Cancer and the MFA
by Gessy Alvarez
I received my acceptance letter to Columbia University’s MFA program in Writing during the second month of my chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was March 11, 2005. I had lost some of my hair, but not all. My oncologist had predicted I would go bald within the first six weeks of chemo. He told me to buy a wig. His assistant recommended a place near Lincoln Center. “They’ll make you feel pretty,” she had said. I bought one, reddish brown, styled in a classic Vidal Sassoon bob.
For six weeks, I lived with the fear of waking up one morning to a bald head. Some mornings my pillow was covered with strands of hair, but I didn’t go completely bald as predicted. My oncologist said I was in the minority. “You must have stubborn hair follicles,” he said. I laughed. I always laughed when I felt uncomfortable.
“Do you still think I’ll go bald?”
“Maybe,” he said, peering at me from the top rim of his glasses. He was in his late seventies. He told me he had “a touch of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma” when I first met him.
During my biweekly appointments, he was kind to me. Always patted my cheek when he greeted me. Because of the chemo he underwent, he was like my hairless grandfather, bald with no eyebrows or eyelashes and a ruddy complexion.
“Are you scared?” he asked me after I told him about getting into Columbia.
“Yes,” I said. I was scared of the cancer not going away and the side effects from chemo and radiation. But most of all, I was afraid to meet new people and answer their questions.
“Did you buy a wig?” He felt for swollen lymph nodes around my neck and collarbone, and under my armpits.
“Yes, but I don’t think I’ll need it.”
“Lean back,” he said and stuck his hand under my medical gown. He felt my groin. “It’s good you bought the wig.”
I didn’t say anything else back. It pissed me off that he refused to give me hope, but I thanked him once the examination was over. When he left, I pulled a small bottle of hand sanitizer from my purse and rubbed some over the parts of my body he had touched.
Every two weeks, I fantasized he would tell me I didn’t need the chemo anymore. I wanted to start living again. I wanted to be back to normal before the beginning of fall. I wanted freedom. When I was little, I was fascinated with bugs. I’d pick them up and let them crawl along my hand. I would try to keep them on me for as long as possible. Sometimes, at the oncologist’s office, I felt like the bug crawling on my oncologist’s hand, struggling to not fall off.
My parents had moved to Florida two years before my diagnosis. I decided not to tell them the truth because I had an 85% chance of beating the cancer and there were over 1,200 miles of highway between my home in New Jersey and theirs.
The only way I can explain this instinct to hide rather than confront is to trace it back to my childhood. When I was ten, my grandmother fell inside the Port Authority. She was coming home from my uncle’s place in Queens. She lived a block north from the 9th avenue side of the bus terminal. As she passed by the police precinct near the escalators, she slipped on the floor. She sued the Port Authority. As the oldest daughter in my Spanish-speaking, Ecuadorian / Dominican family, I was my family’s translator and problem solver. My grandmother took me with her to her lawyer’s office and to doctors’ appointments. The lawyer asked my grandmother to bring me to the arbitration hearing. He said my grandmother would be assigned a translator but he didn’t trust the guy. He asked me to sit in and make sure the translator did his job. At one point during the hearing, I corrected the translator. I don’t remember what he said that was wrong, but I do remember how annoyed he was when I corrected him. He accused me of “coaching the witness.”
At first, I thought I ruined things for my grandmother, but when I glanced across the table and made eye contact with my grandmother’s lawyer, he winked at me and nodded. Somehow I did something right.
Little kids need to be protected, but in my family I was the protector. And it felt good to be the strong and competent fixer. My family depended on me. I couldn’t tell me parents about the cancer because I didn’t want to let them down.
I did confess I had cancer to a few friends who were too astute not to notice a change in my appearance. And, I told my husband and my sister. I had to. I couldn’t figure out how to hide the other side effects (the nausea, weight loss, thinning eyebrows and fatigue) from them.
Some of my friends offered to go with me to appointments, and I thanked them for their generosity and made mental notes to avoid them. I didn’t need their support or their empathy. I needed them to keep me living in the now. I didn’t lose all my hair and after a time, they did forget about the cancer. I worked hard to look healthy, wore makeup, bought new clothes, I went on long hikes with my husband in Upstate New York.
My friends claimed I was amazing and we continued on like the cancer wasn’t there. But it was there, and as hard as I wanted to forget it, I resented all the healthy people in my life.
I was a cooperative patient, listened to my oncologist’s advice and followed the prescription regiments. I believed in science. I clung to the hope that if I did everything I was told, I would be cured. My husband tried to give me emotional support, but I stopped processing sentiments. I focused all my energy on surviving.
I bought a dozen scarves and bandanas, swept my hair forward and to the side to create the illusion of much thicker hair. My hair felt brittle and lifeless. I hid it under patterned, silk wraps of delicate orchids and roses, and cotton kerchiefs with cartoon cowgirls and abstract western designs.
None of my grad school classmates knew me before cancer, and that was a tremendous relief. During my first semester, my lung capacity was down to 40% and my face was puffy from the steroids I was taking for the inflammation of the lungs, a side effect from one of the chemo drugs. Despite all this, I hid behind my scarves and bandanas and never told any of my fellow classmates I had cancer.
The new faces at grad school never questioned why I wore high-collared, long-sleeved shirts during that hot autumn. They never saw the two scars on my chest – one sat over my heart (biopsy) and the other on the right side underneath my collarbone, a reminder of the port where the chemo drugs were injected.
At my first writing workshop, I submitted a story about a young woman who sells stolen designer knock-off jeans from her apartment. My story didn’t win anyone over. My class was composed of nine writers including myself: 2 males and 7 females. They bickered about the opening paragraph, agreed it was “too ornate” and “too lyrical” – tall buildings looming, and wild, Latinos misbehaving all without any story structure or narrative arc, and what about change? How is the main character different at the end of the story?
