Day 31: Guarded
A couple weeks ago, I was waiting for “The T” (Bostonians’ dumb name for their subway), and a couple from the Hope Lodge recognized me. In the middle of the rush hour crowd, the husband looks at me and says, “Hey, you’re from the Hope Lodge aren’t ya?” Immediately, I felt insecure. I started looking around the platform, filled mostly with my peers on their way home from work. “Are you being treated?” Could people around me hear? Did they know I had cancer? I mumbled, “Yes,” trying to keep my answers brief and nondescript. “Oh wow. My wife’s here for proton therapy, with Dr. Liebsch (that’s my doctor). She’s got this thing called a chondrosarcoma.” “Oh, that’s what I have!” I exclaimed, but my brief excitement in learning that I now had a tumor triplet was quickly replaced by my anxiety. Luckily, we started talking about how to get back to the Lodge and I told them I’d lead the way.
On the train, the wife ended up sitting next to me. She ended up telling me her whole story: her initial symptoms, her diagnosis, her surgery and its complications. Everything. In public. During rush hour. Part of me wanted to empathize and learn more, but not on the crowded train.
I haven’t had a problem sharing my situation with any friends or family members, but with strangers and acquaintances I’ve felt VERY defensive. I don’t want anyone’s opinion of me being shaped by what they think of my condition. I think that’s a very normal response. What’s maybe not so normal, though, is that at times keeping this little secret to myself has felt so burdensome. Over the years, I’ve learned that I might be an over-sharer, so when people not from the Lodge ask, “So what are you doing in Boston?” it’s odd for me to have to make up an answer or give a deliberately vague one. When they ask the question, I can’t help but think of the real answer before giving my fake one. Then I just hope there aren’t any follow-ups.
Today, I took a little leap though. After volunteering at the hospital, I grabbed lunch with a couple other volunteers: a guy my age who’s about to start a post-bacc nursing program and a girl who’s about to start her 2nd year of med school. Early in the conversation, the question came up, “So, Tom, what are you doing in Boston?” Today I decided to say forget all the insecurity, forget feeling ashamed, and just say whatever you want to say. “I’m actually a patient here.” Their faces were a little shocked, but I decided that I was going to be comfortable with it and explain some more. “Yeah, I’m up here getting proton therapy,” and then I went on to describe what proton therapy is. Instead of using my sad, feel-bad-for-me, Eeyore voice, I let myself show some enthusiasm while talking about how ridiculously impressive the technology is. And then, we stopped talking about it. We talked about volunteering, our home lives, college, professional aspirations. We shared funny stories from volunteering and places to check out in Boston. I felt like I was just being me, which, sadly, is kinda rare these days. I think I’m gonna let that happen more.
Twenty-two treatments down, THIRTEEN to go!