The day I was diagnosed with cancer... at 16

Dec 15, 2014 at 6:20 p.m. ET
Image: J.P. Tanner/SheKnows

As I was recovering in my room from the biopsy surgery, and thinking about the scar that would forever mark my neck, the door opened. Dr. D, along with two nurses and my mother, walked in, single file, and surrounded my hospital bed. They had my test results.

The next twenty minutes would be forever burned into my brain. It was April 29, 1993. I was sixteen years old. Three days before I was supposed to take the SAT. I felt like I was hovering over my body watching everything from above. I wanted to shout, “This can’t be happening. Are they speaking English? Slow down. I’m not even present yet!” One day I was a high school student, playing sports and thinking about college. Then, out of nowhere, eight not-so-simple words changed my life. Dr. D calmly stated, “You have cancer, Deb. It’s called Hodgkin’s Disease.” Like an avalanche, everything turned white. The intensity consumed me. Was I frozen? Was I burning? I was searching for a life vest but had no idea where to look. In an instant, everything started to spin—my life, body, family, friends, expectations, and future were all tossed into a rocket ship and shot into space. Where the fuck am I? A war was beginning.

“Deb,” my doctor said. “Deb, did you hear me?”

My hovering self said, “Yeah, buddy, I heard you. I’m just trying to not faint and die of shock.” I mentally returned to the room, stiffened my posture, and sat up in the hospital bed.

My mother stood beside the team of white coats. Her eyes were watery, and there was no mistaking her fear. Mommy never gets scared. Although petite, my mother is a warrior. She effortlessly combines strength with grace. She reserves her softness for those she holds dear, and I have always felt privileged to be her daughter—to have such a role model. She takes crap from no one. My brother’s friends used to invite him over to play catch. One day he said, “Let’s go to my house. It’s so much closer.” His friends declined. “Your mother scares the shit out of us.” She isn’t actually scary, but she’s very intimidating—her strength and determination are impossible to miss.

So in that moment, when our world was collapsing around us, my mother’s force was ever so present. She stood in front of me, eyes locked on mine, wishing she could stare off the fatal thoughts permeating the room.

I had never seen this guy before. First off, he was smiling. The other guys didn’t smile. His face was round and friendly with a full head of curly black hair. He walked with confidence. Almost annoyingly so. He was wearing a suit and tie sans the white coat. One point for Mr. X: He’s not a doctor.I looked slightly to my left, baffled by the array of faces focused singularly on me, waiting for the ticking time bomb to explode. Silence. I felt like a spectacle. Dr. D continued to sternly inform me that the cancer had spread to many regions of my body including my neck, chest, and pelvis. This isn’t good. Immediate administration of chemotherapy was necessary and he was not sugar-coating the issue. Anger welled up inside of me. Dr. D may as well have been the Devil incarnate. Without thought, I ordered everyone out. I just started screaming. No thought, just reaction. “Get out! Get out of my room!” I looked around: the gray plastic water pitcher, the bed pan sitting idle on the night stand, the flickering halogen lights, the IV protruding from my hand, the oxygen tank attached to the wall. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! With all my might, I wanted to throw something heavy and glass against the cement block wall and make it shatter into a million pieces. I wanted to scream and punch and defend and protest. I felt like breathing fire and incinerating everything around me. I sat with my head between my legs, swaying back and forth with a vengeance, trying to figure out how this could happen. No one asked my permission for any of this. Who is responsible for this outrageous diagnosis? Like I was at Gap asking to speak to a manager to complain about a mispriced sweater—I was frantically searching for someone to right this wrong. I screamed, cried, punched the wall, and thought I was going to die—way before the cancer killed me—of true rage. After an hour, I had nothing left. I collapsed with the ripped pillow over my head. Then, suddenly, the door opened. Who in their right mind is coming back in here? I am about to kick someone’s ass.

“I’m Dr. W,” he said calmly. Sneaky bastard.

“Why aren’t you wearing a white coat?” I asked.

