For my 26th birthday, I received tickets to a Willie Nelson concert, a coupon for a free Chik-fil-a sandwich, and a big ol' dose of cancer. Almost immediately, I began to encounter the cast of strange characters that anyone who's dealt with cancer in America should be familiar with. Some are good, some are irritating, but all of them are crucial to the cheesy-yet-heartwarming daytime soap opera that quickly became my life.
A cancer diagnosis is devastating for you and your loved ones...but it's the kind of opportunity the Bible Thumper dreams of. We're talking the die-hard devotee who refuses to join in a lukewarm chorus of thoughts-and-prayers, instead choosing to slam the gospel of John down your throat with a fervor I can personally only muster in front of a plate of cheese enchiladas. The Bible Thumper is always on the prowl for people at their lowest, their most desperate - and the cancer ward is filled with people going through the worst experience of their lives and looking for answers and hope. Still, The Bible Thumper ensures that you are on the prayer list of every Baptist church within fifty miles of your hometown, just in case one church is better at praying than the other.
The Bible Thumper's favorite pastime is highlighting the "fun parts" of Billy Graham books and collecting pamphlets on the importance of spiritual health. Thanks to cancer, I now own enough books about the healing power of the good Lord to stock the self-help section at a small-town Goodwill.
Take The Bible Thumper, subtract the organized religion, and add three dashes of Mother Jones and a sprinkle of The Secret - you now have The Homeopath. The Homeopath wants you to know that these "doctors" with their "education" and their "cancer-curing medicine" can easily be replaced by turmeric pills and ayahuasca. The well-meaning Homeopath will send you blog after blog detailing the adventures of brave idiots who cured their cancer with carrot juice - DO NOT do this. Carrot juice is disgusting, and way more difficult to make than you'd think. For me, good ol' fashioned chemo did the trick, and I didn't even have to buy a blender.
You might think you're too smart to fall for The Homeopath's remedies, but beware the lure of the super smoothie. Remember Steve Jobs? The insanely rich guy who died of a treatable cancer? Want to know WHY all of his money and power couldn't do anything? Because he WAS The Homeopath-- and unless you want to end up like him, DO NOT LISTEN TO THE HOMEOPATH.
The Nurse Who Shouldn't Be A Nurse isn't necessarily incompetent at everything. In another life, they might have made a perfectly good accountant. Or lumberjack. Or Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But in this timeline, they've chosen to pursue the glamorous life of an oncology nurse despite having the hand-eye coordination of a six month old fetus. If you get a nurse who is overly chatty, beware-- there's a possibility that they're actually trying to distract you from the fact that they don't know a cannula from a cannoli. If the other nurses are looking at your nurse like she doesn't know what she's doing, then she probably doesn't know what she's doing.
The best nurses could remove a kidney with nothing more than a little Lidocaine and you'd barely notice a pinch, but placing an IV for the Nurse Who Shouldn't Be A Nurse is a grueling task. They'll say things like, "Huh, you must have tiny veins!" or "I usually get this on the first try!" After the fifth missed vein, you'll be tempted to saw your arm off and wave your bloody stump around screaming "CAN YOU FIND IT NOW, JESSICA?" I'd avoid this if possible. There are better ways to rid yourself of a limb, and getting banned from a hospital is not nearly as fun as getting banned from Six Flags.
Ah, America. Home of chili fries, every single baseball world champion, and medical debt collectors. I was diagnosed on my 26th birthday (known in the US as "Better Start Making Meth Because You Can No Longer Mooch Off Dad's Health Insurance, Sucker" Day), which means that every debt collector in Texas has been hounding me to pay bills for things I don't even remember doing (thanks, Valium!). Because each hospital subsidiary charges separately, medical bills a great way remember exactly what you were in the hospital for. You'll get a bill for the consultation, a bill for the anesthesia, a bill for the surgery, a bill for the CT scan, and a bill for the post-procedure hospital catfish lunch. But hey, parking is validated!
The Bill Collector doesn't come into play until you've successfully ignored enough calls from the hospital itself. They are typically a lovely, helpful, caring person who I am going to yell at anyway, because I HAVE CANCER, YOU BLOODHOUNDS. I'll hand it to America, though-- without our national pastime of bankrupting people to stay alive, no one would ever send me real mail. How does the Canadian government prop up their dying postal system without medical bills? My only guess is that every Canadian is caught up in a state-sponsored chain mail scheme, which they have plenty of time for because they're not busy figuring out how to substitute Purell for health insurance.
