By Shannon Ralph
When I was 10 years old, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had fallen on hot metal at work following a seizure and, for the rest of his short life, he had a large burn mark on his upper arm in the shape of the continent of Africa. I thought it was rather cool. One year later, at the tender age of 33, my dad died of cancer.
That was not so cool.
From the minute I was born, I was my daddy’s little girl. My mother always told me how alike the two of us were. Like him, I tend to approach things pretty pragmatically. Like him, I tend to be on the quieter side. Somewhat reserved. I am not one for dramatic displays of emotion. I hate drama. I avoid confrontation at all costs. I am my dad’s daughter.
When he died of cancer at 33 (exactly ten years younger than I am now), I convinced myself that because I was my father’s daughter, I would be diagnosed with cancer one day as well. I realize there is no scientific reasoning for this assumption. It is not based on sound, logical thinking at all. It was the rationalization of an 11-year-old mind. I am like daddy. He got cancer. I will one day get cancer.
Strangely, I was not devastated by this thinking. It was just a part of who I was. I had green eyes. I loved to read. My athletic abilities left something to be desired. And I would one day be diagnosed with cancer.
This thinking persisted throughout my childhood and into adolescence. When I was in high school, I found a spot on the back of my left thigh. It was small oval–about one centimeter wide–that was black and brown and reddish. Mostly black. Like a mole, but not a mole. Uneven edges (they always tell you to look out for uneven edges). I was convinced this was it. Clearly, it was skin cancer.
My mom took me to the doctor. He took one look at it and dismissed it as nothing. He said that it looked as though I had been pinched. Something pinched the skin hard enough that it turned black and…what? Died? He said it would eventually fade and disappear and that we should not worry.
What a quack!
Of course, I didn’t believe the idiot doctor. He didn’t do a biopsy. He didn’t look at the cells under a microscope. How could he have possibly known that it wasn’t cancerous? I was pretty convinced that I was smarter than that doctor. I knew for a fact that I was smarter than my mom. Hell, I was convinced that I was smarter than most of the human population. I was that kid.
I had not gone to medical school, obviously, but I was somewhat of a cancer connoisseur. I knew the warning signs. I had the symptoms memorized. I was well aware of my destiny. And I would have certainly remembered being pinched hard enough to turn the skin on my leg black!
It was cancer. It had to be cancer. I found myself often sitting in algebra class imagining the tumor thriving. I could almost feel it growing inward toward my femur. I could sense it burrowing beneath the tough bone and finding a snug home in my marrow. From there, it would flourish and spread throughout every bone in my body. Eventually, I would be unable to walk. Unable to talk. Bald and decrepit, I would go back to that doctor. He would regret dismissing me. He would rue the day he repudiated my cancer!
Okay, so clearly I was a rather morbid child.
But the thing is that I knew in my heart of hearts I would get cancer. My dad got cancer and I, so much like him, deserved–needed–to get cancer, too. It makes no sense, I know, but there is a sort of comfortable complacency in knowing that you are destined to follow in your parent’s footsteps. Especially a parent who was my entire world. I loved my mother, of course. But I worshiped my father. I was completely devoted to, and enamored of, that man.
Maybe my cancer obsession is just how my young mind coped with his loss. I am not a crier–never have been. Frankly, it gives me a horrible headache, so I hate to cry. I distinctly remember physically forcing myself to cry at my dad’s funeral. I thought that if I didn’t cry like everyone else, people would assume I didn’t love him. And I loved him more than I could have ever expressed. So I stared at his casket at the front of the church without blinking until my eyes began to water and I could feign that they were natural tears. And I made sure everyone saw them. See me crying? I am crying just like you because I love him, too!
My mother cried all the time. For ten years, my mother cried. That is how she dealt with my dad’s loss. But me? I think maybe, like all things, I approached his death more pragmatically. Rather than mourning him day in and day out, I focused on how I could be more like him. How I could stay close to him, even after he was gone. And in my mind, that meant being AS MUCH LIKE my dad as I could. He had green eyes. I had green eyes. He hated drama. I hated drama. He loved fried bologna sandwiches. I loved fried bologna sandwiches. He was diagnosed with cancer. I would be diagnosed with cancer. Somehow, I felt closer to him knowing that I would share his fate.
But like all things, time changes us.
So, yeah, the black mark on the back of my thigh did eventually fade–though it took several years and I was well into college before it disappeared. I still have a faint white mark where that should-have-been tumor sat. And eventually I turned 33, the same age my dad was when he died. I have now outlived him by 10 years. And I’ve made a good life. I am surrounded by people who love me dearly. And I love them even more. And cancer never got me. I allowed myself to forget that it was even out to get me.
Now I am 43 years old and guess what?
It waited until I let my guard down. It waited until I was comfortable in the knowledge that I had somehow, against all odds, avoided my dad’s fate. It waited until I had everything in the world to live for. Then cancer got me.
After years and years of mental rehearsal for being diagnosed with cancer, it took me completely by surprise. How is that even possible? I have over 30 years of experience with cancer preparation. I was ready. I was willing. And I was just waiting. So why didn’t I see it it coming? HOW did I not expect this?
I don’t want to have cancer. There was a point in time where I almost craved it. Ineeded it. I don’t need it anymore. I don’t believe sharing my dad’s fate is a prerequisite to loving him. Or to being loved by him. Cancer does not preserve his memory. Looking at my children does that just fine, thank you very much.
Today, I do not think of cancer as my friend. Nor do I see her as an inevitability. She is no longer the only satisfying ending to my story. As a matter of fact, I pretty much hate the bitch. And I fully intend to pummel her into a bloody heap before all is said and done. I will be fighting not only for me and my family, but for a man who was taken decades too soon. And an 11-year-old girl who was robbed of her first true love.
Cancer likes to eat families for dinner. She likes to chew them up and spit them out. But she’s not getting my family. She is not taking what belongs to me.
Not this time.
If you would like to read more by Shannon Ralph, check out her blog.