The white noise machine was concealing our conversation. He asked what had brought me to this point. And I began spinning my life story, beginning with the words “I had cancer when I was very young…”
I kept talking, but inwardly I cringed. Really, Anne? Someone asks you to tell about yourself, and the first thing you can say is you had cancer?!
This interview — with me answering the questions, for once — was an added requirement to check off in an already long adoption process. And since cancer appears to have been a first step toward infertility, it made sense to begin there. But still, it bothered me.
It’s been 40 years since a tumor and the kidney it attached to were removed. Forty years since the morning they wheeled me to the operating room and carried my Holly Hobbie doll out to my mom after I was unconscious.
Cancer took my hair (for a season) and my childbearing. My hospital friend, Angie, died when we were about 6. Cancer took my dad’s life on earth and sent me to the pharmacy for a jug of colonoscopy prep 12 years earlier than most people face that screening.
For so many reasons, I don’t want to give cancer any more of my time and definitely don’t want to think it defines me.
In fact, “Spirit to Survive” has been a hard section for me each year. Even though I’ve met great people and heard their stories, it’s been hard to see cancer through the eyes of adulthood.
Last year, after we published the section, I was sure something was wrong with me. I had a checkup coming up anyway, and I kept this thought to myself, not wanting to worry my husband when I didn’t know. Still, for a couple of nights, before I went to sleep, I lay thinking of the words of the psalmist: “When I am afraid, I will trust you.”
The only thing I had, said the physician who has known me since childhood, was the same “condition” that affects second-year medical students: They reach the point in their studies when they can interview patients, and suddenly, they think they have some of the same ailments.
Driving home, relieved, the question burned in my mind: What will you do with life?
I thought of two years before and the room with the white noise. The psychologist, noting I had mentioned prayer and church activities, asked me to tell him about my religious beliefs. I stammered at first — what really needed to be told for an adoption process? Did this guy really want to hear what I had to say?
But finally, I told him that in kindergarten, my best friend’s mom was diagnosed with advanced cancer and died on Christmas Eve. I told him about the questions this created for me about heaven, the certainty I wanted that I would go there and the Vacation Bible School where I began my own faith journey.
I told him how that moment turned out to be pivotal, influencing other decisions I made in the years that would follow.
I don’t know what he thought personally about what I said, but when I went back for my paperwork, he said that was a turning point in our long conversation — that I was more comfortable in the interview after that.
“I watched you come alive,” he said.
This, then, is what I will do with life: I will be grateful that I was born in a time when success in cancer treatment picked up. My longtime doctor talks about how, so often in the years leading up to my diagnosis, by the time a child’s cancer was detected, it was too advanced. My case was one of the first, he said, for the doctors he knew to look at each other and say, “This just might work.”
I will be thankful it did work — thankful for the person who donated blood for a transfusion, thankful for women who prayed in my driveway, thankful for the friendship I forged during college with Roy, a fellow childhood cancer survivor.
Though we became friends through our faith and through admitting it’s a drag to visit a children’s hospital with your mom when you’re 20ish, this was the first significant friendship I had with someone of another ethnic heritage. Today, the sons my husband and I adopted are from the same side of the world as Roy’s parents.
This is what I will do with life: I will marvel at how its details weave together into one coherent story, and I will embrace all the ways I am, and was made to be, fully alive.