'But I can't have cancer! I'm only 35'

Deborah Armenti

May 22, 1991|By Deborah Armenti

IN JANUARY, when I was laid off from my job at USF&G, I intended to write a series of articles about that experience. I would have called it "Diary of an Unemployed Yuppie," and I would have explored the social, financial and emotional upheaval of a 30-something professional woman finding herself without gainful employment for the first time in her working career.

Instead, my world was turned upside down when I found out in February that I have cancer.

I went to an outpatient clinic on a Saturday because of continued shortness of breath. When a chest X-ray revealed a "white lung," I was immediately admitted to the DeborahArmentihospital. Within eight hours I got a pulmonary tap to drain the fluid from around the lung. Unfortunately, the doctor punctured the lung, and I also got a pulmonary tube in my chest to suck out the air and additional fluid.

By Tuesday morning the experience had lost its flavor of excitement and taken on tones of high drama. My doctor told me I might have cancer.

But I can't have cancer! I'm only 35. I have two young children and a husband who need me. I need me. I have a life. It can't be cancer; there must be a mistake.

And behind all the denials is guilt. I smoked cigarettes for 20 years. I don't exercise. I eat meat and eggs and refined sugar and flour. I use chemicals to clean my house and manage my garden.

It's my fault. I'm 35. I'm going to die, and it's my own fault.

Suddenly the least important thing in the world is whether I have a job. It's a relief not to have a job now. Thank goodness my husband has a job and we have friends and neighbors to provide emotional support and help out with the kids.

I find myself confronting my biggest challenge, and it has nothing to do with competition, or tenure, or promotion. I'm fighting for my life at a time when I expected to relax and change careers.

Now I realize that I've made enough money and held down a sufficiently respectable technical position. I want time for my children and my mental health and my social causes. It's time to do something for society now that my family situation is stabilized. But how can I focus on society when my every brain cell is screaming for attention? What about me? How can I think of anything else?

I wake up in the morning thinking about cancer and I go to bed thinking of cancer. I am terrified, and yet I go through the motions of an ordinary life. It's as ordinary as I can make it except that every activity and plan revolves around my chemotherapy schedule and how I might be feeling at any particular time.

I still plan to change careers. I will do student teaching in the fall, and I hope to become a high school math teacher like my husband.

We've been looking forward to that gentler lifestyle and more time to spend on family, home and writing. My friends tell me how brave I am and how they admire my courage. Whenever I hear those words, I think about how I don't want to be brave; I want to be well.

But I keep on keeping on, as the song says, and I'll try to leave my children and husband at least the legacy of a relatively normal family life for as long as I can stretch it out.

I take nothing for granted anymore -- not even the ordinary.

Deborah Armenti writes from Baltimore.

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