Once people learned about my cancer diagnosis, I began to receive cards in the mail, their bright envelopes peeking out from the piles of ads for power tools and cable TV. I looked forward to the messages of comfort, love, and healing vibes hidden inside. There were cards ordering me to "Stay Strong!" and "Get Well Soon!" Some said "I'm Sorry" and "Thinking of You." Others were "Just to Say Hello!"
They soon overwhelmed the small shelf I was displaying them on, so I strung up Christmas ribbons from our ugly living room drop-down ceiling, and hung the colorful cards from their spines, facing in toward the couch. Through my chemo treatments, my recovery from surgeries, and setbacks from infection, I added each encouraging card to the ribbons. They swung steadily from the ceiling, and I spent many listless days lying on the couch and staring up at the kaleidoscope of colors, the banners that my friends and family helped me create.
In honor of my one-year diagnosis anniversary ("Cancerversary!" the ladies in my online support group cheered), I wondered how to mark the occasion. I didn't want to celebrate it exactly, but I needed a way to mark the significance I felt for the day, and I needed to do something that solidified that I was moving on.
I decided that the perfect thing to do would be to disassemble my card collection in the living room. I ceremoniously took down each card and reread its message, soaking up the last remaining bits of encouragement I could. I rubber-banded the piles of cards together and took a deep breath in my back-to-normal living room. They had served their purpose of getting me through my most dreary days, and it was time that they be retired to my Cancer Box.
My Cancer Box is kind of like that Old Boyfriend Box from high school that we all keep hidden under our beds, filled with love notes and mixed tapes. Except instead of remnants of angst-filled teenage relationship drama, it contains mementos from a different sort of intoxicating and life-changing relationship — my rendezvous with Cancer.
It's a small cardboard file box that was meant to organize mundane records of life, like tax returns or bank statements, in folders hung alphabetically or numerically or monthly. Instead, I discarded the hanging folders and now along with my greeting card collection, it's home to a number of cancer souvenirs.
There are a couple of ID wristbands from my numerous visits to the hospital for procedures, chemo and surgeries. My demographic information is book-ended on either side by small pixilated squares that can be scanned for identification purposes — Marloe Esch: Cancer Patient. There are a couple of different colored plastic triangle flags snapped to the side — Red for "Allergy!" and Pink for "Limb Alert!"
Then there's the "Bizarre Boobs" deck of cards that my friends put out as entertainment at my Bye-Bye Boobies party — a bash they threw for me to say goodbye to my girls before my scheduled mastectomy surgery. The cards sport silly illustrations with creative titles like "Full Moons," "High Buttons," and "Under Chinners" and made us laugh out loud at all the possibilities I had for my reconstruction. (At the time, I didn't know that the most appropriate title for my new set would be "The Ripple Effect" — but that's a topic for another day.)
There's a small, flat, rectangular box my surgeon handed to me when I started crying in her conference room as we were trying to have a discussion about my decision for prophylactic double mastectomy surgery. It was from the Young Survival Coalition, and it seemed like a welcome box of sorts — "Welcome to this crappy land called Cancer, young woman! We're sorry you're here, but we want to help you navigate!" It contained a pen, a sticky-note pad of paper, a magnet, a business card for the State Leader of the organization, and a list of programs for young survivors. The box itself is nothing special, really, except for the words I read when I opened it. On the inside of the box top, as you flip it open, you are greeted with the affirmation "YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK." I read these words in my car in the clinic parking ramp, my eyes still itching from tears. It was exactly what I needed. I contacted the woman on that card right away, and went to their support group meeting that evening.
There's a letter that I received from the Kristy Lasch Miracle Foundation letting me know that my request for financial assistance had been approved. At the bottom of the letter it reads "and NEVER NEVER QUIT..........."
There are some pamphlets that explain the meaning behind gifts I received, including the Spirit Angel, the Breast Milagro, and the Arms of Strength by Alex & Ani. There are buttons with messages like "The Chemo made me do it," "Cancer Sucks" and (my personal favorite) "Does this button make my head look bald?" There's the Journey Blessing Ring from my last day of chemo. On the back, it reminds me that "Life is a journey, not a destination."
There is the cloth bag I purchased to lug around my 24-hour antibiotic pump for six weeks after being diagnosed with an infection. I bought it because I did not want to be associated with the depressingly black Velcro pack that was provided with the pump by the home health agency. My bag was colorful and reminded me of spring, and helped me feel like a normal person in public, even if there was a tube sticking out of my arm. When I bought it I thought maybe I would continue to use it as a cute purse after my treatment, but after the six weeks were up I couldn't bear the sight of it and it ended up in the box.
There's a pastel yellow "For Your Convenience" card that was given to my husband at the beginning of one of my surgeries. It's so he could watch for my confidential case number, they explained, on the waiting room monitor — which is a screen mounted on the wall that reminded me of being at the airport and searching for our flight. What terminal and gate did we need to get to? Was our plane on time or (per usual) delayed? Steve could watch as the seven-digit number assigned to me changed from PREOP to PROCEDURE to RECOVERY to PHASE II. Steve got five of these cards with five different confidential case numbers on them for the five surgeries I had, but I only kept one. One is enough.
At the bottom of the box are the month pages torn from my 2014/2015 daily planner and clipped together. I had written every appointment on them, starting with my core needle biopsy on July 3rd, and ending with the last day of my IV antibiotics on May 9th. Every event in between (diagnosis date, consultations, genetics testing, fertility appointments and procedures, weekly labs and chemo and pre-ops and post-ops) is documented. My social calendar was sparse, but my cancer calendar was filled to the brim.
The most recent thing I retired to my box was my Cancer Card — a wallet-sized card that proclaims, "If you've got it, use it!" A dear friend of mine got it from StupidCancer.org, an organization for young adults with cancer, and sent it to me as a silly gift soon after I was diagnosed. Although I never actually pulled the cancer card on strangers or in public, it did come in handy for avoiding household chores. "Honey, can you clean the litter box? I have cancer..." worked every time.
The Cancer Box isn't full yet, and I have yet to place a few things in it for safekeeping. One is my chemotherapy "Certificate of Completion," which is signed by all of my coworkers at the chemo infusion clinic and hanging on our fridge. Another is a small clay kitten I made with supplies from the Art Cart during one of my hospital stays; this sits on my desk at the moment.
There is something extremely satisfying about putting all of these physical reminders in a box, closing the lid, setting it on a closet shelf, and walking away. Cancer was a heavy load to carry, and I'm happy to be able leave it at home while I go out and about living the rest of my life.
Someday, when my grandchildren ask, "Grandma, did you really have cancer?" (Because, you know, by then people will refer to the time Before Cancer Was Cured, right?), I will hold them close and say — Yes! I lived in the time Before Cancer Was Cured, and I survived! And then I will lug my Cancer Box out from behind my Old Boyfriend Box in the closet, and we will travel through the time capsule of my affair with Cancer. I will be reminded of things I had forgotten, and I will marvel at how far the world has come.
Share Your Thoughts
Do you have a "Cancer Box" or some other collection of cancer momentos? What have you saved in it? Share your comments below.
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This is beautiful.