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Man standing in front of a group of people arms crossed

One of Us

I wasn’t keeping my diagnosis of bladder cancer a secret because I’m such a private person. While I don’t make it a habit of shouting my business from the rooftops, neither was I paranoid about others knowing what I was doing. No. My motivations for keeping this secret were something different. I wasn’t ready to be one of “Them.”

Used to being the “strong one”

My tribe is the “Strong Ones.” Even as we honestly admire the courage exhibited by members of the other tribe, we pity their tribulations. It’s not completely correct to say that we feel superior to them, not morally at least. Maybe more fortunate? For whatever reason, we don’t suffer their troubles, their weaknesses.

I knew I had to tell my coworkers

As the days between me and my bladder removal surgery dwindled, I knew I would soon have to notify coworkers. As a Department Head, I was going to have to assign new responsibilities for the six to eight weeks I would be away from work. I was surprised at how much I dreaded that inevitable moment. I finally realized it would be the moment of transition, the moment when I would no longer be, “One of us.”

I wanted to maintain normalcy

Even though I knew what was coming, my life, for the moment, was fairly normal. I was going to work as always, speaking and dealing with people pretty much as I always had. I was still “normal,” and I wanted that normalcy to continue for as long as possible.

I knew that when the moment came, I’d be talking to somebody and things would be normal. Then those words, those terrible words, would leave my mouth, and I would never be normal again. I would be irrecoverably changed, no longer “one of us.”

I was in denial

As I examined my feelings and motivations of that time, I realize that there was a generous dose of denial in my actions. When I was diagnosed, I accepted it technically. I studied the issue, treatments, and prognosis. I was accepting it intellectually, not emotionally. Until this point, emotionally at least, it was something of an abstract concept. The kind of thing that happens to them, not me. But the moment was coming when that would change.

I drafted a memo

I didn’t shout the joyful news from the rooftop. I drafted a memo for general distribution. My last day on the job would be a Friday, with the neobladder reconstruction surgery scheduled for the following Monday. I took my first step down this path of no return at the regularly scheduled Department Head meeting the Tuesday before. I informed my fellow Department Heads about what had befallen me. As I spoke, I could see the thing I had so dreaded in their eyes. It’s possible, I suppose, I was merely seeing what I had feared and expected. But surely some of it was real.

Prayers and pitying stares

I gave each Department Head a copy of the memo and asked that they wait until Monday, after I’d be gone, to distribute it. This way, those last three days would be fairly normal. Of course, somebody didn’t listen closely and distributed the memo right after the Department Head meeting. By Tuesday afternoon, I was being inundated by well wishes and assurances of prayer. And I could also feel those pitying stares.

Please don’t misunderstand; I truly appreciated their honest love and prayers. But by the time I got through the first four or five encounters, adopting the brave attitude, it began to feel phony on my part. As though I were merely acting out an expected role. I knew they meant well, but almost every act of kindness became a burden.

People began treating me differently

People with whom I previously had a slightly adversarial relationship began treating me differently. Where they might normally have pushed back at an idea or project I was promoting, they became accommodating. It was humiliating. Nobody really knew how to treat me or interact with me.

I had so desperately wanted those last three days at work to be “normal,” but they weren’t, I wasn’t. I was now “one of them,” the weak ones who had fallen prey to some disease or misfortune. My self-image had shifted disastrously, and I wasn’t prepared for it. An illusion had shattered, and I was suddenly faced with the naked, mortal, frightened little creature I had become.

The journey back to a semblance of myself

The journey back to a semblance of myself took months. Almost a decade later, I’m still not completely the person I was before cancer. But I’m better than I have been. I accept my mortality without debilitating dread. I’m one of “us” now, one of the strong ones who realize we are not immortal, appreciate every day we are given, but accept that one day, there will be no more.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Mac Howard moderator
    2 months ago

    Appreciation for the everyday may be the greatest gift cancer gives.
    Mac (site moderator)

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