You know how once you get your life back on track something comes and knocks you down again? Same. Remember that hand pain? Me too. It was still there and getting worse. My dad and I went to a hand specialist in Santa Barbara to have the cyst removed right before Christmas. I was awake for the surgery and I remember seeing my hand be cut open and him pulling out that sucker. It was the size of a small strawberry. He cut with the grains of my hand, the same way I cut with the fabric when I sewed dresses. I saw every blood vessel, nerve, and muscle in my hand as cut out the mass and then carefully stitched my hand back together again. My drive to go into medicine increased exponentially that day. I remember him saying, “I’ve never seen something like this before.” I took a picture of the mass and asked to keep it. Unfortunately it was taken to biopsy.
At that point, I didn’t care. I was just happy that the pain would stop. My dad acted skittish that holiday season and I went back to school after break, ready to finish my junior year. I came home to my parents sitting in the kitchen. My dad was usually at work at this time of day. Things felt ere. “Well you’re cyst isn’t a cyst. It’s actually cancer. It’s called a synovial sarcoma tumor and we’re driving to UCLA tomorrow to get it looked at.” I couldn’t say anything. I just went out and rode my horse for hours.
When I first heard the word tumor, I didn’t think of cancer. We arrived at UCLA and went into the oncology ward. Oncology meant cancer. I had watched countless lectures about brain tumors that after removal the patient was cured and continued living life. Little did I realize the difference between cancerous and benign tumors. I didn’t have cancer…I just had a tumor, right? That wasn’t that bad was it? And it had been removed. We were seeing a sarcoma specialist, Dr. Eilber. My dad had called every colleague and oncology specialist he knew from medical school to conferences. He had settled for Dr. Eilber, a legacy of one of the most groundbreaking sarcoma doctors on the west coast. He was world renown for his research, experience, and understanding of sarcomas. I guess I wasn’t comprehending what a sarcoma was at the time. We sat in his examination room as he briefed us on how he’d studied my case for the past few weeks. My dad had received my biopsy results before Christmas. He had known for three weeks and I had known less than 24 hours. Oh, what a burden to bear.
“Sarcomas are a soft tissue cancer or in your case, synovial sarcoma is a soft tissue tumor.” He trailed off.
I had cancer. What was happening. I interrupted him, “You can do anything you need to do to get rid of it. You can break my hand, do extensive surgery, I don’t care. I just want it gone.”
“Even amputate it?” I felt like I was going to vomit. I excused myself and went to the bathroom to throw up and cry, which order didn’t matter. I had cancer. What the fuck. I could feel my chest ache, I was still recovering from open heart surgery and now I have cancer. Awesome. Why was this happening to me? I didn’t deserve this! Was it because I had sex? I, this Catholic teenager, had sex and God was punishing me for disobeying his laws. That was it. I felt tears pour out of me as I leaned over the toilet, grasping for what felt like anything. I dry heaved and felt my body convulse, expressing a loud moan to where I slid down against the wall, barely hitting the grab bar next to the toilet.
My mom followed me into the bathroom and banged on the door for me to open it. I finally mustered enough strength to get up and unlock the door. She looked at me, frightened. “Things are going to be okay little Em.”
“I have cancer.” I whispered. “I have fucking cancer.” In a Catholic household, cussing was never allowed. In fact, I was terrified of cussing for fear of my mother coming at me with a wooden spoon yet here we were. In a bathroom at UCLA, cussing.
“You do. But we are fighters. We fight and we fight and we fight.” Her voice trailed off like she was trying to find the objective of her statement. “This is just a horrible nightmare that one day, we are all going to wake up from, I promise.” She held me to her chest on the floor of that bathroom as I tried to deep breathe and self soothe.
“How is this my reality? Why did God do this to me?” I could hear my windpipes croak.
My mother sighed, confused herself. “I don’t know. You’re a strong girl little Em. God will be with us. We will pray and ask the nuns to pray for us. We will get through this. We are a family and we fight together. Your father has made countess calls to doctors everywhere. UCLA will be the best option. They will help us.”
I began finding my strength to walk to the car, preparing to sit for the three hour car ride when suddenly, it hit me. “Am I going to live?”
I looked directly in my mother’s eyes and it looked like she too, was unsure. “We are going to do everything we can.” This was a nightmare that one day we would wake up from.
Although that answer was undefined, it sat with me and I was able to settle. My dad finished our appointment with Dr. Eilber and we drove home after. I needed to tell my father that I couldn’t handle him being a doctor when I had cancer. I didn’t want him asking for percentages or examining my charts. I needed him to be my dad. I needed him to not tell me the gory details. He agreed.
He wasn’t allowed to ask for percentages or talk about death or give any hint that he was. I didn’t care that he was but I didn’t want to know. For the first time in my life I wanted to be left in the dark. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to know. I wanted to not understand. I wanted to be dumb. I had fought to be this independent strong young woman and in that moment I wanted to be cared for. I wanted to crawl up in my mother’s arms and cry while her arms protected me from cancer. I didn’t want to know what the likelihood of it coming back was or if I was going to lose my hair. In that moment I wanted to be a naive child. I yearned to give up my brave face and coward in a dark corner.
“We are all a people in need.
We are not perfect. We are not machines.
We make mistakes.
We need grace. We need compassion.
We need help at times.
We need other people.
And that’s okay.”-Jamie Tworkowski