What Cancer Taught Me
This blog post was originally written in 2016, 3 years after my cancer:
October 17 is a very special day for me. While it may not be the most accurate in terms of "celebrating my cancer", since I received the ominous news a month before, the day of going into surgery marks a huge change in my life. And every year, on October 17, is a chance for me to self-reflect and check if I'm doing things according to my values.
It took me three years to be able to open up and write my story, and now that I can, I can also see why it took me so long to process it and why I couldn't post what I'm posting now, before.
When I was in the middle of it, I was busy dealing with all the complexities of just finding out I had cancer at 25 and I couldn't share anything with the outside world.
A year later, I was still "high" on the thought that I'm alive and I survived it, and I didn't wanna share this awfully private thing I went through.
And two years later, I was working in the same oncological department I was treated at, I was surrounded with cancer patients all day everyday, and felt like I was paying some karmic debt I owed to the universe, by helping cancer patients who weren't as lucky as I was.
Now (actually, this was written in 2016, so 3 years ago), after graduating grad school, starting and quitting a "grown up job", opening my own dream business, and intensive therapy- I say, fuck it. My cancer is part of me, it doesn't define me, but it's a huge part of what makes me, me. I always tried to discount the cancer in interviews or videos, I never want to come across as if I'm looking for pity or worse, as if I'm cynically trying to "milk it". But, I feel differently now, it's a part of my history and as such, I'd like to give it its proper space.
Let's get into it.
I'm super white. Superrrr white. And as such, I always wanted to be tan. Living at home until the age of 20 meant I didn't go to the beach much since my mom was hyper-vigilant about sun exposure and the risk of skin cancer (yes, ironic, I know). She herself had BCC (Basal Cell Carcinoma, a non-life-threatening skin cancer) and she instilled the fear of god in me (well, tried to). So, naturally, the minute I left my parents home and moved away to Tel Aviv, Israel, I made up for the first 20 years of not being one of the cool kids who could just go to the beach without begging their parents.
Tel Aviv is known for being sunny, humid and awesome, and I was intoxicated with the freedom, the sun, and how tan I could finally get. I started going to the beach often to tan, and I was obsessed with my tan lines- the more tan I got, the better day at the beach it was.
At 24, 3 years later, I moved to Miami, which is even more known for being sunny, humid and awesome. I continued my irresponsible tanning there- going tanning in the dangerous hours between 11am-3pm, only using sun screen on my face, using tanning oil on my body.
I knew I was being stupid.
I knew this was dangerous.
But I didn't care.
Because "it won't happen to me".
After less than a year I returned home to Tel Aviv and started my Master's degree. I still found plenty of opportunities to tan.
Since I knew I was being stupid, I was at least pretty vigilant about my beauty marks. Towards the end of my first year of my Master's, I noticed a new beauty mark on my left hip that wasn't there before. It was small, 1.5mm, skin colored, and a little raised. I went to my skin doctor who said (he later regretted that) "it's nothing to worry about, but we'll take it off if you want". It took four months for the public health system to finally take it off, during which it grew in size to about 6mm (4 times original size in 4 months), and changed color to bright red.
But, it's a 10-minute procedure, the thought of cancer never actually crossed my mind, and after they took it off, I promptly forgot about it.
Two weeks later I get a phone call from my skin doctor who says the sample was sent to the lab for a biopsy (routine protocol), the results are back and that I need to come see him at 9:30pm after he finished seeing all the other patients.
Obviously, the minute he hung up, I started crying (I remember this vividly- I was in the research lab of my Master's, and a friend saw me and comforted me).
I went to see him and he told me it was melanoma. I didn't know what it was. I said "I remember there is only one type of skin cancer that can kill", and he said- yeah, that's it.
I was in complete shock and I didn't even cry- I never expected this. I thought I might have BCC, some sort of benign tumor, that he'd slap my wrist and tell me to stop tanning so much. It didn't even cross my mind actual cancer could happen to me.
He apologized that he didn't take my request to take off the mole seriously enough, and explained what needed to be done next- surgery. In the surgery, they will remove a large piece of skin from where the mole was, and check to see if the cancer metastasized. After that, they will determine whether I need chemo or radiations.
