4 min read

Cancer Diaries: Words I Did Not Use a Year Ago

But are now permanently embedded in my vocabulary
Cancer Diaries: Words I Did Not Use a Year Ago

But are now permanently embedded in my vocabulary

Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Can you believe that it’s been almost a year since we’ve been in this quasi surreal state of masking, physical distancing, and lockdown?

One year ago we were heading into the pandemic but had no idea. We were living our lives, carrying on as if the pandemic wasn’t going to reach us; that it was happening everywhere else, but here.

A friend recently posted on social media “Words/phrases I did not use one year ago”:

  • Mitigate
  • Flatten the curve
  • Zoom
  • Mask up
  • Pandemic
  • You’re on mute
  • Zoom happy hour
  • Virtual school
  • No, it’s my turn to walk the dog
  • Social distancing
  • Vaccine hunting

Other friends chimed in with words related to working and learning in a pandemic:

  • Pivot
  • synchronous
  • Asynchronous
  • Zoom fatigue
  • Efficacy
  • Is on-camera attendance expected?
  • Can you see my screen?

Our worlds have changed so much in a year. The way we interact with others, the way we spend our days, the way we keep to ourselves is vastly different than it was a year ago.

I look at pictures that we took just before the pandemic and see my kids sitting next to their cousins smiling for the camera. Our family joined aunts, uncles, and cousins and saw the last Star Wars movie together…in a theater! There were about 30 of us at the theater, hanging out, laughing, and hugging. We shared popcorn and candy. We had no qualms about sitting close together and breathing the same air. We lingered after the movie to catch up, not realizing it would be the last time we would see each other inside a building, without masks, and hugging one another goodbye.

I compare it to the pictures I took nearly a year later at Christmas when we dropped off family gifts. We visited each family in turn and met them outside their homes and masked. We did a contactless drop-off, placing the gifts on the porch. In each picture both families are standing at least 6 feet away from each other, we’re wearing masks, and you can’t tell if we’re smiling. It’s so dystopian.

But when I think about the words that I acquired in the last year, they look different from the usual pandemic words. You see, about the same time that we found ourselves in a pandemic, I was heading into a cancer diagnosis and treatment plan.

Truth be told, I was not worried about a worldwide health crisis that might reach us. I was too distracted by my own personal health crisis. I didn’t have any energy to share with the world’s pandemic. I was barely holding on to my diagnosis.

When my friend asked us to share some of our new words/phrases that we acquired over the last year, my list looked very, very different:

  • Cancer
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Oncologist
  • Chemotherapy
  • Chemobrain
  • Lumpectomy
  • Biopsy
  • Taxol
  • Herceptin
  • Abraxane
  • ER+
  • PR-
  • HER2+
  • Radiation
  • fatigue
  • Anaphylaxis
  • I almost died

This is the word list of someone going through cancer. I knew these words, but they weren’t in my vocabulary until this year. Why would they be? And now they are permanently etched in my world and how I view life through the lens of a cancer patient.

So much has changed in a year and it wasn’t because of the pandemic. I’m not as healthy or strong. I still struggle with slow brain processes and finding my words. My vision has changed, and I find myself squinting at the computer screen a little more. I still don’t feel like myself, though there are some really good days where I feel like I have accomplished so much in my day. Then my body rebels and reminds me I’ve done too much and I’m back to resting. My body is full of surprises and not ones I necessarily appreciate.

During this time of having cancer in a pandemic, I had to learn other words. They include:

  • I need help
  • I can’t do this by myself
  • Am I going to die?
  • I’m so tired
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m sorry I have cancer (I have said this several times to my children on particularly hard days)
  • Yes (as in Yes, please bring us a meal. Yes, I need help. Yes, I’m struggling.)
  • Mommy needs to rest right now or Mommy needs a nap
  • What does that mean? (when asking for medical clarification on my situation).

And even yet, there are more words and phrases I wish I had learned to say more firmly:

  • No
  • I cannot make you feel better about my illness
  • I will not make you feel better about my illness
  • I am angry
  • I am grieving
  • You’re not entitled to any information about my diagnosis, treatment, or well-being.
  • I get to decide who knows and how much they know
  • NO sad eyes! (They’re the worst).

There is so much that comes with a cancer diagnosis. It’s fear, it’s anxiety, it’s anger. It’s a new vocabulary. It’s learning to define boundaries when people want intimate details about your diagnosis. It’s finding a helpful support group. It’s asking for help even when you don’t want to ask. It’s accepting the help that’s given.

During this time of isolation and waiting, we’ve all learned new words. Words that can help us or hinder us. They’re words that have become our new normal. They will be the words that mark this time in our life. When we talk about the Pandemic of 2020 we’ll remember zoom school, masking, and social distancing. I’ll also remember diagnosis, treatment, and support.

Some of the most important words I said during diagnosis and treatment have been: I need help, yes (yes to treatment and yes to help), and I love you (because I’ve learned that tomorrow is not guaranteed).

What will you remember when you look back to the pandemic? What has become part of your new pandemic vocabulary? What do you wish you would have said instead? What do you hope to never say again?

What will you remember?