CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
Essay

The Year I Didn’t Die

Reckoning With Cancer—and Survival—at 21

Was it a mistake? An information packet for the Revlon Run/Walk for Women, a 5K race to increase awareness of women’s cancers, had arrived in the mail. Affixed to my bib, the numbered badge every runner wears, was a small sticker with the following:

Jennifer Lee
BIB # 37672
T-shirt: small
Survivor
Women Empowered

My eyes kept darting back to “Survivor.” Yes, I vaguely recalled answering some questions about having had cancer when I registered for the run. But I hadn’t asked for this.

I have since tried to disentangle what I was feeling in that moment—to discern what part was sadness, what part was anger, what part was shame, what part was fear. All I knew was that I felt like bursting into tears. Survivor?

***

When I was in my third year of school at the University of California, Irvine, I got an ultrasound to examine a bulge in my pelvic area. Everything that day was cold—the room, the flimsy hospital gown, the technician’s hands, the gel she put on my stomach. It was also dark, and the machines hummed so relentlessly that it felt as if no other sound existed in the world. I had to say something. “Is everything normal?” I asked.

“No,” the technician said.

I waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” I finally asked.

“No, I can’t discuss that with you.”

I saw my doctor that afternoon. “You have a 17-centimeter tumor obstructing your left ovary,” she told me. It was the size of a grapefruit, and she cupped her hands to demonstrate. The tumor could be either malignant or benign, but either way it had to go. She told me to schedule surgery as soon as possible.

I felt dizzy. I had never had surgery before, never even broken a bone. My doctor kept talking, but I stopped listening. I drove home to Temple City over the weekend and told my parents. I was still too overwhelmed to register how they reacted.

On Monday morning, back in Irvine at the house I shared with three other girls, I started to feel worse fast. By 6 p.m., a sharp discomfort near my left hip had grown into a stabbing that hurt with every movement. I tried to take a nap, but lying down hurt too much, so I fell asleep sitting up on the living room couch.

When I woke up, the pain had become paralyzing. No one was home. Scooting slowly forward on the couch and turning sideways to pick up my cell phone, I called my boyfriend, Brian, who was a student at UC Riverside, about 50 miles away. He told me to hang tight, that he was coming to take me to the emergency room.

We arrived at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach a few hours later. The bulge on my left side was now large enough that I could cup it with my hand. After about three hours, I was called in for an ultrasound. The technician, trying to lighten the mood, joked that it looked like I was three months pregnant. Before long, I learned that I required surgery right away. The next day, Tuesday, January 13, 2009, just 13 days after my 21st birthday, I had the procedure.

When I woke up, someone, probably the surgeon, told me the operation had been a success. The tumor had been removed, along with my left ovary and fallopian tube. I would still be able to have children. Recovery would take about six weeks, and it would take a week for me to get a pathology report revealing whether the tumor was malignant.

Three days later, as I was pushed out of the hospital in a wheelchair and guided into my dad’s car for a memorably painful 50-mile car ride (the lap belt lined up precisely with my five-inch incision), I began to understand how much everything, in a life that I’d planned out so carefully, was going to change. I would not be able to attend class. I would have to withdraw from school for at least a quarter. I would be forced to relinquish control over even the simplest tasks. It was the first time I fully understood that fate, no matter how much you try to prepare, respects no plans.

For the next two months, it hurt to lie down, and it hurt to sit up. My mom had to help me into the bathroom. I used large surgical bandages to keep my incision dry and became an expert in Nexcare products. Lifting one leg to get into the bathtub brought tears to my eyes—mostly from the frustration of being unable to do it myself.

There was also fear. About a week after I was discharged, my doctor called me about the pathology report. The mass had been identified as an “immature teratoma.” What was that? She told me not to worry; the oncologist would explain it all. Another week passed.

During these periods of waiting, I tried to control my anxiety, to contain the ceaseless “what if” questions that led nowhere. I came to realize that sometimes, you just have to allow yourself to be fully terrified, take a deep breath, and move on.

