Almost every Thursday, I sit down at my computer to write a book review for the Book Club Friday linkup but this week, I'd like to share something else. A few months ago, I was asked to write a personal essay about my response to John Green's The Fault In Our Stars and now, I feel that I'm ready to share it. There are tons of reviews about this book, so if you're looking for a blow-by-blow review, this isn't it but I hope that you'll keep reading and forward it to anyone you feel it would relate to it. You'll see why by the end (and don't worry, it's not that long).
Spoiler Alert: It mostly has to do with hope.
I like to read. A lot. In fact, I’d even say that I love to read. Getting sucked into a new world when I should be making dinner or doing other wifer-ly things isn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence in our household, but it’s not often when I really connect with a book. Sure, there are many books that I love but really connecting with one is a rare occurrence. So when I saw John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars advertised, well, just about everywhere, I was expecting a good read but by the fifth page, I knew the book would be something extraordinary.
Hazel (Grace) is a sixteen-year-old girl with somewhat manageable cancer. Her face is puffy from taking steroids, she carts around an oxygen tank so she can breathe, and is forced to drop out of traditional school (not an awesome life) but then—in the most unlikely of places—Hazel meets a boy who changes her life, in more ways than one. In essence, Hazel is a teenaged version of me. Err…except that I don’t have cancer. Or walk around with an oxygen tank, although at times one would be useful.
I do, however, have a condition called Esiniophilial Asthma and like Hazel, it makes it hard to breathe. And by hard, I mean downright impossible (at times). Basically, I have a massive collection of hyper-reproducing Esiniophilial cells that clog up my lungs and without a serious combination of steroids, they’d continue to reproduce until they suffocated me. Sounds fun, right? Not really. One of the least fun parts is that it took years to get a proper diagnosis.
Although I live in Canada, where socialist medicine means that everyone has access to healthcare, the downside is that it can take forever to see specialists. So, while my husband and I took countless midnight trips to the ER while waiting for the next specialist’s two-cents, we made the most of it. For instance, one of our favourite games was to see how many times could we switch the pulse clamp from my finger to his without making the machine freak out. And he’d always try to make me laugh, sometimes by any means necessary. But not really laugh, of course, as it would send me into a fit of coughing. It was a fine balance that he mastered (he’s the best).
Aside from the waiting lists, though, the biggest obstacle that stopped me from being diagnosed as a Mega Sicky Face is that I never really looked sick. Throughout The Fault In Our Stars, Hazel speaks about “cancer perks,” which are perks that people with cancer get because they are visibly sick, like cutting in a long line or being served alcohol while being clearly underage. Unfortunately, for me, I don’t get any MSF perks. Sure, my face is swollen to all hell and I have what I affectionately refer to as “second neck” (as it’s not so much a double chin as a literal doubling of my neck), and I also have a hump at the base of my head and grapple with a not-so-delightful round of second puberty, where hair has grown in places where it hasn’t grown before, but even with these things—things that make me feel like I’m looking at a stranger when I catch my reflection in a mirror—I look fairly normal. Combine that with a killer sense of humour (haha, do you see what I did there?) and a bordering on annoying positive outlook, it’s no surprise that doctors didn’t take my condition seriously. One ER doctor even said that he was surprised I was physically able to laugh, after seeing how low my oxygen levels were.
One of the reasons I latched onto Hazel’s story like a starving leech wasn’t just because we had similar experiences of having crappy lungs (or, in my case, crappy hyper-reproducing cells living in my lungs) but because of the humour in which she chose to live her life. Yes, chose, because it’s a choice. At times, an exhausting choice, but one that has made my life more like a comedy than the tragedy it most certainly is. After all, my condition robbed me of most of my twenties as well as my career but, against all odds, managed to strengthen my marriage (love you, babe). And thank God for The Remix because I truly have no idea how I’d be able to go through this alone.
At times, the cracks that the cancer-ridden teens in The Fault In Our Stars made about each other lifted my spirits and I would pause to hug the book while wiping my tears with the sleeve of my shirt (true story, I really hugged the book). Sounds strange, eh? (Yeah, I really am Canadian). Cracking jokes about a blind person being blind? Yes it probably has something to do with the tone in which they were delivered, but that, ladies and gentlemen, was the best part of the book.
Please understand that for years—YEARS—people thought that I exaggerating my sickness because I never lost my sense of humour. News flash people: humour is a coping mechanism and just because there’s a smile on my face doesn’t mean I’m not in pain. And making me defend the validity of my situation because I choose to find the silver linings that make the best of my shitty situation is…well…shitty. That’s not to say that I don’t throw myself a pity party every once in a while but it’s for VIPs only and has a maximum time limit of One Good Cry. Then, it’s on with the business of the day.
Although The Fault In Our Stars is a work of fiction, it made me feel like I wasn't alone. I mean, I knew that there had to be other MSF's who use humour as a coping mechanism (I'm not that special) but I have yet to meet any. And that, ladies and gentlemen, not only made me feel less isolated, but it gave me hope.
So I tip my fedora to John Green for his ability to capture my experience of living with a chronic condition, and why humour plays such an important role in my life. Although Hazel and I differed in our diagnoses, many of our thoughts were the same.
I would also like to thank Mr. Green for creating doctors who put their patients’ mental well-being on the same level as their physical well-being because, as hard as it is to believe, those kinds of doctors really do exist. I know because I have one (a couple, actually, and some seriously awesome nurses and RTs) so I hope that The Fault In Our Stars can inspire all of the Mega Sicky Faces out there to press on and find their own. I know that it's a long road but trust me, it's more than worth the effort.
And now, you must excuse me as I need to buy one thousand copies of The Fault In Our Stars so I can throw them at everyone who walks by my house. Okay, I can’t really afford to buy one thousand copies …and I live in the country so nobody really walks by my house, but rest assured that I’ve been strongly encouraging the few people I meet to pick up a copy, as well as my friends and family. And by strongly encouraging, I mean forcing.
Thanks to Heather and Katie for hosting Book Club Friday, one of my favourite linkups, and giving me a platform to share my take on this wonderful book.
If you’d like to follow my journey through a drug study (which is going really well, yay), click on The Guinea Pig Diaries tab on the right hand side of my blog, or at the bottom of this post.