First, my doctor told me the variety of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is more aggressive, harder to treat and more likely to return than other types.
Then I found out the pain in my neck that had developed the weekend before was not, in fact, because I slept wrong, but was a swollen lymph node pushing up under my collarbone, indicating the disease had already spread beyond my chest.
Later, a genetic test would reveal the BRCA1 gene mutation that had been hiding in my DNA all my life, like a ticking time bomb.
Those weeks of terror are not unlike the news cycle we are all living in now.
Every day reveals new horrors and challenges brought on by the spread of COVID-19. As time passes, we find out someone else from our overlapping social circles has it, or has died from it. Much like the cancer support groups I joined after my diagnosis, the attendance in our daily lives is slowly decreasing.
How the JSK Fellowship is teaching me to learn to lean on others
The last year has turned my life upside down in so many ways. The JSK fellowship gave me the time, space and perspective to find out what I want to do with my life and my career. It gave me a home and a community when I felt adrift. And more recently, the fellowship has given me a protective cocoon during what has been one of the hardest times of my life.
Nothing could have prepared me for April 1, 2019. As a journalist, I’ve always hated the carelessness of April Fool’s Day and the hoaxes it inevitably spawns. In 2014, I lost my job on this day. This year on this day, I found out I have cancer.
It felt almost Shakespearean. The heroine is on top of the world, confident of her life and its direction, only to be felled by a major setback at what should have been her time of triumph. While it is never a good time to find out something like this, I’m lucky it came at a time when I have had so much support. All I had to do was learn to take it.
I’ve never been good at leaning on others. I hate asking for favors, but I love fulfilling them (blame my Ohio Methodist upbringing). For the past several years, I followed the advice of many a management book and “faked it until I made it” and part of that was also pretending I never needed help along the way. Admitting vulnerability and weakness was not an option, or so I thought. I’ve learned in my time at Stanford to embrace my vulnerability in the workplace, but I wasn’t prepared to have to do so in my personal life.
But then April 1st came.
At first, I tried to stay my usual self. Less than an hour after my diagnosis, I got on the phone in my doctor’s parking lot to interview for two different jobs. Then I had to call my mom and tell her the news. Looking back, I can’t decide if that chain of events was possible due to toughness, denial – or outright insanity.
My first instinct was to hide it, not only from all of my friends back East, but also the people who see me every day at Stanford. I didn’t want anyone to see my eventual deterioration. It quickly became evident that I couldn’t entirely keep my illness to myself. How do you reasonably answer a question like, “How are you?” without lying?
When I finally told the other JSK fellows, I felt a sense of relief I hadn’t expected. It didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a weight had been lifted. After the initial hugs and promises of support, my friends in fellowship really showed up for me in a ways I didn’t know I needed. In fact, I was a little embarrassed at first, to accept it.
They started delivering dinner to my house every day to take the load off my supportive and overworked husband. They offered to run errands and rides to where I needed to go. They’ve given me excuses to bail on things I didn’t feel like doing and taken notes in classes I had to miss due to my appointments. Within our circle, we can laugh at the absurdity of what I’m dealing with, whether that’s trying on hilarious wigs in pursuit of the one that’ll make me feel most normal or taking advantage of my newly minted designated driver status. They even all got temporary tattoos in homage to the one on my right arm reading: More. I have never been so touched.
Above all, my fellowship group has given me the confidence to keep dreaming and planning for my future, despite cancer being an unavoidable part of it. To many people in my life, my day-to-day health and status as a patient is an all-consuming aspect of our relationship. I’m encouraged not to worry about what I have to do, to just focus on getting better and let the future happen later, when this is all over.
But that’s not me. The other fellows know it and didn’t let me forget it.
I’m taking on the future I want regardless of what cancer has planned. I can learn to lean on my friends and colleagues, to ask for help when I need it and take time off (and naps) without guilt or fear of looking weak. I will take a new job and give the best of myself despite the fact that I’m sometimes tired, nauseous and have no hair of my own anymore.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2017 commencement speech at Virginia Tech, “There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on… If you are there for your friends and let them be there for you…that won’t just make you more resilient, it’ll help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.”
As much as it dominates my life right now, I can’t afford to let 2019 be my lost cancer year. This is the year of completing my work on disinformation and trust via Project Disconnect. It’s my year of establishing new lifelong friendships through this program. It’s my year for finding myself.
Thanks to JSK, 2019 is my year for new beginnings.