How I unlocked my darkest humor, almost died, but emerged at the next level.

JANUARY, 19 / 2023
No one wants to have a dramatic eventful life if you think of it.

We only want to be inspired by someone who managed to overcome dramatic life.
But that's why we actually feel this way. Because we ourselves much prefer to be an observer.

For most of us, the ideal outcome is a boring life where the coffee is hot, the bed is warm and the paycheck is regular.
Surviving cancer is 50% treatment, 10% healthy living and 40% luck. Actually, closer to 40-90% luck.
No one expects to get really sick in their early 30s.

No one expects to one day be googling their prognosis. Life expectancy. Medical papers. Treatment options.

No one thinks the world may one day be going on without them.

I had to.

May this year I was building a new startup, talking to investors, and having typical business headaches.

On May, 16 it all turned upside down.

“It’s probably cancer”.

It is, indeed. Wtf, lol, really. What. WHAT.

I looked like an absolutely normal human. I didn’t drink alcohol. I’m a solid vegetarian, almost 100% vegan. I’m working out 5+ times a week. And still, my body cells went bonkers and gave birth to a tumor.

It’s wild.

In a few weeks' time, I had as many medical appointments as I’ve had in my whole life before, counting early childhood.

My tumor was cervical cancer. The one that’s brought to you by HPV, a virus that most adults have. It was not detected early. It was not detected during all the pregnancy screenings either. I found out about it when it was a full-on lemon-size tumor. Ta-da.

So okay, I’m an adult, I curled in my bed for 1/2 day and then took my shit together, but it’s not a quick fix. It’s not even always a fix (sad face goes here).

No one:
Absolutely no one:
Wish You Were Here
That summer I had many more days of curling in my bed.

That summer I had 4 surgeries and a bunch of new scars.

That summer I lost my ability to have children.

That summer I understood the concept of my own mortality.

This summer I started writing letters for my kids’ 18th birthdays in case…well, you know.

Cancer treatments are brutal. Chemo is leaving you weak, tired, and nauseous. I was really lucky because my medical team supplied me with a bag of pills to help with this, and I didn't throw up 24/7 like a lot of people I know. But I did spend days without any food because I couldn't eat at all.

Then there was radiotherapy which gives you life-long body-altering side effects, like your teeth and nails deteriorating and joint pain with severe arthritis. Bleeding gums and whatever else I'm not yet aware of.

All of this was going on till October.

Daily radiation treatment, weekly chemo infusions.
Work-life balance when there's very little of both
All the time during the treatment I was working. Meaning that I was waking up every day, opening my laptop, and connecting to a team call.

I was nowhere as productive as I normally am. To start with, I had daily appointments, exams, surgeries, and treatments. And when I didn't, I sometimes couldn't sit straight, so I was half-lying in my bed.

✊ Unpopular opinion:
my business did help me get over it.

The routine of turning the laptop on, the stability of my team, and just…it being a healthy distraction.

This world where no one is cancer sick and no one has chemo ports. It was great pretending to be a normal human and trying hard no matter what.

Trying to grow my business for the sake of the people who work with me.

And then one day in early October, a month after it was all over, I got up from my bed and realized I'm not feeling as sick as I used to be anymore. One day I suddenly had more energy. The difference was so sudden and huge that I couldn't imagine what I was doing during the 5-6 months before.

However, during these past 5-6 months we haven't dropped revenue, we haven't had to lay off people, quite the opposite - we grew the team and improved the processes.

I'm still secretly proud of this.
Lessons learnt for cancer muggles*

*People who haven't had cancer but like to give shit advice to cancer patients as if they have a clue (Urban Dictionary)
Somehow everyone is really looking forward to these life lessons.

I thought it was unbelievable how friends, acquaintances, and just random people were asking me if I rethought my life.

And a lot of people were asking this right in the middle of my treatment.

Like "hey have you had any realizations now since you got cancer?".

Full disclosure: this has become so awkward and annoying that I almost decided that I'm purposefully not going to learn any life lessons because I'm so fed up with the question.

There's this expectation that life-altering events make people wiser - and maybe they do - and lots of people seem to want this piece of wisdom and inspiration. Right now. Meanwhile, you're almost dead from another dose of chemo.

I've been told - so I assume more people think the same - that I must be so brave. There's probably this assumption that going through near-death scenarios you become courageous, unstoppable, and incredibly self-confident. Because, well, you know that you survived and everything else in comparison is minor.

