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The Essay

I couldn't believe I had cancer Add to ...

Just before my cancer diagnosis, my life finally started to make sense. I had just turned 27 and had finally managed to get over the guy who had dumped me more than a year before.

Even though we had only dated for a few months, I was having a hard time letting go. But I was making good progress, even going on a few dates and being flippant about the guy who never called me back. I had finally grown out of unrequited love and was focusing on self-love.

"We think it might be a tumour," the specialist said.

I thought I had twisted my left ankle while working as a server. I was not prepared for the word tumour. I remember driving away from that appointment and saying in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, "It's not a tumour."

I had just graduated from Simon Fraser University and was still living at home while I figured out what I wanted to do next. People on television have tumours, not a 27-year-old who was hoping to find a proper job and move out of her parents' home soon. Not her.

The radiologist asked to speak to me right after I had an MRI. He made sure he had my full attention when he said, "You are going to have to be strong. This looks like a malignant tumour."

"I don't want this," I said. I teared up immediately but did my best to look strong when I saw my mother walking toward me. She and I held onto the hope that this was a benign tumour. We had made a sort of peace with that word - a tumour that isn't cancer.

At the cancer clinic I was screened before seeing the doctor. "Do you know why you are here?" staff asked.

"Yes," I said nonchalantly. "I have a tumour in my leg and it might be cancer," emphasizing the word might.

My mother passed out as soon as the orthopedic surgeon said, "We are going to have to amputate. You have cancer."

I couldn't stop asking him the questions I had been asking the Internet for the past three weeks. "Couldn't it be benign? Couldn't it be something else, anything else? You haven't even done a biopsy," I pleaded.

After about half an hour there was no more either the doctor or the nurse could do to convince me I actually had cancer. As I left, the nurse said, "You still have to have the biopsy to know for sure."

I held onto the biopsy requisition for more than a week, convincing myself that I was just fine. Then the pain became worse, excruciating, and what had been a slight swelling surrounding my ankle was turning into the size of a softball.

The doctor personally phoned my parents and told them my biopsy was still not done and they must bring me to the cancer clinic immediately. We were at the hospital within 45 minutes of that phone call and the biopsy was completed. This was the beginning of the never-ending cry.

"I have some good news and some bad news," the doctor said when he phoned with the results that night. "The bad news is that you have cancer and the good news is that we can treat it with chemotherapy and radiation and you may be able to keep your leg."

I had Ewing's sarcoma. My mother cried, my father looked shocked and my brothers awkwardly hugged me.

At the doctor's office I asked what would happen if I chose not to have treatment. The doctor looked me straight in the eyes: "You will be dead within five years."

We set my first chemotherapy treatment to start one week later, on Dec. 13, 1998. I was to have 10 rounds of intravenous chemotherapy along with two months of radiation.

I lost my hair rather quickly. I became really, really sick a lot of the time. I fought fevers and infections, caught pneumonia and couldn't walk. I was jealous of people with other types of cancer who had fewer rounds of chemo than me, people who could walk.

When I gained enough strength to venture into the world, my first trip was to get a wig. My parents rolled me through the mall in a wheelchair. Only a month before that I had been flirting with a boy at a restaurant on English Bay. I would be utterly unrecognizable to him now.

As the weather started to warm up I became stronger and could go on small outings. I looked different from everyone else. I hobbled into a coffee shop one day without my wig and an older man who was kindly holding the door open for me said, "Looks like you've been through the wars." I was bald, bone skinny and on crutches.

I wasn't afraid of dying but of losing my leg. I put all my focus on keeping my leg and being able to walk again. I only consciously became afraid of death after I was declared cancer-free. I still worry whenever my leg hurts and before I have to go for checkups every two years.

Twelve years later I am thankful for the little things I get to do every day, like walking my son to school, and the big things I get to look forward to, like turning 40 later this year. My oncologist was always so positive about everything. She always said I would be able to have children, keep my leg and walk again.

One morning when I was in the hospital, she woke me up as she was doing her rounds by pulling the curtain away from my bed with a whoosh and saying, "Still sleeping, it's time to get up." It was 9 a.m. and I remember thinking, do I have somewhere to go?

Apparently I do.



Sandra Djak Kovacs lives in Vancouver.

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