Cancer — October Memoir Challenge
This is my twenty-third post, for age 23, of the October Memoir and Backstory Challenge hosted by Jane Anne McLachlan. My previous posts: Baby Speed Eater, Two Tales, Curls, Most Magical Christmas, Kindergarten, Places, Mental Health in 1969, The Boxcar Children, The Little House Books, Too Thin, Four Square, Curls: Take Two, Scouting, Schools, Sophomore Year, 1979 Book Review, Library Assistant, College Food, Dear Santa, The Muny, College Graduate, and First Job.
On my 23rd birthday, May 12, 1985, I was in a private room at the hospital tethered to a drip bag of antibiotics. My first chemotherapy treatment a couple of weeks earlier left my immune system so weak that I needed the extra help to fight off infections. My blood count said I was sick but I felt perfectly fine.
A group of birthday visitors donned masks and gloves to keep me safe from their germs. An artistic friend blew up some of the gloves like balloons and drew animal faces on them with markers. We batted them about the room until a nurse made us pipe down since patients in surrounding rooms thought a hospital was supposed to be a quiet and restful place.
I couldn’t leave my room during the daytime (there were sick people outside those walls!) so I got my exercise, as best I could, at night. I walked laps around the lounge after every one else went to bed, pushing my IV bag on a wheeled pole in front of me. The night nurse learned where to find me to get my evening vital signs.
The diagnosis of cancer came during surgery, less than a month before my birthday, that we expected to have much less scary results. Once inside, the surgeon found a grapefruit-sized tumor on an ovary and a lemon-sized one on the intestine. The biopsy result was a fast-growing non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
In 1985, I had five hospitalizations — the original surgery, the first chemotherapy treatment, twice for antibiotics, and once to harvest bone marrow in case I would need it later. There were seven more chemotherapy treatments, every four weeks, in the doctor’s office.
I hated my first wig which may explain why there’s only one picture of me wearing it.
The second wig was slightly better and there are more photos — but I’m not smiling in any of them!
My chemotherapy treatments were completed before Christmas. I was feeling pretty down though. By this time, it was clear that the plan I had when I was a senior in college, to work for a year or two and then travel for awhile, wasn’t going to pan out. Health insurance and access to my doctors meant that I was stuck in St. Louis for a good five years until I would be declared in remission if the cancer didn’t return. Even then, a plan to travel the world would depend on an ability to get individual health insurance, something that was by no means guaranteed.
Very moving memoir, Joy. What a resilient and courageous woman you are. I hope you have been cancer free for a long time and will continue to be so for decades and decades!
I just read through all your memoir posts and they are great. Your hair is as curly as mine!! I never had short hair though. I’ll have to dig up some pictures for you.
Wow Joy, you poor sweetheart! How unfair life is sometimes. But mainly it’s good because you are here and I’m feeling lucky you are my friend. I hope you get to travel the world. 🙂
We went to Ireland in June. If all goes well, we’ll be in England next year in September (any suggestions?). Maybe India after that. This makes me very happy!
Wow, Joy – I just wrote about getting sick at 23, too. Your descriptions of hospital life are all too familiar. I’m so glad you beat it.
Wow Joy, what an incredibly scary thing to be faced with at that age. Seeing your blog now, it is wonderful to see that you were able to do (and are still doing!) so many of the things that you may have feared you wouldn’t at 23.
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Oh Joy, what a hardship you went through! And at such a young age, too.. I’m thankful that you’re here today to share your moving story with us. xo xo