Gaithersburg, MD

Cancer Diaries: I Had to Learn a Whole New Vocabulary, and No, It Didn't Include Pandemic

Heather Jauquet

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When I think about the words that I acquired in the last year, they look different from the usual pandemic words: virus, zoom, virtual learning, telework, Telehealth, social distancing, vaccinate, mitigate, and mask up.

You see, about the same time that we found ourselves in a pandemic, I was heading into a cancer diagnosis and treatment plan in Maryland.

Truth be told, I was not worried about a worldwide health crisis that might reach us. I heard about Washington, New York, California, but they seemed so far away from my town in Maryland. They weren't, but it felt like that when my world shrunk to Gaithersburg.

I was too distracted by my own personal health crisis. I didn’t have any energy to share with the world’s pandemic. I was barely holding on to my diagnosis.

Cancer words

When my friend asked us to share some of our new words/phrases that we acquired over the last year, my list looked very, very different:

  • Cancer
  • Treatment
  • Diagnosis
  • Chemotherapy
  • Chemobrain
  • Lumpectomy
  • Biopsy
  • Taxol
  • Herceptin
  • Abraxane
  • ER+
  • PR-
  • HER2+
  • Radiation
  • fatigue
  • Anaphylaxis
  • I almost died

This is the word list of someone going through cancer. I knew these words, but they weren’t in my vocabulary until this year. Why would they be? And now they are permanently etched in my world and how I view life through the lens of a cancer patient.

So much has changed in a year and it wasn’t because of the pandemic. I’m not as healthy or strong. I still struggle with slow brain processes and finding my words. My vision has changed and find myself squinting at the computer screen a little more. I still don’t feel like myself, though there are some really good days where I feel like I have accomplished so much in my day. Then my body rebels and reminds me I’ve done too much and I’m back to resting. My body is full of surprises.

More new words?

During this time of having cancer in a pandemic, I had to learn other words. They include:

  • I need help
  • I can’t do this by myself
  • Am I going to die?
  • I’m so tired
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m sorry I have cancer (I have said this several times to my children on particularly hard days)
  • Yes (as in yes, please bring us a meal. Yes, I need help. Yes, I’m struggling.)
  • Mommy needs to rest right now or Mommy needs a nap
  • What does that mean? (when asking for medical clarification on my situation).

Words I should I have added more firmly

And even yet, there are more words and phrases I wish I had learned to say more firmly:

  • No
  • Let me grieve
  • I cannot make you feel better about my illness
  • I will not make you feel better about my illness
  • I am angry
  • I am grieving
  • You’re not entitled to any information about my diagnosis, treatment, or well-being.
  • I get to decide who knows and how much they know
  • NO sad eyes! (They’re the worst).

There is so much that comes with a cancer diagnosis. It’s fear, it’s anxiety, it’s anger. It’s a new vocabulary. It’s learning to define boundaries when people want intimate details about your diagnosis. It’s finding a helpful support group. It’s asking for help even when you don’t want to ask. It’s accepting the help that’s given.

During this time of isolation and waiting, we’ve all learned new words. Words that can help us or hinder us. They’re words that have become our new normal. They will be the words that mark this time in our life. When we talk about the Pandemic of 2020 we’ll remember zoom school, masking, and social distancing. I’ll also remember diagnosis, treatment, and support.

Truth be told? I was so grateful when Governor Hogan first shut down Maryland when the first cases were diagnosed; especially when the first cases in Montgomery County came to my medical facility in Gaithersburg. Entering a cancer diagnosis in the midst of a pandemic, made it a little more scary when the cases started popping up in my state. I am grateful that Maryland took the measures it did to keep some of the most vulnerable, like me, safer in a time of worldwide health crisis.

What will you remember when you look back to the pandemic? What has become part of your new pandemic vocabulary? What do you wish you would have said instead? What do you hope to never say again? What will you remember?

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Certified educator K-12 and Reading Specialist with a focus on the adolescent brain. I write about how educational decisions affect parents, students, and staff. As an educator and parent I also focus on community events for the whole family.

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