When I first heard about John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, I almost fell over. My boyfriend had heard about it on NPR while he was at work, and that night at the grocery store he said, “John Green is coming out with a new book. It’s about a 16-year-old girl with papillary thyroid cancer. Isn’t that what you had?” I had been that girl, the one with Stage IV papillary thyroid cancer, complete with a couple of mets (metastatic cancer) in my lungs and chest.
Up until the point of my diagnosis, I knew nothing about what a thyroid was. I just knew that all I ever felt like doing was sleeping, and I was cold all the time, and I had lymph nodes so swollen I could see them when I looked in the mirror. When I was first diagnosed, I was quickly assured by my doctor that thyroid cancer was incredibly curable, and when I met my oncologist for the first time a couple of weeks after my diagnosis, he added to the comfort by saying, “if I had to pick a cancer to have, it would be this one.”
Papillary thyroid cancer was not something I would have picked for myself, or anyone. Who even thinks about picking what kind of cancer they would most want to have? It’s like picking which method one would use to commit suicide. After the biopsy that confirmed my diagnosis, my doctor wrote me a note excusing me for the last three months of my sophomore year of high school. As I rode out the couple of weeks between diagnosis and surgery, I gently told my pretty wide group of friends what the result of my surgery was. The reactions that followed are ones that I think unite anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer. “My [insert relative] had cancer and he/she survived/died!” “Are YOU going to die?” “Are you going to lose your hair?” It took zero time at all for people to stop seeing Courtney, and to start seeing “Courtney with cancer.”
When it came time for my surgery, I was aware that I would be having a radical neck dissection. What I wasn’t aware of, was the fact that I would be on the table for nine hours, and wake up in the ICU with a catheter and the removal of a jugular vein. My mom told me that I had two incisions, one across my collar-bone, and one under my jaw from ear to ear. I also learned that along with my thyroid, dozens of diseased lymph nodes were removed, as well as a jugular.
I spent a week in the hospital. When I returned home, I assumed the role of “full-time cancer patient,” a term used by the blinded Isaac in TFIOS. I went to the doctor several times a week, underwent my radioactive iodine treatment, planned my appointments around episodes of the Tyra show, and went to physical therapy appointments to aid with the mobility I lost in my arms and face from nerve damage.
As big of a hassle being a full-time cancer patient was as a 16-year-old, the worst part was that I felt incredibly ugly, and had very few friends left, and was continuing to realize that people do not know how to talk to people with cancer. My best friend since kindergarten stopped calling and texting. Her mom called and left me a concerned voicemail while I was recovering from my surgery, but my best friend never did. While other 16-year-olds were getting their driver’s licenses and getting kissed for the first time, I was obsessing over my chipmunk-puffed cheeks, and my infected incision that wouldn’t heal.
I had become marked by my disease. The only thing people wanted to talk about was how I was feeling. How I was doing with my treatment. I think the thing that sums it up best was when my mom and I ran into one of her friends at Wal-Mart. I asked how she was and she looked at me and said, “better than you, I suppose.” And I was having a particularly good day! I had gotten dressed and made it out of the house! Cancer had removed my options of being happy or feeling okay. It had made me a symbol of suffering, and I had the “good” cancer!
When The Fault in Our Stars came out, I borrowed a copy from my sister and read it, and cried, and related to it in more ways than one. I would have killed to read a story like that when I was in the thick of my struggle to remission. Now that the movie has been released, there has been a lot of opposition to John Green’s use of cancer patients in a fictional story, and the fact that they are able to fall in love. What it says to me when people disagree with this love story involving teenaged cancer patients, is that people disagree with the fact that cancer patients are capable or worthy of any love that doesn’t come from family, or that they don’t think cancer patients can focus on anything but their health and well-being.
In the novel, Hazel Grace Lancaster, our 16-year-old thyroid cancer patient, thinks about this fact as well: “According to Maslow, I was stuck on the second level of the pyramid, unable to feel secure in my health and therefore unable to reach for love and respect and art and whatever else, which is, of course, utter horsesh–.”
When I was sick, I was overwhelmed by how much I had become defined by my illness. In the trailer for the movie, and in the book, Hazel’s love interest Augustus Waters asks, “So what’s your story?” Hazel launches into her diagnosis story and he quickly cuts her off. “Not your cancer story. Your real story.”
The sad truth is that kids, teens and adults are diagnosed with cancer every day, and that C-Word quickly turns humans into “humans with cancer.” It becomes the main focus of every conversation, since most non-cancer people focus on survival rates and treatments. Our “real stories” quickly become buried under tales of our battle wounds and bad doctors or general humiliation about being less able than we were before.
I would have loved to have an Augustus Waters in my life when I was 16, or even a Hazel Grace. I wanted nothing more than to have a friend who understood perfectly what it was like to go through treatments and be poked six times by a nurse searching for a vein. I wanted nothing more than a friend who understood perfectly how annoying it was to talk about cancer all the time, and then be able to talk about stuff like the books we liked to read or our goals after we got better.
The Fault in Our Stars serves as proof that cancer patients can stand in the spotlight of a love story. Reading about Hazel Grace, who had suffered through a radical neck dissection and knew how much that sucked, was a breath of fresh air. Yeah, she was noticed by the boy in her support group, and he fell in love with her fast, but it was even more amazing to me that she had found it within herself to accept that love, and form relationships with people who understood her outside of her cancer.
Kids and teens with cancer should be able to read about characters who have been diagnosed. They should be able to identify with characters in the fiction that they read, and they should know that their cancer doesn’t have to define them, and that they are worthy of a blockbuster kind of love, too.
Courtney Kazmierczak is a writer, reader, and constant self-improver living in Chicago. Besides obsessing over words, she enjoys attempting crazy yoga poses, eating tacos, and begging strangers to let her pet their dog. Follow her on Twitter @courtneykaz.