I hereby join the chorus of brothers and sisters, joining arms across this great country and around the world desperately pleading for 2016 to just go the f*@k away. Unfortunately, much of what it’s brought and taken away will continue to haunt us, collectively and as individuals, far into 2017 and beyond. It is thus incumbent upon us to use this time in the waning days of the year to devise strategies that can gently undo or at least diminish the damage wrought by 2016’s wrath.
There are countless topics, global and domestic, deserving of this strategic attention, but, as most of you know by now, I’m in an “all cancer, all the time” kind of phase. It’s not that I want my life (or my writing) to revolve around cancer, it’s just that I want my life to continue for many more years, and cancer right now is like a giant Rubik’s cube I have to solve before I can get my pass to old age.
Lest you think I’ve become completely self-involved, I want you all to know I’m simultaneously working on an electrified vagina protector that is both stylish and utilitarian in a world in which our soon-to-be president has declared it perfectly acceptable to grab a woman’s vagina (or “pussy,” as he puts it, in his eminently presidential vernacular) any time, any place and with any freakishly little set of hands. Think a crotch-mounted stun gun that recognizes likely vagina grabbers from a distance and then shoots out electrically charged barbs once it senses the monogrammed cufflinks have come too close. Patent pending. But back to my cancer…
One of the silver linings of this god-awful gift from 2016 is the incredible simplification of New Year’s resolution making: Kick. This. Thing’s. Ass. Done. But I need a more specific strategy to contain these terrorist tumors, diminish them, and ultimately destroy them. Sure, there’s the chemo, which can help with objectives one and two, but we know it won’t obliterate the caliphate. There are other, riskier treatment options that can also contain and diminish, but not destroy. Then there’s the “roll the dice” menu of clinical trials–unproven experimental treatments, frequently immunotherapies these days, that could be great successes or dismal failures and generally require cessation of all other treatment options, like chemo, so that this success or failure can be measured. You are guaranteed only to be a data point or someone who dies before the data is conclusive.
New research, like the collaborative work being led by Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Dr. Abou-Alfa and his colleagues, may offer new and better options, which is why I’m working so hard to raise money through Cycle for Survival along with two other amazing women close to my age who are facing the same, heartbreaking ISIS of the bile ducts diagnosis.
But there may be one more weapon in the arsenal, and like much of my probably-now-very-annoying use of war metaphors, it is inspired by military strategy. Perhaps I should be trying to win over the hearts and minds of these tumors. This occurred to me as I lay in the bathtub looking down at the bulge protruding from just under my right rib cage. My rib cage is famously oversized for my body. Those who know me well and have seen me in bikinis over the years have joked about my “second set of breasts” or suggested that I eat a few extra sandwiches. Now, however, my grossly enlarged liver and 13 cm tumor (the “big Al-Baghdadi” of all the tumors) are giving my rib cage a real run for its money.
From my vantage point in the tub, Al-Baghdadi appears like a newly cresting mountain beyond a familiar peak. I decided I want to talk to him, to all my tumors, kindly and compassionately. I think I know why they might have turned from happy-go-lucky healthy cells into homegrown terrorists, and I think it might have everything to do with a difficult time in my life when it seemed like everything and everyone was out to screw me over and I felt helpless to do anything about it.
I tell my tumors that’s all in the past now. We can let it go, and we must. But first, we discuss that dark time, six years ago, so I can show them how far we’ve come and that now, there is so much love and joy where there was once anger, pain and deep sadness.
I moved from Montana to Washington, D.C. in August of 2010, with my newly printed law degree in hand, a passing score on the bar exam and high, high expectations that everything else would fall perfectly into place. I was in a serious, long-term relationship with a guy who would be joining me in D.C. just a few months later, but in the meantime, I had a four-month legal clerkship with a U.S. Senate committee, a free place to live (in my boyfriend’s best friend’s basement) and a mountain of naïve hope that I would soon land a good-paying job as an attorney at a time when law firms and government agencies were instilling hiring freezes and laying off tens of thousands of Ivy League-pedigreed summa cum laude types.
Within two months, the boyfriend dumped me (over the phone, to really underscore the “you’ve meant nothing” subtext of the breakup), hundreds of resumes and networking events produced not a single interview, and I began receiving notices to pay on my nearly six-figure student loan debt.
