“Go ahead and ring it,” said Nurse Linose. “You ring it three times.”
Nurse Linose — a round-cheeked 30-something who could snap between head-back laughter and withering eye rolls, who had introduced herself the month prior by tapping her nose and saying “I rhyme with this”—was my favorite human at the cancer center. Specifically, because she acted like a human, rather than a cancer-fighting robot. Specifically, because we could gripe about what radiation-floor doctors were pompous assholes, either to her as a nurse or to me as a patient or both.
“Ring it!” she said, clapping with increasing force as she nudged my husband, Mike, over to a better spot where he could capture the best-angled video to text our friends later.
Ringing the bell. A bizarrely Instagrammable “end” to cancer treatment, which in my case meant 22 radiation zaps in the blazing July summer. At the check-out desk in the basement of a cancer megalopolis in New York City, I read a little plaque next to a brass bell, something about finishing the work and going along my merry way.
I slammed the clapper into the bell’s body too hard,almost flinging the whole thing off itswooden stand. Mike’s video shows me covering my face except for dark-circled eyes, my paler-than-normal frame skittering away from the ceremonial station that I surely had broken, ruining it for everyone. (I had not, and Linose snickered at me to get back there for the other two rings.) Her fellow nurses golf-clapped at their desks, celebrating at a respectable volume because some of their other patients, 15 feet away on the other side of a thin waiting-room wall, would inevitably “finish” their treatments with funeral ceremonies instead of ceremonies with some little bell.
“You did it, hey!” said Linose, scooting me back into an exam room one more time. Before sending me away with discharge notes and brochures on free counseling in a purple plastic bag, she dressed me in what we called the Doctor’s Tube Top. A few slivers of Xeroform gauze, covered in gloopy yellow numbing cream to soothe burns, then a loop of webbed cotton that started the diameter of a grapefruit and stretched to the size of an adult torso. On the way out after popping on my T-shirt, I hugged her in an A-frame, making sure my crispy chest didn’t brush her scrubs. I clocked a note to send her a Madewell gift card because she once had said she liked my sandals from there.
Mike and I grabbed celebratory ice cream—Van Leeuwen’s summer special of lemon-blueberry, speckled with streusel—and back home, I lay down in bed for the evening. It was about 4.30pm. I shared my video on social media with a happy note about evicting my cancer cells, then a slightly preachy note about how everyone deserves access to healthcare, given the treatments would have cost upwards of $300,000 and bankrupted Mike and me if we didn’t have insurance.
“Bye, bitch!” I said to Mike, pretend-waving away the cancer in my metaphorical rearview. I texted some friends, scrolled through Instagram replies featuring bicep-curl emojis and black-heart emojis and clapping-hands emojis. Maybe I got flowers from my sister-in-law, or maybe I didn’t. I watched TV. Mike scratched my back. I went to bed.
It was done, except it wasn’t.
August was the most disorienting month of Cancer Summer. Physically, things trended upward. The blisters on my chest subsided, and the skin that had shone black like a charcoal briquette faded to adobe red and then caramel brown like a suntan. When my medical-grade moisturizer infused with steroids ran out, I moved to regular-people’s Aveeno, slathering it twice daily onto the breast I was told would keep recuperating for a year. Energy-wise, I had stopped whining—involuntarily whining— rom radiation fatigue. I could reliably stay awake for full 42-minute episodes of my favorite reality shows, like Below Deck, about the weird people who go on yachts, and Real Housewives, about the weird people who stay on land.
Emotionally, however, I had the identity crisis of someone who is a patient and then suddenly is not. Someone who loses a hobby called cancer that she never wanted to take up in the first place.
I had no more reason to open the treatment center’s app, where obsessively tapping daily appointment confirmations made me feel like I was doing something to keep the cancer away. My coworkers stopped asking about “it” in my office’s kitchen, and on the rare occasion someone did ask how I was, I certainly didn’t tell them for fear of being The Cancer Person or The Woman Who Couldn’t Get Over It.
