When I was diagnosed with cancer twelve years ago, I reached out to my friend, Hamburgers. He had hemophilia, a serious enough disease that would allow him to relate to me, I thought. His knowledge was more extensive than I expected.
I wanted to know the decibel level of an MRI. “A jackhammer,” he replied. When I learned I'd be treated at NIH, he described the atmosphere and even the treatment floor. “Does the waiting room still have that big fish tank?” he asked. And when I wanted to wash my hands every seven seconds, he busted out instant hand sanitizer. “IHS!” he excitedly announced.
I had not considered why Hamburgers possessed broad knowledge about mitigating infection and one of the world’s largest research hospitals. Maybe he owned stock in Purell and sold it to cancer people? Hamburgers did possess a strong knowledge of markets.
Halfway through my year of treatment, Hamburgers shared a secret that connected the dots: he had been infected with HIV when he was three years old. We talked and laughed about disease for the next three hours, as we consumed and partially digested fake meat from Taco Bell. Our biggest howls were when we entered the restaurant, both on crutches—his injury hemophilia-related, mine cancer.
Hamburgers was the only person I talked to about cancer. My No Complaining rule prohibited me from discussing it, but Hamburgers was exempt. And I was one of the first friends he told. Our bond strengthened at the University of Virginia. We would chat until just before the sun came up—sometimes with Halo, sometimes without. When we felt that we were discussing disease and their related struggles too much, then we switched topics to football, candy and girls.
The struggle we discussed most was revelation. Who has a right to know? Does it make us Sick Kids to bring it up? Does the knowledge forever change others’ perceptions of us? How would girls accept us with that baggage? Does Hamburgers have to justify withholding that secret to long-term friends?
I couldn’t hide cancer—my lift, limp and scars revealed the truth. And when I wrote my book and began this blog, I couldn’t mask my cancer with the world’s supply of L’Oreal. Cancer is a chunk of who I am, and now that I can’t hide it, I don’t try. I am happier and more complete this way. The transformation from my former guarded self to the current open one is astonishing.
Hamburgers didn’t need a spec of makeup to camouflage his HIV. Before college he told a handful of friends and maybe another handful during college. Many times he wanted to tell friends but couldn’t follow through, sometimes for lack of courage and other times to not disrupt pleasant conversation.
Like me, Hamburgers is also now in a better place. He is married, as healthy as he’s been in 25 years, and very active in the hemophiliac community. Friends who were not aware of his secret were shocked when they read my book (he approved my disclosure each of the several dozen times I asked). In fact, my book was the push he needed.
One month ago Hamburgers posted on Facebook that he had celebrated the 25th anniversary of his HIV diagnosis. I didn’t think anything of it at first glance. Then the next day I recalled his posting and texted him immediately, “Holy shit…did you Facebook your HIV?”
I think it is human nature to want to share our stories. I have and will continue to tell mine. And Hamburgers now tells his. I hope he feels happier and more complete because of it.
Hamburgers and I no longer live near each other, no longer go to college, and rarely play video games. But our bond remains. I was very proud of him at his wedding. I am proud that his wife, Bubble, calls me his “boyfriend.” And I feel most proud of Hamburgers for overcoming one of his biggest demons and sharing his story.
Here’s to 25 more years of us remaining healthy and cancer-free. And if in our old age we find ourselves on crutches together, then I’ll suggest we step up to El Taco.