Anxieties over my self-worth and net worth–both deeply in the red–converged to create the perfect storm of a complete breakdown. I contemplated returning to Montana and living in my mother’s basement but that felt tantamount to conceding defeat and was likely to end with me flinging myself (or my mother) off the Highway 35 bridge into the frigid waters of Bigfork Bay.
So, I stayed in D.C., extended my low-paying clerkship with the Senate committe and continued living in my now ex-boyfriend’s friend’s basement (you know you’re a successful 30-year-old law school graduate when you’re living options are limited to living rent-free at the mercy of someone with a basement). Some days I successfully donned my fake-it-till-you-make-it face and managed to draft a few more cover letters, laugh a little and grow friendships with my equally broke co-workers. Other days, I ruminated incessantly about how stupid, unlovable and worthless I was. How else to explain all the messages the world was sending me?
When I finally got a call for a job interview, I let hope come rushing back in, notwithstanding the fact the job was a paralegal position with a boutique personal injury firm–in other words, something I would’ve joked about before I became fully acquainted with my new cold, hard reality. After the interview, one of the named partners emailed me and asked me to join him for dinner — a deux. I got the distinct impression it wasn’t a paralegal he was looking for, but to be sure, I responded that I couldn’t do dinner that week. Instead, I offered, I could meet for coffee any day at his convenience to further discuss my qualifications for the job.
His reply said it all: “Danielle, coffee won’t work.” Translation: “Danielle, I realize there’s not enough coffee in the world to sufficiently blur your judgment so you’ll forget I look like Larry King’s older and less attractive brother and sleep with me. Coffee also won’t assuage your disgust at the fact that I use my leverage as a wealthy partner in an ambulance-chasing law firm to prey on vulnerable young women in desperate need of a paycheck.” I was never called back about the job, and my hope to climb out of my desperate financial straits and an awkward basement-dwelling situation went into free fall.
My hope on the relationship front followed shortly thereafter when I forced myself to go on one date with an attractive man I met at a bar. When he arrived for our brunch date an hour late, highly intoxicated, obnoxious, and with a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned halfway down his torso, I decided I was officially asexual.
So, my life, from my I-am-a-victim vantage point at that time, was shaping up to be one of poverty, loneliness and extreme self-loathing soaked in cheap sauvignon blanc and strummed out on the sad chords of my guitar. I played (decently) and sang (terribly) the Drive By Truckers song, “Goddamn Lonely Love,” a minimum of five times per day. I was a sad, sorry sight, and sang off-key to boot. Friends wanted less and less to do with me, and I couldn’t blame them—I hardly wanted anything to do with myself. I’d given up.
But somehow, little bits of hope and determination pushed their way through the cracks over the ensuing months. My boss at the Senate committee saw some potential in me and gave me a real job–doubling my pay in the process. I got back into shape and started running along the National Mall on my lunch breaks. I made an effort to get together with my new friends from work, and we collectively found ways to eat and drink for free virtually every night at the endless array of “receptions” put on by corporations and trade groups eager to rub elbows with lawmakers and their staff, which, for the lowest-paid staffers, are really are like upscale, catered soup kitchens with booze.
It took a couple more years and diligent work, but I learned to love myself, forgive myself, and even open myself up to the possibility of loving someone again. I met Jamie at a time when we both still felt a little broken, a little rode hard, put away wet by the world. His experiences — a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from a rough deployment to Afghanistan, mixed with a shattered first marriage– made mine look like a Sesame Street episode. But he never made me feel that way, and he inspired me with how honestly and resiliently he untangled his own webs. We helped each other in our respective untanglings and built a life together based on and filled with love, joy and so many victories, big and small, along the way. I now have a great career, and I no longer live in anyone’s basement– although I own one. Most importantly, I am surrounded–mobbed, really–by the most loving, supportive family and friends one could ever imagine.
So, you see, terrorist tumors, those dark days are behind me. There’s no place for you now. Please pack your things and head out with all the other detritus of 2016. Or stay, and I’ll continue dropping drone bombs on your asses. Here’s to a happy, healthy and love-filled new year for all!