On Healing

One important lesson that I got from cancer is that the healing process isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When trying to recover from something that serious, there’s going to be some unpleasantness along the way. The chemo wasn’t fun, but I’m alive now. The surgery wasn’t fun, but I’m alive and I have a really cool scar.

In fact, some of the most important steps in healing from a traumatic event can be almost as painful as the trauma itself. If healing from trauma were easy, there would be significantly less need for therapy and PTSD would be a lot less common that it is.

Just so we’re clear, this is NOT an attempt to shame you for celebrating the most powerful country on the earth rejecting Lord Dampnut. If you feel like celebrating, do it! That’s important too, and goodness knows we’ve earned it.

But assuming that the orange turd is successfully flushed in January (More on that in a bit) there’s still the lasting trauma. And the healing that needs to happen for all of us.

Certainly not ALL healing is an uphill battle. Bubble baths and chocolate have their place. And life should be enjoyed, after all. But in order to move forward and heal as a nation (and as individuals) we will have to have some difficult conversations with ourselves and others.

And we have to hold people accountable.

In the delightful wave of memes and videos that has followed this historic election, there have been no shortage of “reach out to the other side!” takes. And I get it. It’s a nice thought. We can’t all be boiling with rage for the rest of our lives anyway. It gets very tiring, and we are very tired already from reminding our friends and family that crime is illegal and evil is bad while a steady stream of bots promise to reveal the true nature of the demonic rituals happening in Nancy Pelosi’s freezer.

But here’s the thing: Remember that when Trump won the electoral college back in 2016, we (meaning democrats, 3rd parties, moderate Republicans, non-partisans, anyone with functioning empathy ect.) got the same lecture. That we just needed to understand The Trump Voters. Why, they were innocent victims! It wasn’t wealthy businessmen, nay! We coastal elites needed to get off of our high horses and humble ourselves!

So now that it’s become uncomfortably clear that Lord Dampnut is NOT what the bulk of this country wants, why are we getting the same lecture? Why is it our responsibility to reach out to Trump country, but never their responsibility to reach out to us?

As someone who has spent Too Much Time on the internet for most of her life, I am depressingly familiar with how destructive bad faith arguments can be. Debates only work if all parties are willing to change their minds in light of new information. If one or more party is unwilling to consider the possibility that they are wrong, then the “debate” isn’t really a debate at all. It might be an amusing spectacle for anyone who happens to wander through that corner of the internet at the appropriate time, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be learning anything new.

To make matters worse, some participants might walk away from the experience thinking that they “won” even if all they did was tell someone else to eat shit. If you lack the self awareness to question your own ideas when they are challenged with solid evidence, you probably aren’t ready to actually change your mind about anything.

After all, changing your mind about a deeply held conviction is hard. It doesn’t come naturally for most people. Goodness knows I struggle with it, and I’m actually interested in this stuff. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who spends all of their time looking for Satanic imagery in pop music videos when they finally attempt to decipher real scans of legal documents for the first time.

And there’s another important angle that’s getting lost in all of the pearl clutching and both-sidesing- to permit a delusional extremist group to drive national policy isn’t just bad for us, it’s bad for them too. Sometimes having compassion for your fellow humans means refusing to enable them.

If the driving force behind one’s politics is based on a racist fever dream (white supremacy, for example) then said person is already in dangerous territory in terms of mental health and rational thinking. They have already accepted things that are not true in order to justify their bigotry, and so no amount of cruelty or extremism will ever be enough for them.

And no amount of reason or logic can reach them.

The kindest thing we (Americans with empathy) can do for them is to work around them. Arrest them and charge them when they behave like domestic terrorists, while at the same time ensuring that public education has the resources to teach young people the truth about slavery and it’s aftermath. I’m guessing a lot more people would be sympathetic to Black Lives Matter if they understood the sheer volume of racist shittiness that African Americans have endured in the century and a half since the civil war. Plus, white supremacy-related attacks continue to this day.

And that last part is really important, because it’s not over yet. While there’s no harm in celebrating and being joyful, the reality is that we’ve still got a couple more months before treason weasel is out of office completely. I don’t want to frighten anyone, but I think a little bit of extra vigilance now will make everything easier later. I’d much rather poke fun at some proud boys and and crush their delicate egos now than fight in a civil war in three months.