The critique was brutal, but fair. As hard as it was to hear the negatives, I liked receiving unfiltered, thoughtful responses. At least my classmates respected my writing enough to consider it. Out of the eight students at workshop, one woman didn’t comment during my class critique. She didn’t write comments on her paper copy of my story like the rest of the class did. I figured she’d give me feedback the following week, but she didn’t.
I was up three separate times for critique that first semester. Each time, I altered my natural writing style to appeal to my readers. I toned down the profanity, tried hard to write beautiful lines about the Hudson River, I added domestic scenes and changed the tone of the urban, cityscape adventures. I tried to please this woman by following the prescriptive advice of the other students.
Each time, one of my stories was up for workshop; I sat in silence and listened to the haphazard listing of my strengths and weaknesses. Each time, I waited for this woman to respond to my work, but she never did. Whenever her stories were up for workshop, I took care to write thoughtful critiques about her work. She never thanked me.
I liked her stories. In some ways, she wrote about the same working-class people I wrote about except her stories took place in a rural setting and mine were urban. She used her setting as a redeeming character, while I used mine as a conflict or obstacle.
This woman had strong opinions about every other person’s story in class, except mine. I never confronted her, never said to her, “What gives?” To this day, I don’t understand why I let her do that to me. Maybe I feared she’d take a good look at me and know I was not well.
One year post-chemo before my second year at Columbia, I visited my parents in Florida. I told them about my diagnosis, the treatment that followed, and my remission. They cried, but I assured them I was healing.
“I don’t understand. You look so healthy,” my mother said, but when her gaze fell on the scars on my chest, she frowned.
“It was in my blood, so I didn’t go through any surgery except for the biopsy,” I said.
I didn’t confess everything. I downplayed the illness and never referred to it as “cancer.”
“How did you get it?” my father said.
“The doctor thinks I may have been genetically predisposed.”
“But we don’t know anyone in our families who’s had this.”
“Maybe they had it, but didn’t know it.”
I didn’t tell them there were non-genetic factors linked to Hodgkin’s too and that these factors were environmental. I didn’t want to guilt them for my working-class upbringing. My parents both worked blue-collar jobs, and no matter how tired my mom was from work, she always cooked dinner every night and my father never lost his goofy sense of humor. When my mother complained about the constant roach problem in our building, my father would say to my mother, “We live with the happiest roaches in New York, thanks to your cooking.”
I exaggerated how happy I was for not losing my hair or getting an infection during treatment. I related the illness as a glitch and nothing more. Life went on and, Look, Ma and Pa, I’m in an Ivy League graduate program.
I protected them like I always did. By underplaying my ordeal, I continued to be the strong one. The illness was my problem not theirs.
My last semester at Columbia, I experimented with a simplified prose style, wrote in less obvious points-of-views and sentence patterns. After two years of coursework, my body grew stronger, I let my hair grow out, and I stopped caring about hiding my scars. I amassed about sixty books for my personal library. After four semesters of writing workshops, I had written sixteen short stories. I believed the worse was over. And in this state of denial I began work on my thesis.
I took another two years post-coursework to complete my thesis and postpone the school loans. I found a full-time job at the University and worked on my thesis for two hours every morning and about four hours at night. With each revision, I found another layer to uncover, another character to define, another problem to solve. The stories were still mysteries. They grew in complexity, but also morphed into tangled, hackneyed yarns.
I was in remission and classes were over. I should have been enmeshed in my work, but the constant thought of recurrence or a secondary cancer kept me anxious and distracted. One night, while working on my thesis at the library, thoughts raced in my head, my heart beat increased. I grew cold and had trouble catching my breath. I packed my laptop into my knapsack and ran to the rest room. I sought solace inside a toilet stall.
While gasping through the panic attack, I called my husband. I let his voice soothe me as I tried to control the rush of adrenaline and fear. The next day I got in contact with a psychotherapist.
For a while I wanted to have children but I decided against it. Although my oncologist said it was okay to consider children, I feared I would pass along my “cancer genes.”
“But we can freeze the baby’s bone marrow and if the child acquires the cancer later on in life, there’s a good chance we can use the marrow for treatment,” said my oncologist, his cheeks rosier than five years ago when I first met him and his hair longer. He looked more like my father now than grandfather.
His optimistic faith in medicine made me queasy. Somehow I had survived my cancer, but would I survive my child’s cancer? How could I even think of putting another human being through what I went through?
I still feared secondary cancers. My moods went up and down. I was not a whole person. I couldn’t risk the emotional scarring my instability would bear on my kids.
What I thought would be a few therapy sessions turned into four years of weekly sessions. By 2010, I finished the thesis, received a recommendation to an agent from one of my thesis advisors, and graduated from the program. Then I filed my thesis away, which horrified some of my friends. But, I had to. Life would go on and my writing would keep developing. Filing my thesis away terrified and liberated me.
I’ve been a Columbia grad for five years now and cancer free for ten. A couple of years ago I established a literary website and have carved out a place in the vast literary community. It’s a place that I built on my own. I’m still independent and a fixer – my identity is intact.
Something bad happened to me, but it won’t be the only bad thing that ever happens in my life. Something good happened to me, and it won’t be the last good thing that happens in my life. Every day is a challenge. I have to re-learn to accept the zero, the blank screen, this moment, my body, and my mind. I have to force myself to look forward.
To face problems, you have to lie. You have to make believe you can fix anything the world throws at you. You have to be the bug that crawls on a hand and struggles to never fall off.
Gessy Alvarez is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Writing. She is founder and managing editor of the literary website, Digging Through The Fat. Her prose has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Entropy, Literary Orphans, Pank, and other publications.