I left his office, called my brother, told him what happened, and by the time I got home he was already there waiting for me. I don't remember if he already had the red face of post-crying, and it doesn't matter, but I remember I ran to him from the door and started crying the most primal, visceral, animalistic cry I ever had. I felt like a wounded animal, howling in mortal pain, disbelieving the fact that death from cancer suddenly became a very realistic option for me at 25.
My brother hugged me and let me cry, and he cried himself too, which made my heart and my stomach ache, since I felt the sincere fear in him that I could be gone at such an early age.
(When I wrote this in 2016, I cried again after this paragraph).
The following day, after not falling asleep until 4am, I took a train to my parent's city, Haifa, and told them in person. I was terrified of telling my mom. Not only will she be in pain, but I was afraid she'll say "I told you so", since this was the epitome of why she's against tanning in the first place.
My dad picked me up first, so I told him first. He was incredibly stable, calm but caring and loving, and reassured me we'll take care of it. When my mom later got into the car, it was so hard for me to bring myself to tell her- she was so damn happy to see me. I told her the biopsy returned, and it's melanoma.
I expected her to cry. To be angry. I told her I'm sorry I didn't listen to her all these years and that she probably thinks "I told her so", and in response, she said to stop thinking this silly things, hugged me, and started thinking about the next steps.
Only after this episode was done, she told me about all the sleepless nights she spent worrying about me, about the stress, about the crying. She said this was the darkest time in her life.
The month was scheduled for October 17, and mom took care of all the scheduling of the exams I needed to do- MRI, CT, blood work. I was totally checked-out mentally and I honestly don't remember much from this month. Denial, is not just a river in Egypt, as my sister says.
The day of the surgery came, and I remember I was very touched my sister and her husband came to see me and spent hours in early morning traffic for that. They wheeled me in the prep room, by then only my mom was with me, and as they injected the anaesthesia they asked me to count down from 10. I only reached 6 before I passed out and woke up after what seemed like 10 seconds, but in fact was after the surgery.
Dude, general anaesthesia sucks. People tried to make the surgery less scary for me and talked about the "high" from the "drugs" I'll get, but seriously, if this is the kind of high they like, from general anaesthesia- they are WEIRD.
When I woke up I was in the recovery room. I was dizzy and forgetful for about 2 hours there. My mom was there constantly, my dad went in and out, and apparently every time I woke up I asked if they surgery already happened, where was I, and what time it was.
I was transferred to my own room after than, spent the night in a weird sleep-no-sleep state in recovery, and went with my parents back to their home, the following morning. Moving from the bed to the wheelchair in the hospital, then to the car, then climbing up two flights of stairs- was. so. painful. They basically removed a fist-size piece of my body, and sewed it with 30 internal and external stitches. Every movement hurt.
I was there for a week. It was amazing to have other people cook for me, clean for me, help me with everything. My only daily task was to have a bath, and it was a mission, every time.
I spent my days reading, watching tv, and trying to keep myself from going insane- all while lying down. I couldn't stand upright because of the location of the surgery, so I had to lie down. My muscles started aching after two days. I went from a very active person, a dance teacher, to bed-ridden. This was a huge mental and physical difficulty. I felt not like myself.
During this time, I have a few people who made me feel amazing and thankful:
- Nur, a friend who lived in France and sent me flowers to my parents house. She wrote a short poem and used the word "enema" in it, which made me laugh imagining the poor person who had to copy it to the card, and then promptly that laugh turned into crying
- Shani, a fellow pole dancer I knew from the studio, saw the FB post I published about recovering from surgery at home and being bored and asking people to come visit me. Without really knowing me in person, she came to visit me, we clicked, and to this day we are best friends. I owe my friendship with my bestie to cancer, she is the source of so many of good things that happened in my life since, and I could not imagine my life without her.
- Neta and Daniel, the owner and a senior teacher in the pole studio, sent me flowers that I thought were from them personally. Later, Daniel told me they placed a cup saying "flowers for Gal" in the studio, and all the students donated however much they wanted. I cried, realizing the place in their hearts I had.
I cried a lot during that time.
This period in my life is divided into 2 parts.
The first part is the 6 weeks from learning I have cancer, going through surgery, and up until the surgery results came back and declared the cancer hasn't spread and there will be no need for chemo or radiations. These 6 weeks are mainly non-accessible for me, since my brain was detached and whatever I do remember, is probably hidden deep deep down.
