Tips on Surviving Your Cancer

by Rebecca Pedersen

Or, what I did to make my life as easy as possible while battling ovarian cancer. These tips — when taken with a dose of some Western medicine prescribed by your board-certified oncologist — might be a key to your survival in some way. Maybe.

Make a Facebook status letting everyone know you have cancer. “Ewww, but I’m not an attention whore!” Hush, you blighted body! The only thing more exhausting than chemo is having a face-to-face conversation with everyone you’ve ever met about your battle of wills with a murderous tumor. So after you tell the important people in your life, make a public announcement. Otherwise, a lot of your casual acquaintances will bully you into long conversations because they want to be personally affected by your disease. These are usually the types who tell elaborate stories about their bad days; meeting a cancer patient is like meeting a celebrity to them. Nonchalantly noting the state of your health online helps deflate and deflect these sympathy vultures. In that same vein, tell your loved ones to openly mourn your bad news. I think my roommate literally told 50 people the week I was diagnosed, which was therapeutic for her and also saved me a ton of work.

Shave your head. Feel free to keep those luscious locks as long as you can, but the minute you see the beginnings of your first bald spot, it’s game time. What no one will tell you — aside from the fact that this level of hair loss is both disgusting and terrifying — is that losing your hair to chemo actually kind of hurts. It doesn’t come out gracefully, gently wafting through the air until it becomes part of a beautiful bird’s nest; it falls out in vicious fistfuls that forever stick to your bathroom tile. At points, it feels like someone is ripping it out of your head. This is because your hair follicles are dying, and they are pissed off about it.

Always have a ride to and from every appointment. I would think this tip is a no brainer, but there is a scene in 50/50 where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is waiting for a bus after chemo. This is absolutely unacceptable. While you don’t usually feel terrible until a few hours after, there is no point in further exhausting yourself by experiencing the inconveniences of public transportation. It is scientifically proven that all buses smell weird, and since your sense of smell is inexplicably amplified right now, the people with bad body odor are really gonna do a number on your overactive gag reflex. Secondly, buses are like a one-way ticket to Germ City, which you cannot afford to take right now. Fact: chemo kills your white blood cells faster than you can say, “What’s pneumonia feel like?” You need to treat every germy situation like you are a 98-year-old plastic bubble dweller who accidentally fell into a greasy puddle outside a methadone clinic: wash your hands often, and for god’s sake, call your mom to come pick you up!

Obtain at least one TV series box set and one reliable barf bucket. Having cancer means you spend a lot of time incapacitated. There are Lifetime movies where the cancer victim (I say “victim” here because these people are such pusses in these movies) will dramatically flee to the bathroom to politely vomit. This is not how it happens. The truth is: if you stand up, there is a huge possibility you will immediately black out and fall down because you are so sick and tired you can’t comprehend it, at which point you will puke on your shirt and maybe pee on yourself. This is not Lifetime dramatic; this is the real deal. There will be many times during your treatment where you will not be going to the bathroom unless it’s within crawling distance. So get a good television series with characters whose problems you can easily focus on instead of your own, and settle in. If you can’t decide on a show, I would recommend Gilmore Girls — their zany conversations about easy-to-solve predicaments are super distracting.

Eat healthily, and as much as you can. Everything tastes like the chemicals being blasted into your body anyway, so you might as well take shots of wheatgrass and whatever other gross granola crud you have lying around. Someone who has never had cancer before will probably make the joke that they would take advantage of this aversion to food, using it to get down to their ideal Ukrainian supermodel body weight by weaning themselves off the junk food that stands in the way of this dream. This is not funny or relatable (even though it’s true that I mistakenly ate Italian meatball soup while I was sick and now, almost five years later, still can’t be in the same room as a bowl of it without experiencing pre-vomit goosebumps). Regardless of the truths behind this joke, I assume whoever says this has a gray area eating disorder, and that sucks and I am sorry, but we’re talking about my sickness here so knock it off please!

You can be a jerk sometimes. Now that I’ve recovered — physically and emotionally — from my cancer, it’s easier to look back on my actions. I realize now that I was a huge pain in my roommates’ collective asses a lot of the time, in part because I was always sprawled out in a way that took up our entire living room couch, meaning no one else could ever sit down. I even left a permanent body dent. But that is okay. You are allowed to be a little grouchy and take up too much space when you feel more horrible than you will probably ever feel again in your entire life. Everyone will still love you. You know this to be true because they sit on the floor, watch Gilmore Girls reruns with you and assure you that your breath doesn’t smell as barfy as it tastes. Appreciate it, because this kind of love doesn’t come around often.

Rebecca Pederson lives in San Francisco and is an editor at Yelp. She publishes the food puns her bosses reject (as well as some other stuff) on her blog.