YOLO, or F*ck Cancer

Drake’s got a Motto that he stole from the Strokes who nabbed it from the ancient Roman poet, Horace, who said it first in his language.

YOLO. Or as the older folks say, Carpe Diem.

You don’t have to be a dead poet or a rapper to fling the phrase around carelessly, like you really know what the hell it means. Because to really get there, you have to go right up to the edge and look down. Get all up in the Grim Reaper’s grill and know that you’ll never live the same.

I don’t have the kind of street cred you need to cry YOLO. My personal brush with cancer was fleeting. A grapefruit-sized ovarian cyst, which as described sounds pleasantly juicy, pinkish yellow, and lush but in reality was bulbous, deathly white, and potentially a squishy beard for a malignancy. Knowing that my doc picked the hospital with the best on-call oncologist (say that 10x fast) was scary enough. Grapefruit plucked, it concealed nothing but a shredded fallopian tube, and I’m done with those bitches anyways now. Snip, snip, and the coast was clear.

I am lucky. I hear you, YOLO, but I still look both ways when I cross the street and blow on Hot Pockets before I bite down.

Others of my friends have not been so lucky. Layers of skin, lumps of breast, nip of throat, bits of bladder, chunk of thyroid, lining of lung, blob of brain, even the marrow of a hipbone. I am in midlife and have about a dozen friends who’ve gone under the knife, onto the drip, and under the zapper. It’s stunning how much death lurks and how little we know why.

But that’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about YOLO, and what to do with that.

I take my cues from D, my friend who crossed over three years ago this week. She first tangoed with El Muerte in her teens, when DJ NHL (Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) took her for a spin. I’m pretty sure it left her breathless — speechless in fact —  as she grappled with coming back to life that she’d only started to truly live minutes before. When she regained powers of expression, she must’ve known that wasting her voice on things that were petty and small ultimately was just a suck of time, air, and space. I never knew her to speak unkindly of anyone or anything, but I also never knew her to take shit from anyone, either.

We met working at Boston University’s Dental School. She was hired for the job I wanted, and I figured that since she was married and I wasn’t, she’d get knocked up first and eventually I’d get her job. D laughed out loud when I confessed that chestnut to her. She was always amused to see how shallow people could be.

I never got D’s job. What I got was her countenance, her magnificence, her humor, and her joie de vivre. Her ability to bob through life on a wave of Carpe Diem.

D took chances. I’m not talking drag racing or skydiving or gun fighting. She just made leaps of faith every day that writing would buoy her, support her, and keep her afloat. It would pay the bills, pave the way, and be her life’s work. And it was.

She didn’t do normal, regular things. She was hired to write alumni publications for dentists, and instead she created a stunning tome called Impressions. She hired an avant-garde graphic designer and wrote not about so-and-so getting an advanced degree in Endodontics or this-and-that about Implantology. Nobody cares about that (except so-and-so’s mom or this-and-that implant manufacturer). Instead she wrote about what dentists have in their hearts, their heads, and their power. Only a wordsmith could turn the mundane into the magnificent.


I was never that brave. I’ve known I wanted to write my entire life, but it took D getting the inevitable breast cancer that came from the radiation that “cured” her Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to light a fire under my ass. She already had a draft of her novel, a lyrical, brilliant piece — her magnum opus. I wrote tentatively, in place of donning a pink ribbon or walking in her name. Somehow making art as an expression of the fear and the grief I felt made more sense.

And that delighted D. She lived magically, with an impish husband, and eventually, a perfect elvin boy. Going to her house meant being bathed in the glow of year-round Christmas lights, the best, most eclectic music, from Springsteen to Damien Rice, Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant, and others you’d never hear again but wouldn’t ever forget. Dinner was often served, late, after glasses of wine and the best company. Art and books lined rooms filled with vintage treasure, drafting tables, and bric-a-brac from a life lived in creative splendor.

Of course a Waldorf education for her son made the most sense. D was spring, earth, and the promise of new beginnings, even as old invaders took over her cells, her breasts, her brain, and eventually, all over her body. These things happened when I lived 3,000 miles away, although I never felt the time-space continuum with her as I did with anyone else. D was present in spirit, always.

The last physical time I was with her was just a few months before her time here was up. She did a reading of her book to a loving and somewhat ecstatic crowd, and raised a bit of money so her boys could carry on. Two years before that she’d hit mission critical, having found that there was a mass on her brain. At that point, her beloved stepped down from daily work. Neither he nor D could think of anything better than being together, and so they scraped by from that time on to live in the moment. That leap of faith alone is the bravest thing I think I’ve ever known. It was not without consequences, but I can’t say that there was regret, either.

I got a couple of blessed days then to hang with D and her son while her husband took a much-needed break. She was like a tender little chick, with fuzz left for hair and a sort of addled memory, but all of the laughter and faculties I’d always known her to have. I will never forget her shaking her head and chuckling at me when I told her endless tales of the PTA, neighborhood spats, crazy Little League parents and soccer mom shenanigans.

My world, so small.

I caught myself and began to apologize, but she urged me to go on. The gossipy bits were such a fun and silly distraction to her, even as they filled up so much space in my life.

Since she’s moved on to another plane, I try to remain focused on seeing the world through D’s rosy glasses. When I find myself tripping up and getting bogged down in what just doesn’t matter, I think about something that she once wrote to me and some friends, when she found the cancer was back with a vengeance:

“I believe that all adversity is mitigated by one gigantic force — LOVE. If you feel it and give it, you will not believe anyone if they tell you that you are unlucky [as an oncologist told me a few years ago—Imagine—naturally not my doc today]. Does ‘love’ sound schmaltzy? Try passion, connection, friendship. There is something to love in every day.”

And to that, like a human beatbox, I say, You Only Live Once.

That’s the motto, baby.


cancerCarpe Diemf*ck cancerfriendshipmotherhoodNon Hodgkin’s LymphomaYOLO