants and felt slip-ons, ready to pick up my meds. I look people right in the eyeball. Yup, that’s me — Cancer Lady.
Cape on. Power up the invisible jet.
Since my ovarian cancer diagnosis last November, and especially since undergoing chemotherapy, there are things I’ve dealt with things that I never thought I’d be able to withstand. Before, I could barely even give my cat Alice a shot in her little fleshy parts, let alone my own. Now? Hell, I’m a pro.
My super powers don’t end there. My sense of smell is X-Men worthy, for better and worse. Wet cat food pummels my nostrils so hardcore, I have to leave the room when it’s spooned out (truly, Satan’s cuisine). On the other hand, I can smell brownies baking in the building next door, so there’s that.
I even have a Spidey sense for when my blood levels are low. Red blood cells and hemoglobin are easy — you’re short of breath, you’ve got headaches and your heart kinda hurts. My ability to gauge my white blood cell count is a little freakier; those are the cells that keep your immune system in check and protect you from infection. There are no signs to speak of, I just know when they’re low and when I need you to wear a mask, take off your shoes and slather on the hand sanitizer before we visit. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do.
Speaking of my bloody good powers…
In mid-April, I had my second transfusion. My hemoglobin (which helps transport oxygen throughout your body) was a 6.1, which is very low. Like shuffle-and-wobble-down-the-street-gripping-husband’s-arm-and-feeling-too-tired-to-reach-the-end-of-the-block low. I texted with a new friend who has had two transfusions already, we were comparing hemoglobin levels.
“Oh you are an 8.6?” I texted. “Lucky you.”
Hemoglobin levels, CBC, the C-125 test… I have this whole new lexicon and frame of reference. It’s like when you finally own an apartment, you suddenly care to learn how to refinance a mortgage. Cancer makes you rabidly curious to learn everything you can about this new world, the language they speak (glok glok glork glok), and the funny new rituals, like blood transfusions.
On this occasion, I received two bags from two generous souls in D.C.
Nurse Mike laughed, “Maybe it was President and Mrs. Obama!”
I countered, “Maybe it was one Republican and one Democrat!”
Corny jokes get you through.
Sipping on ginger ale, I watched as the slow trickle of blood and saline made its way into my veins. The first time I had a transfusion, this part was scary. What would happen when our bloods comingled? This time, I just waited to feel amazing. I knew that I would feel perkier within hours. (There’s something to be said for vampire-dom.)
Who knew that I would have a modicum of expertise about blood transfusions? Hell, if you had told me last year that I would have had to do this, I would have panicked for months, but when you’re in the middle of a whole lot of crappiness, you just shrug and say ok, I got this too.
Like any superhero who has started to master her powers, I’m starting to feel more confident. A strange calmness floats over me amidst all these strange, scary new procedures. Frankly, I don’t see any other way for me to survive it. If I freaked out, my nerves would fray and I would explode. Instead, I learn and investigate as much as I can — it’s the only way I can assert some control — and then I just try and chill. Having my husband, friends and family support me through it all makes it a heck of a lot easier.
After all, what is a superhero without her…
Pals have noted my new calm demeanor. They seem almost surprised when they see me, feet propped and smiling. “Your face looks well-rested…relaxed?” It could be that I’m not drinking any booze or coffee or eating sugar or that my face is a little expressionless sans robust eyebrows, or it could be that the best way to survive all of this is to just let the process be what it is.
Also, I am firmly in “DGAF” mode. Minor annoyances, grudges and battles I used to wage — cancer makes a lot of that go away. It just doesn’t matter.
That’s not to say I’m totally invincible. I worry. Sometimes I wonder how low my blood counts would have to get to kill me. Like, when is it oh shit time? You think about this stuff — a lot. Of course you do. Chemo is essentially trying to kill everything and anything from growing and thriving, so you’re sort of constantly in a state of living death.
But you don’t die. Your body keeps regenerating, remaking new cells. Deadpool, Wolverine, salamanders and me.
My final super power is a surprising one: productivity. Somehow, during chemo, I’ve been able to partly manage this website (we scaled back to every other week), write these columns and run two consulting projects all from my little laptop. I’ve never managed my time more efficiently.
When I worked in a regular office, I used to think about how my co-workers with kids were better at setting boundaries than I was, that if I had kids it could be a immediate reason to hop on the 5 p.m. train. Instead, I toiled until 7 or 8 p.m. and wended my way home, pooped.
Now, my life has been so regulated through chemo schedules and doctor’s appointments that I’ve learned to work in discrete time frames. Plus, I’ve hired people on projects to help me manage them, I have great clients, I have extremely helpful friends and co-workers (shout-out to super friends Adrianna, Karen, Justine and Darian!) and I work from home, all without any kids. Setting boundaries and saying “no” isn’t hard at all — no to eating out, no to parties and no to distractions.
Cancer makes that easy.
Scratch that. Nothing about cancer is exactly easy.
But my small wins are big wins for me. Cancer Lady has done things I thought she thought she would never be able to do.
Cape on. Power up the invisible jet. I’ve got cancer to fight.Read more of Margit’s column, Ovarian Rhapsody:
- Nice to Meet You, I Have Cancer
- The Waiting Room: Details of a Diagnosis
- Choosing Your Cancer Hero
- Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
- Side Effects Unfiltered
- The Routine of My Dreams