“What’s the best thing that ever happened to you? Bit of a loaded question, huh? Some people might answer with their wedding day, or the day their first child was born – something that set the scene for a beautiful life thereafter and changed their world view forever. Happy events, good fortune perhaps. What’s the best thing that ever happened to me, you ask? Easy – getting cancer.
Sudden Cancer Diagnosis
It happened almost overnight. I was walking home from a friend’s house after drinking entirely too much red wine, when I noticed I looked strangely bloated. I knew I wasn’t pregnant because I was single and celibate, having just left an emotionally abusive relationship four months previously. My roommate assured me her girlfriends got like this all the time and it was just ovulation… or something.
Spoiler alert – it was not ovulation or something.
I was 25 and in the best shape of my life. There was no history of cancer in my family. I had just finished filming a music video with my punk rock band, Killer Virgins, and we were a week away from releasing our first major single. I was working as a full-time voice actor and living with a cool, hippie-earth-mama roommate and her two kittens. I was at the peak of what I assumed would be the rest of my life as a young creative in Toronto. Then, I started blowing up like Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital under the disco-ball surgical light in the operating room, counting down from ten.
I spent four excruciating days in the hospital healing from a massive abdominal incision, most of which was spent hallucinating like Hypnotoad at Burning Man. When the nurses made me walk on the third day, I dissociated for the first time, looking down at my body from the ceiling. I only knew what was going on because of YouTube (all that binge watching finally paid off!). After the surgery, my dad drove me back to my parents’ house to recover.
Many weeks later, my mom told me I had looked like a ghost when I first walked into their living room; I was so pale and rail thin. It took me weeks to sit up on my own and walk without a cane. I’d never dealt with chronic pain before, or needed to rely on hardcore pain meds. Every day was a struggle to keep my spirits up and not collapse into the blackhole that was my mind – What would happen to my health? My career? My life?
Falling In Love With Michael
I remember lying in my childhood bedroom, unable to sit up and in crippling pain, on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and thinking I must have pissed off a witch or something. I must have been cursed to have luck this bad. *PING!* I looked down at my phone. Someone had sent me a Facebook message. My luck was about to change.
An old friend named Michael sent me a message out of the blue, saying my new song Banana reminded him of Victoria BC’s newly Tiktok-famous alt-rock band, Mother Mother. I swooned – there was no higher honor. We kept talking. I liked his profile pic. Our first date was a walk in the freezing cold of February at Withrow park in Cabbagetown (we were in lockdown, so date locations were pretty limited), and he brought along his two shivering Chihuahua-mutts for extra endearment.
First dates were nerve wracking enough, but I had just received some devastating news the week before- it was cancer. Talk about scaring a guy off! There was something about him, though, that put me at ease. Eyes fixed on the dirt ground of the dog park, I told him I’d been diagnosed with a rare ovarian germ-cell yolk sac tumor, and I’d be starting chemotherapy in just a few months. I held my breath, squeezed my eyes shut, and waited for the inevitable rejection… but it never came. Michael smiled and squeezed my hand. His mother had fought cancer for eight years and had passed away two years ago. He was ready for this.
When my hormones were raging from IVF injections, we screamed at each other as we built an IKEA vanity and collapsed on the floor laughing. When my hair started falling out, we shaved our heads together. When my fingers were turning black from nerve damage, he took me out for ice cream and held the cone. He taught me love is selfless and reminded me to let others take care of me too.
I was a StrongWoman™, so it was tough for me to ask for help, but when I did, amazing things happened; my friends showed up, and new friends came into my life who showed me I was loved by more people than I ever dreamed. The first ‘I love you’ came over the phone in the ICU during a sudden trip to the hospital after I experienced excruciating, unexplained chest pains that remain a mystery to this day. As they were closing the ambulance doors, I thought to myself, ‘If I die now, I’ll never be able to tell Michael how much I love him.’ It felt like we went through ten years of life in only a year and a half, but cancer wouldn’t be the only thing that would test our relationship…
Recognizing My Sexuality
Throughout my life, I had questioned my sexuality only a handful of times, and fleetingly. I’d always been a strong ally and had made a joke or two about being gay, but as far as I had ever known, I was straight. Sure, I’d had strong urges in the past to kiss my female friends, but didn’t everyone? Anyway, that wasn’t allowed! I was the oldest child, therefore I had to have children and be straight. Don’t ask me why I thought this, but wherever it came from it was lodged in good. Some people might describe this as being repressed, and those people would be right!