The Metastatic Miracle was told they had six months to live six years ago, and they don't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Their survival can be almost completely attributed to their Han Solo-esque flippancy in the face of terrible odds. The Metastatic Miracle's long tenure in the oncology ward means they're the ruler of the roost, and they stroll in the front door with a swagger comparable to a rock star on a world tour. They wink at the phlebotomy technicians, call the doctors "dude," and take "double grape juice, straight up" as their mid-chemo snack.
There is absolutely no way this person should still be alive, but here they sit, slowly dragging on a cigarette in front of the NO SMOKING sign and hitting on night shift nurses in between anecdotes about streaking with Robert Plant. The Metastatic Miracle is the featured case in a medical study exploring the correlation between stage-four cancer survival and being really goddamn cool, and they can often be heard saying things like, "I just try to live life to the fullest, you know?" and, "Don't be such a pussy, pussy."
If you spend enough time in the chemo room, you'll be able to spot The Tourist immediately. They're usually under the age of forty and freaked the fuck out by all of these sick people. When they're not standing by the coffee maker with their butthole clenched, they're taking sweet selfies with their cancer-ridden Nana for the 'gram (100 likes, EASY). Sure, they know cancer is "a thing," but they've never really had to be exposed to the reality of it until now - and they have absolutely no idea how to process any of it. The Tourist thought that the oncology ward would be a little more A Walk to Remember and a little less Grey Gardens--why is everyone so old? Is that woman knitting a sweater for her dog? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY TURBANS?!
The Stunned Stranger is so, so sorry that you have cancer. Like, soooooooooooooo sorry. They didn't even know! If they'd known, they would've-- well, they would've done nothing, because they just met you like ten minutes ago and they're not even sure what a "lymphoma" is. It's not contagious, is it? Is it, like, so much fun to wear wigs? Ugh, I bet you spend like all of your time puking. Do you need some weed? My last Uber driver had a tattoo, he could probably hook you up. My uncle has, like, really bad eczema, so I totally understand how you feel. I'll pray for you, or whatever. You're so brave.
The Name Dropper has an incredible ability to make every conversation about their struggles with someone else's cancer. As soon as you mention your diagnosis, The Name Dropper will attempt to connect with you by listing every single one of their family members who have ever been sick, with commentary about how it was "just so hard" to watch their family member battle cancer. Well, Uncle Jack's was really just a scare, and mom's turned out to be a gnat stuck in the CT scanner. Susan, though, Susan had cancer. Or was it lupus? My grandfather definitely had cancer. Same kind as yours, actually. It was terrible. Is he fine now? Oh, no. He died.
I'm sure you'll be okay, though.
"Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you describe every single one of your symptoms in Tolkien-esque detail so I can make sure I'm not going to die like you, you unlucky, cancerous freak?" As a lifelong hypochondriac, I understand the immense stress I cause random strangers when I tell them I have cancer. Unfortunately, we cancer patients are still allowed to mingle with the general public, where the sight of our bald, eyebrow-less heads ignite shrieks of terror. Everyone, young and old, hates to be reminded that they could get cancer at literally any time. I don't mind telling you how I found my cancer. I'd love for more people to catch it early. But please, for the love of God, stop asking me to look at your moles. It's goddamn disgusting.
Pet, Schoolhouse, "The"-- there are plenty of different rocks out there, but none of them are as important as the one who will bring you tacos right after chemo even though they know you're just going to throw them up anyway. The Rock will tell you that you look great despite the fact that the top of your head looks exactly like a baby gorilla's and your face is so puffed up that people are mistaking you for the Michelin Man. They'll make you meals, bring you trashy magazines, and double-check your chemo drugs to make sure you're not getting injected with the wrong poison. They won't say a word as you binge-watch Netflix and recite long, drug-addled treatises about how Sherlock and Dr. Watson should totally make out. Most importantly, they'll tell you over and over that it's all going to be alright, and if it's not, then they'll be there with a bucket of chicken nuggets and a Friends box set.
Hold on to The Rock - they'll be the one to bail you out of jail when you get arrested for forgetting that medicinal marijuana is still illegal in your state.