So please take care to call out bullshit when you see it. Don’t tolerate revisions of the awfulness we all just saw. Vote in local elections, and please do whatever you can to help with the senate runoffs in Georgia. I really don’t want to have to eat my present words as I am forced to build a monument to Qanon out of plastic straws and cheap red ties in 2021.

Now, having spent some time writing about the dark and painful side of healing, I’d like to take a minute to reflect of the softer and fluffier side. Because that matters too.

As I’ve said before, the reason to get involved in politics is not to become so angry that you spontaneously combust into a shower of Southern Poverty Law Center mailers and back issues of Mother Jones. The point of participating in politics is to help government structures run smoothly and fairly so that we can live our fucking lives.

When was the last time you read a book for pleasure? Do it. If you’re having a hard time focusing, then go for some simple poetry, or a light novel or romance if that’s your thing.

Is there a safe area near where you live where you can go for a walk? Do it, if you can. We’re all getting a bit stir crazy, and this helps.

Is there a window in your home or a nearby place where you can star gaze? Do it. If not, there are many free and premium apps available for smart phones that can show you the constellations currently in the sky, even if it’s too cloudy to see them.

Is there a video game you liked to play when you’re a kid? Try playing it again. It might be fun and nostalgic. It might be frustrating. But chances are that it will activate old memories that you thought you’d lost, and that can be very pleasurable in times like this.

If you have the time and means, try a new recipe. If not, try spicing one of your favorite dishes a little differently. Best case scenario, you learn a new flavor that you like. Worst case scenario, you get a better appreciation for something you already love.

None of these things will fix the many crises that the U.S. is currently facing. But they will help you heal.

And all of us will need some healing in the days to come.

You are not invincible.

Alright, it’s that time again. Time for the cancer survivor to give all you folks a friendly lecture about what it is actually like to be brought near death by an illness. Because some of you do not get it.

First, a quick content notice for some talk about cancer, bloodwork with needles, and overall medical trauma. Also swear words, because hoooooooooo boy these COVID19 skeptics are testing my patience. And by “testing my patience”, I mean they make me want to flee civilization and live out my days as a forest hag who cackles maniacally at anyone who comes by. It’d be a lonely life, but at least no one with a Guy Fawkes mask as their profile will lecture me about how vaccines are a plot to weaken us before the -insert racist dog whistle here- attack.

I don’t want to paint too dark of a picture. Most Americans are taking COVID19 seriously, or are at least trying to. Yes, a lot of the “skepticism” is manufactured and amplified by bots. Unfortunately, a handful of people really believe that this novel virus (which practically brought the world to a standstill) is simply a cold. You can’t stop cold viruses, right? So best not to try! Open up the schools and bring everyone back to work! The death rate is low, right?

But here’s the thing: Even just 1% of the population of America is still literally millions of people, and there are consequences for letting millions of people die in a short amount of time. Plus, the actual death rate for COVID19 is constantly in flux depending on who you ask. I’ve seen estimates ranging from .05%-5% or even higher, probably because we haven’t been keeping track of this data long enough to be very precise. In truth, the death rate will vary, usually due to differences in local conditions.

For example, we can safely predict that a large city with more hospital beds and ventilators will have fewer deaths than a large city that does not have these things, assuming both of them experience a similar outbreak. Some rural areas might be safer if they have few travelers coming through, but others may succumb to a bad combination of an outbreak and fewer hospital beds. Similarly, availability and methodology of testing can muddy the waters.

And although we don’t know what the exact death rate for COVID19 is at any given moment, we know that it’s significantly higher than than that of the flu. This means that letting the virus burn through the population all at once is, to put into very technical terms, a fucking terrible idea.

But suppose you don’t die. Suppose you’re one of the many more who get a mild or asymptomatic case. You’re in the clear as long as you stay home and don’t infect anybody, right?

Well, not quite.

See, it turns out that COVID19 has some weird side effects that may, or may not be long term or even permanent. These include (but are not limited to) heart damage, lung damage, and even problems with the brain.