In the second part, after I learned I was clean, I could focus on processing more, and really think about what happened, what do I feel, and what can I learn from it.
The first confusing thing I felt was immense gratitude for catching this early enough to avoid metastases. This quickly avalanched into survivor's guilt, and I felt I wasn't really a "cancer patient", since I only went through surgery and didn't lose my hair, lose weight, or have any side effects of chemo or radiations. I felt I "got it easy" and there was quite a build up of confusion and guilt and randomness and trying to make sense of it all.
I felt I had to get back to real life quick, because I had it easy, so I should stop complaining and get on with my life.
The second thing I realized as I was spending weeks lying down feeling miserable, is that the only thing I really missed- was dancing. Going to the studio, teaching dance, dancing myself, practicing with friends, moving! Anything. The things I didn't miss was school, the research lab, making science.
The third thing is, when you're in a deep well, without any rope or ladder, it's hard to imagine how you'll get out of that well and walk on the ground again. 20 feet above you is a whole life that you can't be apart of, and you can't imagine how you'll ever bridge that gap, how you'll ever surface again from that deep well, because you can't see the rope or ladders.
I was genuinely afraid of the possibly of never being able to dance again. Logically I knew I'd get better, but my primitive brain was saying- "hey, you had cancer. Anything is possible. You might stay crooked for life and you might not be able to enjoy your body ever again."
And on and on went the scary spiral.
For a whole month after the surgery and before they removed my stitches, I legit was scared I won't be able to sit up straight, stand, walk, ride the bike. The combination of recovering from a very hard surgery for the first time in my life, and the fact that it was cancer, left me pessimistic and afraid.
Additionally, I remember I felt so lonely. I was surrounded with family and friends, but nobody really knew what it was like to be in my place. The existential concern of possibly dying a slow and painful death in my 20's was incomprehensible. I couldn't talk about it with my family because they were already worried enough and I didn't want to unload my burden on them. And my friends just said "you'll be fine, you'll see". It didn't help.
All I wanted was for someone to hear me when I say I'm afraid, and to tell me it's ok to be afraid.
It's scary to think I can die before I turn 30,
It's scary to think how it'll break my family's heart,
It's scary to imagine the funeral.
Dramatic, much? Maybe. But until you've been in that place, you don't know what thoughts turn up uninvited in your head.
It's scary to think I might stay with a disability for life.
And the scariest thing that could happen is that I heal, and then spend the rest of my life in fear the cancer will return, not really living at all.
Eventually, I recovered from the surgery. They took out my stitches, I slowly started dancing again, and my powerful and meaningful victory was that on New Year's Eve, 2.5 months after the surgery, I performed dancing.
And I was so proud.
In the 3 years since (again, this was written in 2016), I managed to:
Finish my Master's degree,
Travel Australia and Thailand,
Find a meaningful and supportive relationship,
Develop my twerk career,
Find a "grown up job",
Realize it's not for me,
And go through a very difficult process of understanding that if I'm not doing what I LOVE and want to do, I'm wasting my time.
The biggest lesson I learned from cancer, is that I don't live my life for anyone else.
When I'm old and look back at my life, I'm not gonna look back and be happy about all the chances I didn't take. I won't be proud of myself for taking the safe route, just because I was afraid to commit myself fully to my vision and my passion.
There are so many people who can be scientists or work in clinical research (which is what I did up until 6 months prior to writing this piece).
But only I can teach women how to feel comfortable in their body through dance, how to accept every bit of jiggle, muscle or fat in your body, how to make your booty pop and love it, how to enjoy your body without shame.
At the end of the day, I go to bed with the decisions I made that day. Not anybody else. I can't control how people act, I can only control how I can react.
I try to think about how my life would be if I hadn't been through this.
Some people are born with an innate ability to not give a f**k about other people's opinions. I am not one of them. It took me a near-death experience to adapt new habits and to understand other people's thoughts are just theirs. And they shouldn't affect mine all that much.
It took me 28 yeras to fully grasp the fact that my life is under my control, to release myself from society's constraints and to fully express myself in every area in my life.
So, if there's one thing you take from this-
Your voice is the one that matters.
I wish you all the good health, and please, wear sunscreen.
In the picture is me with my dad, the day after the surgery, October 17, 2013.