When I started this blog, in the back of my mind I knew the time would come when I would be blogging about cancer. It was only a matter of time, as I think about this every year, and every year I get one year farther away from it. The memories get fuzzier and fuzzier, but sometimes something will bring the memories back with driving force.
That something was the movie 50/50, which I saw for the first time last Friday night. A warning for those of you who haven’t seen it – I’ll be revealing a few details of the plot (but not the ending).
50/50 is the story of a 27 year old man who is suddenly diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and is given a 50% chance of survival. The movie is loosely based on the experiences of Will Reiser, one of the screenwriters.
This movie hit extremely close to home for me because almost exactly 9 years ago I underwent exploratory abdominal surgery to remove a low malignancy tumor that had fully engulfed my left ovary. This time of year for me has ever since been fairly sensitive and a time of reflection and self care. This coming Friday, I’ll be turning 29 years old (for the first time) and Saturday the 11th will mark my 9 year cancer-free mark.
I struggle a lot with my identity around this whole cancer thing. My cancer was in this gray area in many ways. It was borderline malignant, which means it was a slow-growing, noninvasive tumor that was not life-threatening. Some professionals call this cancer, others call it precancerous (I call it shitty). I also never knew that I had cancer until I didn’t have cancer, which makes it hard for me to own the experience of ever being a cancer patient per se. For these reasons, I don’t identify as being a cancer survivor necessarily.
The short version of the story is that I had symptoms of bloating, pain, firmness, and constipation that grew increasingly worse for about 4 months before I was incorrectly diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A month later, I went to see my doctor for what I thought was an unrelated issue – an itchy skin rash -but soon after my treatment I was (and still am) convinced my body was just manifesting its cancer-related panic through my skin. Once my doctor finally felt my unnaturally firm abdomen during this visit, the IBS diagnosis flew out the window and the whirlwind of specialists and testing began and ended with a surgery date set for one day after my 20th birthday.
Going into the surgery, my doctors believed that I had a fluid-filled ovarian cyst that could possibly be a teratoma since it had calcium deposits (After looking up exactly what a teratoma was, I was more than freaked out. Get this alien spawn out of me asap!) I was given a surgery date with an oncologist, just in case the cyst turned out to be cancerous, but they said that wasn’t likely. I was both devastated and relieved at the same time.
They performed the surgery and told me the bad and good news the following day: that the cyst had been borderline malignant and had spread to two other places in my abdominal cavity, but they were confident they had gotten it all. They had removed my left ovary and scraped cancer growths off my right one. There was no promise that I would be able to have kids. The only further treatment I was to have was frequent screenings to make sure nothing had grown back. In the case something did grow back, the only treatment was more surgery. I was scared shitless.
The effing cancer hasn’t come back and it’s been (almost) 9 years, knock on wood.
So, back to 50/50. Cancer is both hilarious and devastating – thank you 50/50 for capturing that! The movie was so validating; I had never seen a cancer story about a young person that was humorous and just spoke to (parts of) my experience. [Disclaimer: I am in no way trying to make light of other people’s experiences with cancer that were far more serious and devastating than mine. I fully realize that I was amazingly lucky and I am very, very thankful for that.]
Ways 50/50 was right up my alley:
Cancer is hella sexy. Adam’s (the main character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) best friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) was like my best friend Nicole. I remember her asking me if she could make fun of my cyst, and my answer was: “only if it’s benign.” Well, it turned out not to be, and it took me a little time, but I still let her make fun of it and we had fun because of it. When I came back to school after taking a semester off to heal, she introduced me to strangers (read: used me to pick up hot guys) at the campus bar as “her friend who had cancer.” We got such a kick out of watching people not knowing how to react. Nothing like an existential crisis involving cancer to get your life-affirming libido all revved up. Rawr.
“I’m peeing right now.” I don’t care what anyone says – catheters are freaking amazing. No freer feeling in the world than allowing urine to trickle on out as soon as it’s finished brewing. And like hell I am getting outta this hospital bed feeling like my body got run over by a truck.
[A side note on medical equipment – You know those thingies that squeeze your legs every so often so you don’t get a blood clot? Feels like heaven was plugged in and then wrapped around my legs. I told my dad to make the nurse an offer for them – I wasn’t leaving the hospital without those bad boys.]
Worst moment ever – Having to sign all the paperwork before surgery saying that the doctors can take out as many organs as they need in order to save my life, if necessary. One of the shittiest things I’ve ever had to sign. I woke up not knowing how much of me was still inside. This moment in the movie was the most difficult for me to watch.
Families sink or swim – Like screenwriter Will said in the special features, he handled his cancer and treatment quite well while family and friends didn’t know what to say or how to act. For me, this crappy situation brought out both the best and worst in the interpersonal dynamics of my loved ones, sometimes leaving me to figure out how to cope on my own (and cope I did!).
The movie included therapy! With a young, female therapist! This thing was practically written for me. Suddenly I could see myself in both roles. I was the patient in the recovery room who got passed a business card for a hospital social worker (whom I never went to see, but looking back, I wish I had). A few years later, I was also the young, extremely nervous therapist just starting out and desperately wanting to say the right magic words to make people feel better. I loved getting to watch just how obviously terrified the therapist (played by Anna Kendrick) was as the brand new shrink. I once heard a fellow therapist say that she’d like to go back and apologize to all her clients she saw in her first two years as a therapist; some days I most definitely agree.
Like Adam and Kyle in 50/50, I looked for humor anywhere I could find it:
- My stomach muscles were sliced straight through during surgery, so I couldn’t do anything that required that muscle group – standing up straight, sneezing, yelling, blowing my nose, laughing, etc. It’s pretty hard not to laugh when you’re filled with the joy of being alive; my tummy muscles actually began to regain strength through involuntary laughter. Word to Patch Adams!
- If Adam looked like Voldemort, all bald and ghostly pale, then I looked like Gollum, all hunched over and skinny as fuck. I went in search of brownies and pizza (the Preciousssss) as soon as my appetite came back.
- I would have liked to have taken my tumorized ovary home to display on the mantel, but my surgeon wouldn’t allow it (he didn’t give me a satisfactory explanation, either…dumbass hospital rules). Instead, I attempted to make my own artistic interpretation out of jello leftover from surgery prep. I think I succeeded in grossing out a few people. Score!
- To this day, my light beige vertical 12 inch scar turns bright pink when I am drunk. It’s my drunk-o-meter, bitches!
In closing – thank you, people who made 50/50. It really, really touched me and reminded me that cancer isn’t a joke, except when it is.