We don’t yet know how common these effects are. But we do know that they can potentially incapacitate you for months. The exact rate of infections that carry long term consequences is not known (as of this writing) but according to what little data is available, it’s probably a lot higher than the death rate

To complicate things further, we now know for certain that reinfection is possible. Mercifully, what data there is so far suggests that such patients tend to do better a second time. But until we know more, we should not assume that recovering from an infection will protect us from a new case down the road. In other words, simply letting the virus “run its course” won’t necessarily get your favorite karaoke bar open and thriving again any time soon.

And by the way, dying from COVID19 is technically suffocating to death. You might or might not be conscious when it happens, but there’s a good chance that the last thing you’ll see is the nurse who helps you. Your family probably won’t be allowed in. I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect we’d see fewer anti-maskers proudly proclaiming that they’re ‘not afraid’ if they knew the full extent of what could happen to them. Dying on a ventilator is harder to romanticize than dying while battling the evil Marxists who want to cancel hamburgers and bibles, or whatever the current story is.

Now, I understand that because the statistical probability of death from COVID19 is usually listed as a single digit number, you think it’ll never happen to you. After all, we can’t worry about everything all at once, and life is already full of stressful things. Why fret over a virus when we already have to deal with other scary stuff, like taxes and parallel parking?

Well, because once a bad thing has happened (such as a dangerous COVID19 infection) the statistical improbability of said bad thing doesn’t help you or your family deal with it. At all.

Having two kinds of cancer at the same time while in grad school is not a statistically common occurrence, but knowing this fact did not bring me comfort while I was experiencing it. If anything, it kind of made it worse. Some people get their degree interrupted with a broken limb or something. But not me! Before cancer, I’d never spent more than 20 minutes in a doctors office. By the end of my treatments, I was so numb to needles for bloodwork that I could actually watch the tip go into my arm and feel nothing while it happened. Ah, the little things they don’t mention in the pamphlets…

By now, you may have pieced together that I am taking some of this COVID19 skepticism a bit personally. And you’re right! I am!

Because I know what it’s like to have faith in the strength of your body, only to have that faith shattered when reality hits the fan. I know that all those empty platitudes about personal responsibility ring hollow when you’ve done everything right and still have fallen sick. I know the pain. And although I’m already doing everything I can in my own life to slow the spread, I can’t help but use every platform I have to try and get the message out.

I should probably hit the brakes now and make something very clear: I do not want you to live in fear. Fear and panic can cause people to make questionable choices, like leasing a sports car or investing in Bitcoin.

Plus, fear and panic can be taxing on mental health. I personally prefer my fear and panic in small doses, specifically in a very few horror movies that I genuinely enjoy and nowhere else. Tremble at the sight of an Alien xenomorph? Sure! Stress myself out over grabbing the mail? Not so much.

But I am a fan of accepting the reality as it is, in order to make good choices. As long as Americans keep ignoring the data and pretending that COVID19 is no big deal, we can’t fix it. Literally. All the efforts of healthcare professionals and those who are willing and able to stay home are essentially being wasted, because the virus is still spreading.

Part of the problem is that many able-bodied people have a knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of a fatal illness. They’ve always been able to assume that their “good choices” (diet, exercise ect.) were enough to keep them alive. Once upon a time, maybe that was me. To accept that you can still die randomly even if you do everything “right” is actually very difficult.   

And if you have never had to fight to stay alive during a severe illness (or watched someone else go through the process up close) you have no concept of what COVID19 can actually do to you. You don’t know what it’s like to speak with doctors and nurses about your own death. You can’t fathom what it’s like to contemplate saying goodbye to your friends and family if things go poorly. You don’t understand how it feels to wrestle with pain that goes on for literal months. Plus, there’s paperwork. A lot of it. I hope you carry a detailed history of every doctors visit you’ve ever had, because you will have to produce that information dozens of times.

And don’t assume you’ll be reading novels or sketching out your dream comic book while you’re sick. Powerful drugs and deadly illnesses have side effects. It could be days or weeks before you can read, or even look at a screen without nausea. Maybe you’ll get aches all over your body that make it difficult to do anything at all. Eating and using the toilet may get very complicated. Most of your energy will be spent on surviving. There won’t be room for much else. 