The reality is very different.

You're even more terrified of every sneeze.
Every random joint pain sends your brain in a weird loophole: is this just a normal aftermath of radiation or is it already mets?

I don't think I became any braver than I already was. If anything, I did become more cautious. Especially about choosing who I hang out with.
Lessons learnt for normal people
Cancer makes you do really weird things, like preparing for your own death.

For weeks I was so paralyzed when thinking about the future, I was just collapsing.

I forgot how to dream.

I also gave up long-term planning, because what's the point (if you won't be able to make any of this happen)?

But little by little it gets better.

It's taken me dozens of pages in my journal and hours of conversations with my therapist to go through it.
Cancer shouldn't happen to anyone
The most hurtful thing I think I heard was "It was probably meant to be", or "There's something with your karma".

If I was born a century ago, I probably wouldn't be here anymore. I'd just bleed out with the first symptoms of cancer, and if I was lucky, I would then slowly and painfully die as it spread.

Sorry not sorry if that's too graphical, but the point I'm trying to make is that medicine is advancing pretty fast. And not only curative but also preventive medicine. More screenings (not compulsory in Spain where I lived), more vaccines (like HPV - also a pretty new advancement that my generation skipped).

So lesson learned - don't wave off your body signals.

Getting herself checked is not a prerogative of your grandma. It's your own responsibility to keep yourself alive and well.

Something very subtle (like wrong timing of period, like random body pain, unusual discharge or discomfort) might be all signals of something worse than bad weather.

Listen to your body.

And when you do, head over to hospital and advocate for yourself.

Everything is treatable. If you're scared - don't be.
"Cancer is not a valid reason to miss a dance class"
My favorite coping mechanism through all of this has been humor.
The darkest of it.

I remember one day when I just got diagnosed, we were walking in downtown with two of my good friends as I was breaking the news to them. And as I described my agenda, I mentioned that I'm still going to dance workshops because "cancer is not a valid reason to miss a dance class!".
As I said this, I realized that this past sentence came out too loud, and that a couple walking in front of us looked back at us and scanned me thoroughly.
I obviously blushed, and we all had a good laugh, but I don't think that couple appreciated the joke as much.

Later on, I came across my (now) favorite cancer meme page @thecancerpatient, and it just fed my black humor needs on a daily basis.

And I totally don't mind anyone raising the bar on mortality jokes nowadays. Please be my guest.
What is life like when you can die any time?
One thing I understood after joining this dark humor club is just how many people are in it.

Some know that they are on a train that's gonna crash in a few months, and some expect it to happen in the foreseeable future, maybe 2-3 years down the line. But it's the same feeling of dread and panic in either of the cases.

I personally don't know how far will mine go and what's the trip going to be like. Maybe I'm lucky to stay on it for a few years, maybe I'm taken for a full life worth of a journey.

I'm choosing not to swipe these thoughts under the rug and cry alone at night, because that just doesn't work with my personality.

I prefer brutal honesty, even though it's tough.

So now -

I'm still working with my therapist. The lows are low and the highs are high.

I've learned to appreciate my small business as never before.
I've learned to save my personal energy and rest, going to bed at 9 pm.
I'm teaching my kids a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have because I didn't imagine the window of opportunity could close (for me, not for them).
I'm doing more music, more dance, more sports, more reading, and writing. I now call it all therapy and recovery.
I don't participate in activities that wouldn't provide short-term returns, because I might not see them. To give an example, early-stage startups and sweat equity are way out of my league.

And I live like there's only one year ahead because I can definitely imagine lasting for this long.

However, as the saying goes, we overestimate what we can do in a day, and we underestimate what we can do in a year. And a year is a long time for a lot of fun.

I know this for sure.

Fast forward to now.
I’m alive.

I recently walked out of the appointment where the doc confirmed the tumor is not visibly detected.

I should be happy and I guess I am, but I’m still stressed AF.
Because cancer is a chronic illness that has granted me 60% disability. I'm logically aware that I can be back right at square zero any effing time.

But I’m well.

So takeaways - if you read this far and want to get only a few bullet points:

  1. Get checked - never delay your health concerns
  2. Cancer is ageless.
  3. There are a lot of us who “don’t look sick”. Don’t judge by appearance
  4. Go play in the snow! It might not last for long.
  5. I love you.
Text author: Maria JD Sirotkina
Photography: Maria JD's archive
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