When I finally met my oncologist, I learned I would need another surgery, a laparoscopy, to determine what stage the cancer was in. It was too much to take in. Another surgery. Cancer. I kept repeating “cancer” in my head without grasping its full meaning. I now know that an immature teratoma is by definition malignant, but I didn’t know it then. When you enter the medical system, you cannot expect much guidance. No one ever explained to me in detail what was going on. I didn’t even know what questions I should be asking.

On February 26, forty-four days after my first surgery, I had the laparoscopy at Hoag Hospital. The procedure went smoothly, but my oncologist found a 1-cm dark polypoid lesion. This, he told me, was a sign of malignancy. I might require chemotherapy. We’d have to wait for the final pathology report.

The day after coming home from the hospital for the second time, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had four incisions on my body, and I was swollen and bruised: purple, yellow, and gray. For the first time since the ordeal had begun, I wept.

I prepared for the possibility of chemotherapy as best as I could. One of my aunts, a pediatrician, brought me chemotherapy pamphlets and recommended online forums on which I could talk to people my age who were going through the same thing. She also had what I found to be the best advice during those days: hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It was comforting. I didn’t like it when people, meaning well, told me that things were going to be OK. I wanted to scream, “No, you don’t know that!” Besides, what does “OK” even mean? Better to be told you will suffer but probably get through it. Better to be advised to scream at the top of your lungs. Cry until you’re exhausted. Just don’t let it defeat you.

After a week, my oncologist called. I kept repeating “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst” in my head. The seconds on the phone had already felt like minutes. “I have good news,” he said. I held my breath. The cancer was in Stage 1A, the lowest possible stage. I would not need chemotherapy.

I looked at my mom, who was sweeping the floor. “I don’t need chemo!” I shouted out. She dropped her broom. Then she started to cry. This made me start to cry. My oncologist told me I would need to follow up with him every three months for the next three years and then every six months until the five-year mark. I thanked him and hung up and started calling everyone—Brian, my best friends, then all my friends. I reached my dad at his office. “I don’t need chemo!” I told him. “I’m going to be OK!” A long silence followed that made me think we’d been disconnected. Then I heard quiet sobbing.

***

On the day I received my Revlon Run/Walk materials, three years had passed since that phone call with my oncologist. Only three months later, in April 2009, I’d returned to school. I’d graduated on time and eventually got a full-time job. My bout with cancer had been like a short-lived abduction, an interlude of being plucked out of ordinary life and blindfolded and kicked around, then suddenly dropped by the side of the road and told I was free to go. The only reminders of what happened were my faded incision scars and the regular visits to my oncologist.

Getting my running badge, emblazoned with the simple word “survivor,” even in tiny font, changed that. I was angry: it was up to me, not Revlon, to decide whether I wished to reveal my history. I was ashamed: people might now pity me, see weakness. I felt unworthy: I didn’t go through chemo, nor did I lose my hair, nor did I endure years of treatment, or pay any other dues. Most of all, I was shocked: because the word, so stark in print, was accurate.

My grandfather died when I was in high school, and I avoided saying “My grandpa died” for as long as I could. Personal experience can be revoked, suppressed, or rationalized away. Words, once shared, cannot. Could I deny being a survivor? My first pathology report revealed that my tumor had started to rupture. That’s how grave things had been.

A brush with death is hard to put behind you. However desperately grateful you are to have it, survival, once the euphoria wears off, isn’t something that makes you happy. It’s something with which you come to terms.

On the day of the 5K race, I wore my badge, and I ran the whole way. I ran with Brian, who was by my side in the hospital every night. I thought about my friends who came to visit me and everyone in my family who took care of me when I couldn’t. I thought of the millions of people who have lost the battle with cancer, their families, and their final moments. At one point, I’d been unable to walk. Now I was able to run. And that morning, instead of feeling guilty for being a survivor, I allowed myself to feel lucky.