You’ll enter a territory where physical strength is practically meaningless. There’s no “powering through” a bad case of COVID19, or chemo, or surgery recovery, or anything that brings you close enough to death. You heal when you heal, and that’s that.

And what if the hospital in your area is sketchy? Maybe you get a bad doctor, or the office double bills you and refuses to correct the error? Tough shit, that’s part of it too. Have fun dealing with needlessly complicated medical bills while your brain doesn’t work right, O lover of freedom and liberty!

What’s that, you’re a little pressed for cash because you haven’t been able to work for several weeks and maybe you’ve been fired? Well, too bad! This is the land of the free, which means we are free to use the least economically efficient system imaginable for healthcare! And can’t you just keep 100,000$ saved at all times for emergencies? 

Bottom line is, some of us already know how this goes. And we’re sick of this shit. We’re sick of watching the numbers go up. We’re sick of hearing about how “expendable” human beings are from rich assholes who never have to hear the word “no.” We’re sick of making sacrifices in our own lives so that ignorant fuckwads can make stupid decisions that get more people killed.

No, you are not invincible. But you know what? You’re body is still really cool. Your life is still precious and irreplaceable.

So cherish that body and protect it. Don’t throw yourself into the COVID19 mill just so your boss can get a bonus they don’t need or deserve.

You may not be invincible. But your life is still worthwhile. Don’t let someone with three yachts and no close friends try tell you otherwise.

Surprise! Here are some hard truths about cancer that the pamphlets don’t tell you =D

Hello dear readers! I have been on hiatus, due to some much needed surgery that required general anesthesia.

As you may know, the after effects of general anesthesia are often more brutal than the surgery itself. Additionally, because the surgery was in my neck, the nerve blocker that they gave me (while effective at helping with the pain) messed with the coordination in my right arm quite a lot.

This became obvious when I tried to take my first post-surgery bite of food, and my hand holding the fork kept drifting away from my mouth the further I craned my (still very sore) neck towards the tantalizing clump of curry. It felt like a toned down version of the Prometheus myth- instead of an eagle eating my liver, I was unable to shovel delicious food into my face at my preferred speed. Not the worst, but suffice to say, I was in no condition to write about the nuclear waste/soiled plastic diaper combo dumpster fire that is American politics at this point in time.

And I won’t be writing about it today either. Today I’m writing about something a little more personal.

(That having been said, if you need your informative longread fix, here is an excellent article about the disinformation campaign that elected Trump- I know I’m a broken record about this, but the better one understands how online propaganda works, the less vulnerable one is to succumbing to it)

In Fall of 2017, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma while working on a master’s degree. In the middle of the chemo regimen to deal with said Lymphoma, my oncologist noticed a weirdly stubborn speck on the scan that later turned out to be thyroid cancer. Because you know, why not? Two totally unrelated pathologies at the same time? In a patient with good diet and exercise habits, with no other serious health problems to speak of? I’m just lucky I guess!

I should mention at this point that my awesome family was both willing and able to travel back and forth from Oregon to Georgia to help take care of me. That’s a relevant detail for later. 

After 6 months of chemo, a thyroidectomy (the tumor was too big for a partial) a blast of radiation, a lot of playing Stardew Valley while high on painkillers, and struggling to complete music theory homework while enduring the chemo funk (NOT. FUN.) I was able to ring the bell, finish my master’s, and move on with my life.

Sort of.

You see, shortly after my cancer-ridden thyroid gland was removed from my body, my surgeon alerted my attention to a “spotty” lymph node in my neck area. The speck was too small to easily biopsy, and all of my bloodwork was free of cancer biomarkers. More surgery right away seemed unwise, as it would take years for the speck to do any real harm, assuming it was even malignant at all. Cancer treatments often leave scar tissue which might resemble tumors on scans and xrays, and because many cancer treatments actually increase one’s risk for more malignancies ever so slightly, over treatment must be avoided where possible. 

In other words, in order to kill the cancer, you also have to make yourself more vulnerable to cancer. Whee!!!

Fast Forward to the end of 2019. I’m back on the west coast, getting my shit together, and loving life.

So of course, my new oncologist noticed something odd in my bloodwork. 

