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Three Years Of Cancer Comedy

No, it wasn’t breast cancer, I just have small boobs.

After sizing me up, a man I just met had asked if it was breast cancer. And though I didn’t answer “No I just have small boobs” out loud, I most definitely said it in my head with uproarious laughter. (He was a nice man, which is why I laughed. Uproariously.)

Here’s the quick lowdown to satiate that little voyeuristic desire to know the details while simultaneously feeling a bit guilty that you want to know about someone’s cancer… it’s ok, we all do it. Cancer comes in so many forms (sadly), and even people with the same kind of cancer go through different treatments and deal with different complications along the way, so I’ll just give a quick summary.

Rare blood cancer: Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia type 2 (CMML-2). Diagnosed May 2013. I was 24 and otherwise completely healthy. It was found randomly. I did outpatient chemo for three months then month-long inpatient induction chemo to put me in remission, then a week off, then another month inpatient transplant-prep chemo to kill all my bone marrow, then a very anti-climatic bag of pink stem cells from an unknown donor was hung and dripped into my body and saved my life, NBD. After that I spent about a year in quarantine from the world in a little apartment in Salem, MA with my youngest sister (who was my caregiver, at 20 years old!) as my new immune system grew like a little, often treacherous, baby.

And that’s the Reader’s Digest version #ftw. I am now 27 and still in remission, and my immune system is about 2 1/2 years old. Obviously there’s tons of details left out of that fly-by (I’m looking at you, rando meningitis, the fact that I now have Y chromosomes in my blood, ongoing depression 4ever and endless hours of Netflix) but I’m sure I’ll address different things as I continue to write for Lacuna Loft. For anyone interested, I have kept a blog since I was diagnosed and you are welcome to peruse it if you’d like here.

The picture featured above was after my first round of immunizations (I have to get all the vaccines again you got as a kid! Brandy-spankin’ new lil baby over here.) in my new pair of pants that I bought to celebrate my donor, who most likely lives in the UK. You can see that cool chemo-hair fuzz coming in- I had recently shaved half of my head again because I live on the EDGE.

When I’m not a cancer patient, I am a writer, theatre artist, and teacher. I’m a founder and the executive director of a small immersive theatre company on the North Shore of MA. I have a degree in theatre arts and philosophy, and I equally love healthy food and baking (I do not view these as mutually exclusive, but I’m certainly not against living a balanced life because cookies). It has taken me a long-ass time to get to where I am after being told I had leukemia, and even still I find myself wishing I was further along. I am still unable to work full-time, because I fatigue easily and I deal with intense muscle spasms caused by Chronic Graft vs Host Disease (GvHD, via transplant of a donor immune system) when I over-do it. This May it will be three years since I was diagnosed, and like so many things, it seems both that I’ve lived an eternal lifetime and yet shockingly fast for it to already be three years.

Ever since being diagnosed I have tried my best to keep viewing my life as a comedy rather than a tragedy–though anyone who has followed my blog can vouch that I have definitely had my share of time spent wondering what kind of sick dark comedy this is. Other times I cannot laugh at all, and terror engulfs my being and I just have to sit with that darkness.

But I’ve kept a running list of memories and things (literally, it’s a list I keep and add to on my phone) that will eventually become a one-woman (comedy) show about this whole thing, and I even have a title picked out: My Million Dollar Haircut (title copyright of Bekah Jordan, 2013. …haha.). It will certainly take a hard look at the real sh*t-show called having cancer (especially as a young adult), but also guys: there’s SO MUCH COMEDIC MATERIAL. Take for example, the breast cancer inquiry. There are so many more instances of hilarity that I have come across, lived through, seen, and quite frankly: loved–and though I don’t think that this is the only way to deal with hard times, it has been the way I’ve dealt with it. I hope that reading my musings will allow you to find and treasure those little “breast cancer?” nuggets in your own stories and maybe they will make you crack a hint of a smile on the grimmest of days; which happen quite frequently, please don’t get me wrong.

I endeavor to not shy away from dealing with and talking about the hard stuff that a life-threatening illness throws into the cake mix as you’re baking into adulthood. You’re figuring out who you are, the kind of person you want to be in this world, and what you want to do during your time on this flying piece of space rock. And cancer is opening that oven, pouring in acid and slamming the door. Your life-cake (ha I’m already making up words) sinks in the middle and comes out all wrong and is a dangerous thing to hold. Cancer just sucks out the marrow of life (quite literally in my case…) and we need to find a way to build it back up, to find that substance and meaning again. Somehow make a glorious life-cake from the sunken, poisoned, and probably burnt mess cancer left us with.

And here I am, almost three years in, saying to you that it has made me a better person. I do believe that it has (even if it seems a cliched statement), but some (most. …all?) days I wish I could have come around to the lessons I’ve learned in ANY other way. But we rarely get to choose our lessons or how we learn them, I suppose.

I will wrap up my first post with a poem from my lifeblood poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who has been a constant companion through the last few years.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

One specific line from this poem has been a source of incredible, undying strength for me in dealing with all that life has to offer, the wonder and the horror:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.