The summer after my first year of graduate school did not go as planned.
I was thirty-eight, in an MFA program for creative writing and a graduate assistant for my school’s study abroad program in Ireland.
I was in Ireland for two days when I had a seizure. I was by myself, walking along the streets of Cork, about to go to a play. The seizure landed me in a hospital, where I disclosed that my dad died from colon cancer. The doctor ordered me a colonoscopy, and that’s how I found out that I had stage IV rectal cancer that spread to my brain. Cancer? I was blindsided by the news. Prior to that experience, I was in the best shape of my life. I was running and lifting weights three to four times a week.
I was in the Irish hospital for a week while doctors ran MRIs and CT scans. I was on steroids to keep my brain from swelling more. I thought I might die in that hospital room and never see my family again. Fortunately, my Irish doctors were able to find a hospital back home in New Orleans to seamlessly transfer my care.
When I returned home from Ireland I was met by a flurry of doctor’s appointments the next day. I went from running 5ks to hitting the ground running.
Over the next year, that initial diagnosis brought brain surgery and brain radiation, twelve rounds of chemo, five rounds of radiation to my rectum, the removal of my rectum, a temporary ileostomy bag and then an ileostomy reversal surgery. I was NED for a few months before the cancer spread again, this time to my lungs. I was hoping to go into my final year of grad school as a healthy, “normal” human being but I was right back where I started, this time with fourteen rounds of chemo. I lost my hair again. I juggled going to class with a chemo pump attached to me every other week again. Then the coronavirus hit, which was an added level of stress. As an immunocompromised person, I wondered what would happen me if I contracted the virus. (I haven’t.)
Phew. That’s a lot for anyone to go through, much less a full-time graduate student working a part-time job. So many people told me, “I don’t know how you do it.” Looking back, I don’t know how I did it but I had to. The graduate assistant position was paying my tuition, and I was on student health insurance. Quitting was never an option. Fortunately, when I had my recurrence I only had to take one class each semester to graduate. My graduate assistantship had ended and I was interviewing for catering gigs. All that evaporated when I was rediagnosed. Goodbye employment, hello disability.
I decided to base my entire thesis on my cancer experience. It was difficult to write about what I was going through but, after my recurrence, those initial chemo treatments and surgery felt like a thing of the past. I was on to another regimen of chemo and radiation, which meant I went back into survival mode.
Much to my surprise, being NED was harder than being in active treatment. When you’re NED, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I focused on the “what if” instead of living in the moment. Recurrence made my initial treatments feel past tense; I was able to write about my experiences from a more detached point of view instead of feeling like I was writing in real time.
I successfully defended my thesis, graduated in May, and now that I’m (hopefully) nearing the end of my treatment again, I feel better equipped to handle that surge of emotion and anxiety that comes with post-treatment. I know which emotions to expect. I felt a lot of anger when I was NED, which surprised me. (The radiation induced menopause didn’t help.) I sought out an oncology psychologist, who helped me process my emotions. My main focus now is getting through this last stretch of treatment (radiation) and begin to further edit my thesis with the hopes of having it published at some point. My future isn’t a given (thanks a lot, stage IV) but instead of feeling hopeless I choose to let that motivate me instead. I’m returning to school yet again in the fall, this time for an MFA in photography. Will I live long enough to finish my second master’s degree? Probably. Will I pour myself into my art like my life depends on it? Absolutely.
By Christy Lorio