Published on April 20th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor0
Photo: Daddy Skittles
Derby and Cancer
By Bettie Mercury
I was never athletic growing up. I was the tall, fat chick always picked last for dodge ball. Yes, like a lot of you, too. I was always called a klutz by my parents. Then I grew up.
I read about the roller derby revival and the Gotham Girls in an issue of Bust magazine, and a quote from Ginger Snap saying “I was always picked last for sports” struck me. So I searched out derby leagues and joined. I loved the idea of a women’s full-contact sport, but also that it was a business run BY women.
2006-2009 were my early years: we learned, I skated, I got hurt, but I also was fighting ongoing illness on and off that sidelined me a few times. It was fun, we were a family, dysfunctional at times, but a family. My husband joined as a volunteer, then an NSO, then a skating official too, so both of us were involved. But when my health got a little worse, I had to take a little time for surgery. No big deal, a month off for thyroid removal (total thyroidectomy, officially).
Or so I thought. What happened changed my perspective on health, life, and roller derby.
I was supposed to be out of work for two weeks, and in the hospital for two days. The surgery was a pre-emptive measure after years of multiple thyroid issues that drugs were no longer resolving. My choice was to continue watching and doing tests for another year, or just remove it. I opted for the latter. That choice may well have saved my life.
A little over a week after my surgery, my doctor called me and said, “Things have changed. I have your biopsy results. You have cancer.” She then went into details of what I had to do immediately, told me not to worry too much, and told me to come in first thing on Monday to go over the rest of the plans.
I was 37 years old and had cancer.
The next two months were a rush of doctor’s appointments, treatments, procedures, and my radiation treatment. Luckily, we caught it early, at stage 1, but it was a rarer and more aggressive cancer, and had I waited a year to monitor my thyroid it could have grown and spread rapidly. All the doctors said I was extremely lucky.
During this time, I turned to my derby league and told them what happened. I was scared. I didn’t know how long the treatment would take, and I needed their support. I posted this on our league message board. I of course got tons of messages in response “Oh yes, we’ll be there for you!” and the like.
My treatment period was relatively short. My recovery was long, and then the depression hit. And the support that I had asked for? It wasn’t really there. I’ve learned from a young adult cancer group I’m now a part of named Stupid Cancer that this is normal, and I’m not mad about it, but young adults often don’t understand life-threatening illnesses and are scared and avoid people with one. They say “Oh, I’ll support you!” but don’t really know what to do, so they just stay away. It’s fear of the unknown, fear of their own mortality. Sometimes this even is expressed in negative comments. I had someone say “You don’t look sick,” when I felt well enough to visit practice once, even though I was still sleeping 15 hours a day at that point and not working. She didn’t understand. During my whole cancer illness, two leaguemates reached out to check on me.
I retired from my league. I wasn’t sure if I needed to be involved in derby at all. I did realize I missed it. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to be told you could have died: it changes you. I wanted to be involved, but on MY terms, and because I enjoyed it, for the love of the sport. I had some side effects from treatment that left some achy joints, and I didn’t feel safe playing, so I turned to officiating, which I knew I was good at. Instead of re-joining my old league, I stayed Independent, and scheduled things when I felt well enough to go. This helped me recover, both mentally and physically. Instead of focusing on the league first, I’m focused on putting myself first. I have great friends all over, and I love seeing them, and I love helping all sorts of different leagues, but the bottom line is that I need to make sure I’m enjoying what I’m doing.
It took over a year to actually recover from the cancer treatment, and during that time I still helped at games around New England whenever I felt up to it, and I didn’t always tell everyone that I had been recovering from cancer. August 2014 marked my 5 year cancerversary, which is considered a milestone in recovery. So far, so good, and I’m still involved in roller derby too. Although it’s not the type of involvement I envisioned when I first started, I’m happy with what I do, and I’m proud to see how our sport is evolving and how WFTDA has developed and grown as well. It’s kind of weird it took a near-death scare for me to really get my focus back and enjoy this sport again.