Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Cancer class

Emily Dieckman
Tuscon, Arizona, United States


The author’s aunt documented her mom’s chemotherapy
journey through photographs, making signs for loved ones
to hold in photographs to show support. 
(Author photo.)

When my parents told me about the cancer, everything felt different. It seemed the entire world had suddenly gone from plain font to italics – everything was still legible, but newly emphasized by this cold, sharp, intrusive fact. I was not prepared to make room for something like this. I was not prepared to go anywhere near the mortality of the person who had given me life.

People you know are not supposed to get cancer. People in sad movies or hospital commercials get cancer, but not your mom, who is always there to chat on the phone, or to justify an impulse purchase, or even to roll your eyes at. My mother is an effusively generous person, one who loves fiercely and fully, who makes a living working with special needs adults, and who likes to say things are “bitchin’” to make me laugh. Not a cancer patient.

I have watched my mother’s body be ripped open, poisoned, rearranged, and infected. I have watched her hair fall out, her face swell, and her skin burn and bruise. I  stayed with her during chemotherapy, waited outside during radiation treatments, and spent hours in hospital waiting rooms while she endured surgery after surgery.

And I have watched all of these things save my mother’s life. I have watched nurses work through the night to take care of her. I have listened to a surgeon explain the results of an eighteen-hour procedure, asking me about school or if I am tired – when he is the one who just spent eighteen hours in the operating room and must be eager to get home to his children. I have seen my mom forge friendships in hospital waiting rooms and make the best of the worst.

Some people call their cancer a gift. My mother likes to laugh and say she does not exactly see it that way. She is strong (and, incidentally, looks beautiful bald), but does not sugarcoat things. If she had a choice in the matter, she would have kept the cancer far away from herself and our family. But she chose to let the cancer be something she learned from. How she handled the matter with such grace is beyond me.

For a long time I was unable to do anything more than worry. It seemed too close to take in objectively, or to see as a part of a bigger picture. Though the cancer still feels nearby – like it might knock on my door at any moment – there is some distance now between me and the urgency and the terror. I finished school and moved to another state, so there is even some distance between me and my mother. It is only now that some space has formed that I can see all of the lessons I learned from cancer. Many of those lessons are in the same subjects as the courses I was so worried about missing during my mom’s surgeries and treatments. The subjects are the same, but when cancer is your teacher, the lessons are different.



In English and writing classes, you learn that the pen is mightier than the sword. You learn that language is powerful, that words can change the world. But you do not learn how to make someone you love feel better when they wake up in the middle of the night in agony, or what to say to make a wait for results seem less achingly long. You do not learn how to use words to fix things.

Cancer taught me the limits of language. Cinematic speeches and carefully crafted letters felt clunky and had less impact than a simple “I love you,” or even wordless gestures, like watching television together. English class taught me not to use cliches, but cancer taught me they are overused for a reason. Laughter really is the best medicine for someone who misses hiking and seeing her students and doing her hair. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger – in your resilience and in your convictions. Don’t sweat the small stuff because from this angle, it all seems pretty small.



In science class you learn to take care of your body and treat it with respect. With cancer, you are reminded that sometimes it does not matter. My mom had changed her lifestyle just before her diagnosis — she had lost twenty pounds by eating healthier, and she was happier as a result.

But when she got sick, the go-to method was to put poison in her body, temporarily obliterating her immune system and altering some parts of her life forever. (Every once in a while, she will still have trouble coming up with a simple word, like chair or coffee creamer, and then laughs it off as “chemo brain.”) It was counterintuitive and upsetting, but the poison saved her life.



Math was never my favorite subject, but I liked that there was always an answer if you could get to it. With cancer, all of the numbers are variables, those pesky x’s and y’s. You take guesses at what the numbers might be, and in the beginning you might even be confident: two surgeries, three months off of work, six months for my hair to grow back to the length it was before, and a year – maximum – before I am back to my normal life. You map out these equations with surety, feeling you can handle this if everything just stays on schedule, if the numbers come out exactly the way you projected they would. Because that is what you learned in math class.

But what you learn from cancer is that no calculation will answer the question of “why me?” or “why my loved one?” Any answer you come to is really only a guess. And so you learn to accept that there is no way to know when all of the treatments will be over for sure, when things will be back to normal, or what “normal” is going to mean now.

The way you value, and what you choose to value, takes on a sort of Silly Putty property: it stretches, expands, compresses, changes shape. People you counted on before take a step back. Unexpected heroes step out of the woodwork. Every story about an underdog, flower blooming through a crack in the sidewalk, or kid accomplishing something new at the park, brings a little bit of hope.

But it is time that stretches and wobbles most of all. Two days of waiting for results stretches into years. Two days spent with your loved ones seems to dissipate in moments. And so you learn to assign your own value to  people and  moments. You start to see it as empowering, to decide exactly how much your time is worth, to savor the moments of comfort and allow the worst memories to become faded and flimsy.



People like to joke that history repeats itself. I have heard that is the reason they teach history in the first place – to try to break the cycle.

But for one person’s life, cancer teaches that whether your own past repeats itself is entirely up to you. If you feel bad about the way you have treated someone, you can change. If you are not satisfied with your life thus far, you can do something different. There are plenty of things in life you cannot control – like a cancer diagnosis, or the decisions of elected officials. But even if the first few chapters of your own personal history make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed, they are already written. Focus on the chapter you are writing right now. I am incredibly lucky to have had the chance to learn some life lessons and to still have my mom here with me. Do not wait until your mom gets cancer to forgive people, take charge of your life, or appreciate the things that matter.

Life still feels like it is written in italics. As much as I did not want to learn from cancer, I did. My mother showed me how to look at the newly emphasized world around me and treasure every piece of it.



EMILY DIECKMAN enjoys writing about finding hope in dark places. She majored in journalism and minored in philosophy at California State University, Fullerton. Her writing has appeared in the Tucson Weekly, Orange Coast Magazine, Borgen Magazine, and the Explorer Newspaper.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

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