There were special proteins present that could have come only from my thyroid gland, or thyroid cancer. As I no longer had a thyroid gland, we decided to scan and biopsy that “spotty” lymph node. Technically, the biopsy came back negative, but more of the tell-tale protein was present. 

So we operated. And sure enough, the pathology report found cancer in the nodes that had been removed. Not much, but enough to really fuck me up if it had gone untreated for long enough. 

But here’s the best part. And by best part, I mean the shitty part.

To prepare for the surgery, my doctors ordered some extra imaging shortly before the procedure to make sure that nothing was moving or growing faster than it should. And in addition to the lovely speck in my neck, they found a spot in my lung.

Yep, in my fucking lung. Because why not?

Is it malignant? No way to be sure yet. I’ll be seeing a lung specialist shortly to discuss possible diagnostics to investigate (it’s location makes a biopsy less-than-ideal). I also have another CT scan scheduled in April, to help watch for any changes. April feels like a long way away, but if we scan too soon, we won’t be able to tell if there are any real changes.  

So if you made it all this way (bless you!) you might be wondering:

Why the actual fuck am I telling you any of this?

This blog is anonymous. Some of you know me, and some of you may never once meet me in person. Why would I share so many weirdly personal details in a space that doesn’t even list my name?

The answer is in the title of this post.

The common narrative surrounding cancer, that it is some sort of horrible disease that must be “cured,” is simple enough to help the general public understand. And it is somewhat true- the endlessly multiplying cells that make up tumors are a kind of disease, in that eventually they will harm you and possibly kill you. 

Where this oversimplified narrative starts to deviate from reality is in the “after.” In truth, you are never really cured. You can potentially heal from most of the damage done by the cancer and treatment, but not all of it. And unless you want to risk an awful death, you’d best get your butt to the doctor ever so often for diagnostics.

But just as life continues on even after senate Republicans inexplicably crown an incompetent bigoted rapist as their god emperor, so does life continue on during treatment. And there were some good times too.

As I mentioned before, my family went into overdrive when I was first diagnosed. My father initially wanted to pull me from school and bring me home, but as that would destroy much of my degree progress AND cut me off from my student health insurance, I wasn’t too excited for that plan.

My parents took turns living with me, so that I’d have help whenever I was too drugged up to function. This was actually kind of awesome, as it presented an opportunity to spend time with my folks that I wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. My mother and I munched chocolates while watching various murder mysteries on netflix, and my dad and I went down the Ridley Scott rabbithole with some of my favorite movies (The Alien prequels, while flawed, are still far superior to 3 or Resurrection and this is the hill that I will die on). 

My brother came too, when he could, and we would go for walks when I was strong enough. I would wear my mask to help compensate for my weakened immune system, and enjoy watching shoppers part like the red sea when I walked through the grocery store. Amazingly, creepy older dudes don’t try to get your number when you look like you’re about to head into a quarantine zone.

When I informed my closest friends and family about Thyroid cancer 2: Ha ha fuck you you don’t even have a thyroid gland anymore and you STILL gotta get surgery, I experienced a similar outpouring of support. Good times were had. There were jalapeno cheese bagels involved. 

I could go on and on about everyone who helped me, and the fun that I had in spite of the cancer. In future posts, maybe I will. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I learned from that experience.

But my main focus is this: Cancer isn’t neat and tidy. Rhetoric that invokes the word “cure” can actually be very misleading.

It’s not my intent to alarm anyone who knows me personally. I’m going to be fine. If the speck in my lung is malignant, I will get it out any way I can. If not, I’ll commit to more diagnostic work and get on with my life. If it’s too soon to draw a conclusion about what it is, I will pester my docs until they come up with a plan.

This is the part of the blog post where I usually tie it all together and make a joke, but this post isn’t going to follow that formula. Because it can’t.

The truth is that with cancer, the line between ‘survivor’ and ‘patient’ is always thin. The cost of survival is living with that uncertainty. It’s scary at first, but you get used to it. You find coping mechanisms. You keep living your life. 

So in the spirit of uncertainty, I’m just gonna end this bit here. Peace. I’ll get back to analyzing the the cancer in Washington DC soon enough. Yes. I went there. Sorry not sorry.