How Life Got Better When I Stopped Hiding My Cancer Diagnosis
No one was yukking it up in the lung ward except me. The anesthesia was wearing off and, while still in the twilight zone, I didn’t believe I was really in a hospital. I knew people pretending to be nurses weren’t nurses at all. They were actors. One of them in uniform took my blood pressure. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Do you know where you are?”
I looked around. “This is a stage set and you’re an actress.”
“I’m a nurse,” she insisted. “You’re in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; you’ve just had an operation. Look.” She pointed to her badge. “Do you see what that says?”
“Anyone can have a phony badge,” I replied. I tried to move, but there was a tube attached to me. Then I realized I really was in a hospital, and they’d just removed the lower right lobe of my lung. Normally they would have cut out a small slice, but the lousy little cancer cell was in an impossible spot, so they had to take out an entire lobe.
Three years ago, doctors found an errant cell in my pancreas, so they did what they call a Whipple, which I thought was what nuns wore on their heads. Wrong. It was a 6-hour operation in which they cut off the head of my pancreas and rewired six other organs. Two years ago, they found another cancer cell, so they removed my pancreas, turning me into a type 1 diabetic. I felt shame — me, the athlete who did mixed martial arts and ran triathlons, was suddenly sticking herself with needles, barely able to get out of bed.
I’m a freelance journalist, and I thought if I told my editors, they’d stop giving me work, afraid I might die before completing a deadline. My hair didn’t fall out from chemo, so no one had to know. When I canceled appointments, I claimed flu. Still, I was sure people were whispering behind my back, “She has cancer.” It was humiliating because I was less than perfect. But after six months of long walks, I was back to spin classes and martial arts.
After that, every scan was perfect. I thought I was home free until, a year later, they discovered an abnormal cell in my lung. Lung cancer? My mother had a double mastectomy, then the cancer spread to her bones. She stayed alive. Soon after it spread to her lungs, she went into a coma and died. I expected the same, so I wrote up instructions in the event I didn’t make it. Still, I told no one.
I’d divorced my husband after the pancreatectomy (nothing to do with the operation) and told only my sister about the lung. Until then, she had refused to listen to me play blues harmonica or come to my weekly jams. Now she had no choice. When she took me to the hospital, before the nurses came to get me, I whipped out my harmonica and played “Amazing Grace.” She cried. I cried. We both thought it was the last song I’d ever play. I was 73, had traveled to 134 countries (and won awards for writing about them), and had good friends. I accepted the fact that my life might be over.
But I didn’t die. I woke up, and in spite of being in a thoracic ward where everyone was either coughing or crying, I was alive. My side ached because of the chest tube, but I could breathe. I started walking laps around the hallway. And more laps. And more. Not just to heal, but because my roommate’s large family yakked all day. I took my harmonica to the patient lounge to see if I could still blow a note. When I finished the song, I opened my eyes and the music therapist was standing there with his guitar. “Want to jam?” he asked. We played a slow blues shuffle. I wasn’t great, but considering the circumstances, I was Stevie Wonder. Doctors and nurses stood in the doorway applauding.
Six months later, I’m back to jamming on the harmonica regularly. My blues harmonica teacher says I’ve never played better because I’m playing softer. Having a lung removed, I can no longer blow hard. I’m back to my martial arts and spin classes, and while I can’t yet run fast, I can jog. Big deal that they took out a lobe of my lung. I’m still here kicking butt.
Margie Goldsmith has published articles in Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, American Way, and Business Jet Traveler, among others. For more, visit margiegoldsmith.com.
This article is featured in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.