“You’re a fucking badass,” my coworker Jeanette told me, when I finally broke down crying in her office one afternoon. Ostensibly, it was over a coworker’s condescending remark. But Jeanette, sliding a tissue across her desk, eyed me with a look that said she knew the tears were not work tears.
“I’m not going to change my face because the wall is glass, and I don’t want anyone being nosy about what we’re talking about,” Jeanette said. “Look at Stephen out there, already swirling around like a little buzzard.”
I nodded at her. Clenched my shoulders to stop them from heaving.
“I’m really impressed with you,” Jeanette said. “Jill, for fuck’s sake, you just went through cancer, and you didn’t even really take time off of work. It’s a lot!”
“Yeah,” I sniffled back at her. “Yeah, it wasn’t that great.”
I used Jeanette’s mirror to wipe away stray mascara, then went back to something mundane like booking a conference room or editing an article about sunglasses. I finished the day, subwayed home, and hugged my husband who loved me and coddled me and yet, thankfully, could not fully grasp the terror of knowing your body has tried to kill itself from the inside out.
I trudged on through to September, when my friend Mallory visited New York for Labor Day weekend. For the first time in months, I stayed energetic enough to entertain someone without stopping for naps. We brunched, for God’s sake. We talked a little about cancer, but mostly we did not, and instead filled time laughing about things like dating politics in her tiny Alabama town and our long-held intentions of retiring together in a Golden Girls-esque home with a lanai and everything.
“You seem happier,” Mike said, when Mallory popped back into a cab for JFK.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think I am?”
I did lie down for one nap after Mallory texted that her plane was taking off, and with my cheek on the pillow, I considered whether or not, actually, I was happy again.
Pros: I had learned I could handle more than I’d ever imagined. I could stand up to doctors with fancy degrees and fight for myself and my body when I thought they were rushing me through, you know, major life decisions. I could fundraise more than $2,200 for a healthcare nonprofit, a hundred dollars for every dose of radiation.
Cons: I could see no clear logic in life if I randomly got cancer and then survived it, but other people “deserving” survival did not. And I could never unknow what it felt like to be sick, really sick, with something that was bad once and could come back and be bad again.
And yet, yes, I was a lucky one.
I could piece my life and sanity back together, with the help of 20 milligrams of a daily antidepressant and an ever-present stash of tranquilizer pills, stowed in my purse inside a metal case that looks like an orange slice, in case of a panic attack. With the help of flower arranging, my post-cancer hobby, where it’s just understood that something will look pretty for a while until it dies, and that is OK. With the help of HIIT classes on YouTube, a silly little rescue dog who belches so aggressively it ricochets through her tiny body, a harder sense of humor that includes jokes like, “I’m a cockroach, and you can’t kill me.” Sometimes I am angry, sometimes deliriously grateful, sometimes feel a little ache here or there when I stretch and upset some cells that have been blasted into scar tissue.
I go on, like so many others who have evicted cancers of their own, because that is what you do. I go on because I get to, at least as long as the doctors keep saying that my body is no longer revolting.
I go on. I go on. I go on.
I am a cockroach. You can’t kill me.
Author’s Note I wrote this to process the feeling of living in a body that was sick once, gets well, and could become sick again at any point. When speaking about cancer — at least, in my past experience — I got the sense that you’re either expected to be overly positive, like a walking glitter mug with PINK SISTERS in bubbly cursive, or you’re supposed to share some harrowing story as a cautionary tale or a display of your trauma. But many people, like myself, exist in the middle: We’re not the traditional “fighter” characters on either end of the spectrum. We exist in a gray area, hopefully for a long time. And what do you do when you live in that gray area? Perhaps you develop defense mechanisms like calling yourself an insect and writing an essay about it.
Jill Hilbrenner is a writer and florist based in Beacon, New York. After earning her journalism degree in her home state at the University of Missouri, she spent more than a decade in New York City, working in the fashion and media industries. A former NYU instructor, she now runs an apothecary shop, Witch Hazel, and is the proud mother of two dogs and 22 plants.