So way back in January, I was getting ready to do the Montgomery County Teen Book Festival. I was really really excited because this was a huge event and I was going to be appearing with the likes of Melissa Marr and Cassandra Clare and Sara Zarr. Big doings! Plus I was secretly working like mad to finish up Haunted, the Dreaming Anastasia sequel because although we were still negotiating the contract (a process that was, for many reasons * cough, money, cough* very slow going), the book had already been launched in house at Sourcebooks, had a tentative cover and a lot of buzz and so it was only sporting that I write the damn thing. This was the real thing, baby. No longer just the possible fluke of a debut novel that somehow snuck through the system. Nope. Editor Dan and Publicist Paul kept whispering sales figures in my ears. The Sourcebooks folks were quite happy. I’d blown my modest expectations out of the water, the ball park, the room… pick a metaphor and insert one of your choice. The little trade paperback that they’d taken a chance on had somehow gained readership, resonated with readers… you get the picture. I had done it. Me. I was crazy with happiness at what the universe had tossed my way.
And then, a few days before the festival, I went for my annual physical. Now mind you, I’m feeling fine. My energy level has been legend, my adrenaline is zipping along, I’m the picture of health. Okay, I’d been abusing caffeine mightily and I had a love affair with Mr. Pinot Grigio now and then, but I exercised. I ate more or less healthy stuff. I took my vitamins. I made sure that my hairdresser kept me looking presentable.
“There’s something on your neck,” my doctor says. He reaches out and pokes around. Gets a serious look on his face. Pokes more. “I think – and don’t panic – but there’s a nodule in your neck and it’s big. I think it’s thyroid cancer. You’ll need to go for an ultrasound. Maybe a biopsy. I’m also going to make some contacts for you at MD Anderson, the cancer hospital.”
That’s pretty much the way he said it. He was kind and gentle, but firm. I, of course, was freaking out. It was the ultimate ‘Cossacks are coming – people pay for having too much fun – hey girlie, you got your book but hey that’s it – remember how you were mean to your mother when you were a teenager, well this is your payback’ kind of moment. I was not convinced I was going to immediately keel over. But I was convinced it was bad. If only because deep down, I was sure that it was. So bad, in fact, that I did something totally out of character. I began telling people. Not everyone, obviously. But the people closest to me. My normal behavior was to keep crap like this a secret until there’s really something to tell. But I never did. I started blabbing. Which was my other internal clue that I probably did have cancer. Looking back now, I’m happy I made that choice. Okay, maybe the ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die before we get this damn contract finished’ phone call to my agent might have gone better. But you live and learn.
If you look carefully at pictures from the Montgomery County Teen Book Festival, you can see that I’m either wearing a scarf or my neck looks just slightly bruised from the biopsy. Pictures from the next week, at the Austin SCBWI conference have me looking like a deer in the headlights. I’d driven there with my husband after getting the biopsy results and my MD Anderson appointments. By the time I made it to Houston SCBWI, I’d been through three days of other testing. I knew what I had: papillary thyroid cancer. And what I was doing about it: surgery on March 24th, to remove the nodule, the thyroid, and the affected lymph nodes. I knew the prognosis: pretty good if we did the surgery and followed up with radioactive iodine. The surgeon called with all this news while we were beginning Act I of Julius Caesar. Mackenzie in my sixth period took over directing the reading while I went into the hall to talk on my cell phone. (another fun thing – having to answer your cell phone at will in an environment where cells are a no no)
We had also finally finished the contract and I’d been able to do things: announce Haunted because it was now official on Publisher’s Marketplace and tell my editor and publicist. (Yes, this is what happens when contract negotiations linger during a cancer diagnosis. You have morbid conversations with your agent all ending with ‘but if I tell them, what will happen to the sub rights?’ So then, when your poor unsuspecting editor calls you at work on your cell phone and says, “Hey Joy, you get to come to the super special Sourcebooks dinner at the Century Association while you’re in New York for the Sourcebooks Fire release party” you get to respond by saying, “Hey Dan. By the way, bud. I’ve got cancer.” You do this while in the teacher’s lounge eating your Lean Cuisine and the ensuing babbling on his end gets so emotional that you have to move to the hallway where it’s quieter, until the bell rings and then 2,000 students converge while you’re still mumbling, “Oh Dan. It’ll be fine. I’m sorry. Next time I get cancer God forbid, I’ll tell you right away. And by the way, how’s the baby?”)
And so it continued. I went to New York. A girlfriend came with me so I could have extra fun and try to forget about the cancer surgery the next week. Her long –ailing father died in the middle of our first night and she had to leave the next morning. I walked through Central Park and snapped pictures of the Dakota and ate a hamburger at the Shake Shack and tried not to take it all as a sign. I went to the Sourcebooks Fire Party. And the after party. Met tons of amazing people. And tried to find an emotional balance about the elephant in the corner called cancer. New York’s a great place for that. You can go to the top of Rockefeller Center and walk all over the Flatiron district and Mid Town and the Upper West Side, and meet your former agent for drinks at the Algonquin and friends for dinner later and feel almost normal. Almost.
Somehow, the Tuesday night before surgery, I finished the 80k draft of Haunted. I told myself that I would be able to proof and revise in a couple of weeks as planned. My deadline wasn’t until April 15th. I tried not to refer to that day as the Ides of April. (interestingly my endocrinologist yesterday referred to day I begin my radioactivity process as the Ides of June) I learned that cancer freaks people out. Some of my friends and family have been better able to handle it than others. Hey, some days I’ve been better able to handle it than others. Eventually, I told my students. They acted like sixteen year olds. Concerned, but still sixteen. A few minutes later, everyone got overly chatty and I had to quiet them down. I inadvertently made a girl cry by wise-cracking, “Well, gee. If I had any illusions that telling you I was knocking on death’s door would alter your behavior, that was blown to heck.” Okay, I’m still me. And that’s a good thing.
As I write this, it’s Friday, April 2nd. Surgery was over a week ago. I’m home recovering and gaining strength and mobility in my neck. During a six hour surgery, my brilliant and amazing surgeon removed all the bad stuff. Some of it wasn’t as bad as they’d suspected. Some of it was. He’s given me a legendary neck scar and a firm appreciation for people who graduate in the top of the class. I can mostly type now without wanting to cry and have even kicked the vicodin. I’m obediently downing my thyroid med and my calcium. I have a ball cap that says ‘Cancer Sucks.’ In June I will go radioactive. Thyroid cells eat iodine and any remaining floating microscopic bad boys will get burned out. I will also be a danger to others for a couple of days, so I’ll get to hang out upstairs and pee in my own toilet and flush twice. But it’s better than the alternative. I’ve learned how annoyingly type A I am as reflected in the following absolutely true conversation. Me: Do you know that when you get a mug out of the cabinet to make me tea, you take a very long time to close the cabinet?” Husband: Seriously? Are you kidding? Shut up so I can empty your neck drain.” And fun stuff like that.
Neighbors have brought food and people have sent flowers and cards and many of all faiths and stripes have sent up thoughts and prayers and possibly a pagan chant or two on my behalf. Somehow, it seems I still get to sit down today and do the work I love. I am a believer in miracles. And in the power of the tribe – in the largest sense of the term – to stick by you and help you and bring you out of the dark.
If you’re reading this and you didn’t know, well, hey, what was I supposed to do? Send up a blimp? I’m telling you now. The elephant is kicked out of the room to go back and eat hay or whatever it is that elephants do.
As for me, I’m off to do my neck rehab exercises and watch Rachel Ray. Because hey, if you’re going get to stay home, you might as well watch some day time tv.
Til next time…