One day, my younger sister, Sabrina, and I were looking through old school projects my mom had squirreled away. It was spring cleaning, so it was finally time to go through them after all these years. Sabrina picked up an intricate handmade card she’d made for a friend. She had individually written each letter in each word in an alternating pattern of pink, purple, and blue. She gasped. Unknowingly, as a 12-year-old, she’d written what was essentially a love letter in the colors of the bi flag. She laughed hysterically! She’d been openly bisexual since she was 16, but had never come to terms with the fact this ‘friendship’ had been a lot deeper than she’d given it credit for.
She told me about all the crushes she’d had on female friends from school growing up, and I looked at her slack-jawed – that was allowed?? She then gave me a much needed lecture on internalized homophobia, and I realized almost immediately I was bisexual/pansexual too… I’d just never let myself feel it. Then we started going through my old school projects and pictures of me when I was a kid. I always cringed at pictures of the two of us together when we were little, because my sister always looked so cute and normal in them, and I… didn’t.
I was a little alien. I’d always been that way. I never quite fit in with kids my own age, and I’d always felt… different than other girls (and not in the I’m not like other girls way). I’d always felt like someone forgot to give me my teenage-girl manual. I didn’t like clothes that showed off my breasts, or dresses, or anything on the mannequins at LaSenza Girl. I didn’t feel like I belonged, and the other girls were also keenly aware of this and made sure I knew they knew. I didn’t fit in with the boys either, and I certainly didn’t want to be one. I’d just always been the kid sitting alone on the bleachers. We looked at a picture of the two of us at a summer cottage when I was eight, sitting on a picnic blanket in the sun. I cringed at how not feminine I looked… and then another Gay Lightning-Bolt™ struck me. I ran to my room and locked the door, a full-blown panic attack threatening to overtake me. My sister knocked and I let her in.
‘You’re gonna think this sounds crazy,’ I started, shaking like a gay leaf as I squeezed the giant teddy bear a friend had given me during cancer treatment, ‘but I’m starting to wonder if maybe, possibly, I could be… non-binary.’ My sister wrapped me in a bearhug that rivaled the giant teddy bear, looked me dead in the eye, and said, ‘Sam, I love you, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, but this isn’t really a surprise to me.’
I was terrified to tell Michael, but not because I was afraid of rejection. He was queer himself, and I knew this wouldn’t change anything between us. I was afraid because of the nasty little voice of imposter syndrome in my head. Are you sure you’re not just confused? Maybe you’re just CRAZY! I was an expert at gaslighting myself. Once he talked me off the ledge and assured me I wasn’t crazy and nothing had changed, I felt more relief than aloe vera on a fresh sunburn. I felt like… me.
It turned out a lot of people around me had suspected I might be non-binary, including my bandmates! After all, for years they’d watched me parade around on stage in androgynous stage clothes and mock traditional gender roles, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. My dad more or less shrugged at it, but my mum struggled a bit more. When I finally sat down with her to talk about it in depth, she said, ‘I don’t understand. What’s wrong with being a woman?’ To which I replied, ‘Nothing!’ End of sentence! Women are the best! I just didn’t feel like one. When she asked me what pronouns she should use, I suggested she, her, they, them, goblin, demon spawn, the Thing from the Black Lagoon, etc. Once we were laughing, I knew I’d gotten through. I was so proud of her for expanding her worldview. We have a game we play now where every day I have a new topical gender – dinosaur, the color orange, pineapple… you get it.
The picture of my sister and I lives on my parents’ fridge now, and every time I walk past it I smile and feel love for my younger self. I didn’t have the right vocabulary to use back then, or the wide array of information and societal acceptance we take for granted now. Looking at that photo, I finally understood what pride really meant, and what it felt like to love myself for exactly who I was.
Something I’ve learned in the 18 months since I was first diagnosed, is the worst things in the world can turn out to be incredible blessings wrapped in sandpaper. Getting cancer is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but in the strangest of ways it has also been the best thing. I’m still living with cancer, and with my parents since the future is uncertain (on the bright side, we’ve never been closer!). I continue to work in my dream career as a voice actor. I have more love in my life and for myself than I ever could have imagined, and I see every day as a gift. There are still days where I can’t stop crying – I’m in pain, or my thoughts get the better of me – but I’m learning to let my loved ones help carry the load. Okay, so maybe saying cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me is a bit of a stretch, but it certainly isn’t a witch’s curse either… and if it is, then that witch certainly has a sense of humor.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Samantha Weinstein of Toronto, Canada. You can follow her journey on Instagram, IMDB, and Spotify. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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