“Hi, my name is Erin and I had Hodgkins Lymphoma. Last month was the one year anniversary of me finishing chemo. This is my first meeting.”
That’s how I introduced myself at the Young Adults with Cancer Support Group last night. That’s right people; I went to a support group. Just like the folks with gambling problems and eating disorders and those who hide vodka bottles under the mattress and drink mouthwash when they can’t get booze. That’s me.
I never thought it would come to this. I made it through cancer and more or less felt pretty lucky. Or at least that’s what I have been telling myself. And everyone else.
Honestly, I was pretty lucky. I knew I wasn’t going to die (okay, well once I got the diagnosis -- before that month-long limbo period where we weren’t sure exactly what kind of cancer I had or didn’t have, and I had to ban my dad from Web MD and the internet in general because he was scaring the beejeezus out of me, himself and anyone else in the family who had the misfortune to call him ask how things were going.)
And I made it through, out the other side, cancer-free. There was the crushing nausea, horrible metallic taste, the port surgery and the scar, the extreme fatigue and the Neupogen-induced joint paint, the hair loss and the lovely sunken eyes and yellow pallor and the extreme itching in my fingers and the ridiculous chemical burns on my arms, chest and stomach caused by the chemo drugs seeping through my skin from the inside….but I’m telling you, by cancer standards, I got off pretty easy.
You would think if I was going to feel sad or confused or pissed off or anxious, it would have happened while I was actually experiencing said cadre of symptoms. But here I am one year out. The dust has settled and the chemo is over and my hair is growing back all nice and curly and I finally have energy to travel and work and see my friends. Now is when I should really feel lucky.
Except right now I’m just mostly… well let’s face it, I’m pissed off. And kind of depressed. I cry for no apparent reason. I feel irritable and cranky, and lost. Like two of the best, most productive, vibrant, creative, set-the-world-on-fire years of my life were stolen from me. Like I wuz robbed.
Here’s the the thing: at the beginning of January 2010, I was at the pinnacle of my production career. I was building a fierce New York City network of other creative badasses. I was assembling all of the gas cans and TNT I needed to set said world on fire.
That was then. Now I just feel sort of…used up.
But luckily for me the goddesses above got my back and send me angels in the form of amazingly wise and awesome people like my friend Deilia. This is why after I went from happily munching my edamame and avocado salad at Corner Bakery on Monday, to crying and talking about how I don’t really want to celebrate my birthday this year because nothing feels joyful or worthy of donning a birthday hat, Deilia sent me a link. “Just thought you might want to take a look,” her note said.
And that, my friends, is how I ended up at the Young Adults with Cancer Support Group.
The crowd at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts was 15 strong – men and women each with their own story and all at different points in their cancer journey. One woman who can’t be a day over 32 had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and is having a double mastectomy next Tuesday. Then chemo. Then radiation. The guy next to her said he has been in remission for 20 years. The woman across from him told she was 36 -- my age -- and almost done with treatment for rectal cancer.
I’ll just let you ruminate on that for a minute.
Let’s just say, that got me to stop feeling sorry for myself real quick.
The woman next to me had 7 surgeries for melanoma in six months last year and she looks amazing. I’m serious. If she weren’t at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts for the Young Adults with Cancer Support Group, you’d never even know.
Then there’s the guy that had esophageal cancer last fall and was given a 10% chance of living. He survived and his scans immediately after looked totally clear, but he’s petrified of going for his 6-month check-in because with esophageal cancer there’s a 50% chance of a relapse. Then he told us “the doctor said if it reoccurs, I’m toast. He literally said that.”
There were two other women there who have been through Hodgkins Lymphoma - my people! - but what really connects us all is that we’ve had this experience that less than 1% of the population can relate to. Literally. And after the third person in the group said some version of "everyone tells me I'm lucky and deep down I know they're right, but I just want to punch them in the face," I knew I was in the right place.
They compared the psychological fallout to PTSD -- as in I look fine, but I still feel real, real broken. There were a lot of tears and a lot of hugs. We did not sing Kumbaya but they did serve snacks, so that was nice. Mostly, I left feeling grateful to have met so many fabulous people and relieved beyond words to know that it’s not just me.
And then on my walk home, I got one of those nice reminders the universe is so fond of giving out.
My friend Dan, who I haven’t talked to in three years, called. He’s a cameraman who I met on the film festival circuit back in ’09 right as I was setting about that whole lighting the world on fire business.
He shot one of my favorite docs of all time called The Way We Get By (you should totally rent it from Netflix) and is now working on his own project. He’s three years into production on a film that sounds like it’s going to be brilliant.
As usual, just like clockwork, the isolation, doubt and fear that all independent filmmakers experience at some point in the process, has kicked in. It feels like an unrelenting pit in your stomach accompanied by a little demon on your shoulder saying “You fool! You’ve invested all of your free time and money into creating an unwatchable piece of garbage. Who do you think you are?”
So I did what any good friend and fellow creative worth her salt would do – I talked him off the ledge.
I explained how we had felt exactly the same way when we made MINE, about six weeks before we got accepted to SXSW and four months before we won the audience award. I reminded him that being an independent filmmaker is important work. That the fear is normal. And that it takes real balls (or in my case, ovaries) to make a movie. That he might be freaking out, but he’s incredibly brave. That his idea sounds really good and deep down he knows it’s good, or he wouldn’t have embarked on the journey.
Dan was quiet for a minute and then he said “Thank you. This is just what I needed to hear,” And then, “I just have so much respect for you and your work that I knew I needed to talk to you. I knew you would have the answer. This means a lot coming from you.”
Whoa. Thanks Dan. Thanks universe. Thanks for the reminder of two very important things:
1. I may have been through the wringer, but I am still a kick-ass, smart, creative goddess.
2. No matter who you are, or where you might be on your life path, everyone needs a support group now and then.
Now pass me that birthday hat. I got some celebratin’ to get to.