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Confessions of a Fraudulent Cancer Patient

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"Ever since I received this diagnosis, I have been feeling like a fraud. Cancer? Cancer means sickness and oozing, smelliness and hair falling out. That's not me. I'm young and healthy (knock on wood). I feel like a fraud walking through the halls of the cancer clinic. I know I look fine. I have all my hair. I'm thin. I'm attractive. I can wear my regular clothes. I just don't look like a cancer patient should look, or feel like a cancer patient should feel. Yes, that's my judgment, but it makes me feel like I don't have the right to call myself cancer's victim. My counselor asked if my feeling like a fraud is a way to feel safe. I told her it does not, and I wasn't lying. I'm in counseling because of all the other shit I've been through. Cancer? Cancer is cakewalk. And who would ever dream someone could say those words?"

-- From my journal, January 15, 2007

I consider myself a fraudulent cancer patient. Oh, I've received admonishments from well-meaning souls who seek to validate my cancer experience. They see my description as a minimizing of what I was going through. It's cancer, they reason. Go ahead, feel terrible, frightened, awestruck! You know -- all those emotions one is supposed to feel upon being diagnosed and treated for cancer.

I tell them that I'm really actually doing fine emotionally. Really, I am. They look at me sideways, a knowing glint. "Oh, you'll see," the looks say, as if I'm deluding myself, as if I'm in denial.

Well, sorry. I'm years past the last radiation treatment and none of those emotions have burst forth from their hiding places waiting to be expressed. I'm pretty in touch with my emotions and I can honestly say, I don't think any of those emotions are in there hiding.

I don't think this is such an abnormal reaction. Of course, I say this in the context of everything else I experienced during the years when I had the diagnosis. For some reason, life wanted to teach me not to sweat the small stuff, and apparently it deemed cancer small stuff in the scheme of things.

The upshot is that I consider myself a fraudulent cancer patient. Going through surgery and radiation thoroughly wore me out, but it hurt less than a root canal. I was exhausted, but work, parenting, and life can be exhausting. If I were offered cancer the way I had it over the other experiences of that year, I would take that offer in a heartbeat, no hesitation.

Cancer. The word portends heartbreak and doom. Wear a ribbon, run a race, find a cure! But quite often, it isn't the end of the world. Sometimes cancer is a blip. Catch it early. Make it go away. It really can be that simple. Cancer can be less than vomiting and hair loss and bloating. It is possible for it to be less painful than a root canal.

It is my hope that perhaps one woman in the world will read my story and decide not to wait to get a mammogram because of her subconscious fear that the mammogram will show cancer. If one person catches her cancer as early as I did and makes it go away as easily as I did, then my purpose is served.

I asked my radiation oncologist if all cancer were caught as early as I caught my breast cancer, would the experience be as simple as mine? He said that of the cancers for which we have a screening process, when they are caught early, they are fairly easy to treat. Of course, easy is defined on a spectrum in comparison to what could be. But the point is that cancer does not have to be a death knell. Cases like mine should become the faces of cancer, not the scary death-filled stories.

Too many people don't get checked because they don't want what they fear and unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go anyway. Get checked. Make those mammogram and prostate appointments. Wear your sunscreen and check funny-looking moles. If you have something and it is caught early, your experience with cancer could be less traumatic than a bad case of the flu.

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