The Courage to Laugh at Cancer
Carmen Anderson, 36, Portland, OregonWhen I noticed a lump in my neck at age 36, I was about to receive my bachelor’s degree from Portland State University and was scheduled to speak at graduation. I was losing weight, but figured it was my busy schedule. A month before graduation, my doctor found a mass on my windpipe. Tests showed I had not one, but two rare types of thyroid cancer.
Two surgeries 10 days apart removed the tumor and nearby lymph nodes, but I needed follow-up treatment. My regular doctor sent me to Dr. Ann Gramza, a medical oncologist at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. My case was beyond my regular doctor’s scope, and she knew Dr. Gramza was the best. I appreciated that OHSU had a team deciding on my treatment and that everyone was communicating. I didn’t feel I had to go over things time and time again.
To determine the best course, I needed a preliminary PET scan. Two weeks before graduation, the PET scan, a CT scan and an angiogram showed a new tumor in my chest where my thoracic veins connected. Three weeks after I graduated with honors, OHSU cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Paul Schipper performed surgery to remove the tumor and one thoracic vein, which was replaced with an artificial vein.
People have always told me I’m funny, and I love writing comedy. After three successful procedures, I started writing about my cancer experience. My friends encouraged me to fulfill my dream of doing stand-up by creating a one-woman show about my battle with cancer. PSU agreed to sponsor the event, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of 200 people for the premiere of “Hellooooo, Cancer!”
My show was the most awesome thing that could have happened. I made it as real as possible, and tried to show cancer – and treatment – for what they are. I wanted to speak for people with cancer who couldn’t express themselves. It helped me to know I was helping other people heal. It was the best day of my life.
Today I’m completing my master’s in educational leadership and policy, and I’m a graduate assistant at PSU’s Campus Women’s Resource Center. I still write comedy, and hope to revive my one-woman show one day soon. It’s ironic that I had cancer before fulfilling my dream of doing stand-up. Nevertheless, I see the cancer as a gift. It happened for a reason, and I feel fortunate to have the treatment that helped me live my dreams.