“What do you do for a living, Federico?”
First conversations with doctors are awkward, particularly when you’re 23 and you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Inevitably, you’ll talk with many doctors in many hospitals in many rooms with the same uncomfortable chairs and outdated Windows XP computers connected to printers that make terrible rattles. And your parents will be there every time as well.
You’re going to have to answer questions about your name, address, habits, and, yes, what you do for a living, while your parents whisper the answers with you. But since I was diagnosed with cancer 12 months ago, every time a doctor arrived at “What do you do for a living?” my parents remained silent, turning to look at me. He’s got to answer this one.
Fill in the job field
It’s November 2011, and I’m about to have surgery to get a lymph node removed. Doctors are expecting it to be fairly small, a 2 mm node easily extracted from the upper part of my chest. But when I hear them whispering, I figure something isn’t going as expected. Surgeons whispering is not a good sign.
I ask if something’s wrong, and they tell me to stay calm: They’re seeing a much wider and taller lymph node than they expected, but everything’s fine. To keep me focused and relaxed, one of the doctors puts a hand on my shoulder and asks, “So, what do you do for a living, Federico?”
Fifteen minutes later, they removed a 2 cm lymph node. That surgeon is a MacStories reader now; he emails every once in a while to ask how I’m doing.
I’m 24 now, and I still find it difficult to describe my job without making it sound like I browse Facebook for a living. Not to mention having to do that in a sentence that has to become a single word in a “Job” field on a form. To answer a question asked by a doctor who’s going to cure your cancer. You just have to pull the trigger eventually. Pick one. It’s just a word.
I don’t have kids, and I’ve been wondering every day, every minute, for the past year how it must feel for parents to find out their son has cancer. I believe parents think they’re going to get sick before their kids. Your kids (even when they’re 24, they’re still “your kids”) aren’t supposed to deal with that stuff until they’re old and you won’t be around to worry about it anymore.
But life isn’t fair. It doesn’t matter which side of the story you’re on — parent or kid — anything can happen to you. Fortunately, my cancer hasn’t given me any pain in the past 12 months, but the look on my mother’s face has. She worries, and knowing that my condition has caused that feeling of emptiness in her makes me feel guilty. I’m sorry I’ve been an asshole to you, Mom. I love you. You’re my hero.
Putting it off
I’ve always wanted to make a difference. I found my affinity for words and writing while growing up, and thought maybe I should consider a career as a writer. I found my niche writing stories about technology, Apple devices in particular. As my cancer was growing inside of me, so was my Web site, somewhere off in the cloud. That’s not the best way to pitch it, though.
At some point during treatment, you start making up reasons for why you got cancer. Maybe you smoked too much. Or maybe you had the wrong diet — or too much stress in your life. All of that is nonsense: There are too many factors to ascribe the specific cause to any one. But although I couldn’t have prevented myself from getting cancer, I do take all the blame for ignoring the symptoms for too long.
And that’s what, ultimately, pains me terribly: knowing that the look on my mother’s face, her tears and sleeplessness, are related to my stubbornness and unwillingness to consult a doctor when it was time. Because I had to work. Because there was an Apple event. Because, quick, an embargo is being lifted and we need to get our post out.
Last year, I couldn’t write for two months. I blamed my job for what I was going through. For what my mom had to go through. For the things my job had done to me and everyone around me. But I was making excuses. It was my fault. It is my fault. Not for “getting” cancer, but for letting it grow to the point where things are more difficult. I blew it.
That simple idea has grown and developed inside me in the past 12 months. I’ve come to realize that I should learn from my mistakes to become a better man. If I’m given a second chance — and I know I will be — I’ll use my skills to have a positive impact on the community and my loved ones.
To help a kid develop the app idea he’s always had. To thank my readers, coworkers, and online friends, because their help and support has been invaluable.
To tell my girlfriend I love her, each and every day. To make my mom smile again.
My doctor is holding a black marker, waiting for my answer. She’s young — I think she’s only a few years older than me — and she already has such authority. She must be pretty good at her job. She wears a ring, and her iPhone’s lock screen wallpaper is a photo of her smiling next to a guy at the beach. They look happy.
She’s looking at me, waiting. My mom is looking at me, silent, because she knows this is the question I want and need to answer.
I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I can’t escape from what I love doing — what in part led me to being in this room.
“Doctor, I write about technology.”
Illustration by Caty Bartholomew.1
Federico is a writer and espresso aficionado who lives in Italy. He founded MacStories in April 2009, and he wants to visit the United States someday.