“Well, I’m the oncology psychologist.” There was that word again. Oncology. What word is worse to a sixteen-year-old—Oncology or Psychologist? So they think I have cancer, and I’m crazy.

His next stab at engaging me was, “So, you just got diagnosed, huh?” Is this guy for real? I stared at him in silence. “I hear you kicked everyone out,” he said. Then, I got it. They have no idea what to do with me and brought you down here to handle it. I said nothing. We sat like that, or rather I sat and he stood, in silence, until he asked, “Do you like pie?” Do I like pie? What’s this guy’s deal? I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to cry and scream without anybody pestering me. I had a thick shell of anger coating the gut wrenching, unimaginable fear of facing my mortality that I needed to attend to, and this guy was talking about pie. Dude, go up to your fancy shmancy office, pull those degrees off your wall and throw them in the garbage.

“No, I don’t eat pie,” I said.

“Hmm. Maybe later,” he continued. He opened his mouth and words spilled out. I went into a sort of trance, watching his mouth move without hearing any words. Minutes passed. Maybe ten. Maybe fifty. His voice was soothing, so I let his tone act as a musical background. It wasn’t U2, but it was something other than perpetual beeps from various monitors in the hallway.

All of a sudden, I snapped back as he muttered, “There’s some apple pie in the cafeteria. It’s really good. I think you’ll like it. Let me get some.” I was exhausted. Too confused to respond. He wore me down. Making himself at home, he picked up the phone sitting on the rolling cart used for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Hi, this is Dr. W. Could I have some apple pie delivered to Room 246 please? Thank you.” What just happened? Should I be looking for hidden cameras in the walls? Is this some sort of joke? I thought shrinks were supposed to be on the money, but this guy was acting like I just told him I was going to get a wart removed. He continued to talk as I floated in and out of consciousness. The door opened again and a hospital aid delivered a cafeteria tray with a piece of apple pie on it. She positioned the cart in front of me and left the room. Dr. W said, “Try it.” There was so much anguish pulsing through my veins that it almost transformed into laughter. But no. I wouldn’t give him that. “I’m not hungry,” I replied coldly.

“Okay, maybe later then,” he responded.

I just wanted to be left alone but he wouldn’t leave!

“So, you are taking the SATs?” he asked.

For a second I thought he might be clairvoyant, but then I noticed my prep book sitting on my bedside table next to the emergency oxygen tank. At this point I’d become so anxious that if I actually allowed myself to feel all the fear, pressure, expectation, and seriousness of the situation, I would not only need the oxygen tank, but a crash cart as well. Dr. W’s candor disarmed me and I realized he wasn’t going to leave. Okay, whatever Deb. Just talk to this guy. I flipped through the SAT booklet. “I’ve been studying and I’m ready to take the exam. It’s 9:00 a.m. this Saturday in my high school cafeteria. I’m assuming I can’t go.”

Dr. W’s brilliant approach, as he would love for it to be called, accessed the part of me that had been asked to check herself at the door. I was still a regular teenager seeking autonomy and respect. Dr. W knew that a calm or rational Deb just wasn’t available at the moment. My life was crashing down around me. After talking for a while he said, “I know this really sucks.” It does! It was dark and horrible and so damn scary. There was nothing he could have said or done in those moments to ease my pain. And I don’t believe that was his mission. His goal was to stay in my room, treat me like a sixteen-year-old girl wishing she was wearing her own perfectly coordinated outfit, and withstand my rage. He understood that only then would I be able to come back to earth and start talking. I didn’t eat the pie, but I did press the little red button on the side of my bed and tell the nurse I was ready to see everyone.

The door opened. My mother was the first to step back inside, and then the doctors, nurses, and social worker followed. Dr. D began to speak. This was not a dream. It was in fact very real. My heart was racing and I began to sweat.

About the author

Deb Ebenstein is a Jersey girl turned wife, mother, and some say survivor. This is an excerpt from her first book, Mani Pedi STAT, where she describes her multiple experiences with serious illness and recovery.

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