My breath punctuates the silence louder than I want it to. Well, almost silence. Why do all hospital clocks sound like metronomes beating to the tune of my anxiety? Yeah, the doctor will be in “shortly”, but we’d like you to take this time to think about each second individually. Feel that uneasiness seep into your core.
You know how when you’re nervous, you get a lump in your throat? And then doctors say, no, no, silly girl, that’s not a nervous lump. That’s cancer.
She sits down next to me. Were it not for her lab coat, I would have assumed she was on her way to a high rise downtown (read: Financial Analyst Weekly stock photo fresh). I chose a more casual jeans/t-shirt combo for my biopsy extravaganza. After our brief exchange of hello’s, where we pretend like she’s not about to shove a 6-inch needle in my neck, we get started with the process of shoving a 6-inch needle in my neck.
They told me over and over that it was “the best cancer to have” because of its treatability, which is why I felt embarrassed about the fear that rooted itself at the pit of my stomach throughout the whole process. I quickly got surgery and treated it. I was a senior in college, but the hospital on my campus was great, and everything got taken care of. It wasn’t the best way to round out those four years, but I had a friend who was going through breast cancer at the time, so it definitely wasn’t the worst.
The gel is cold, but the touch of the ultrasound hand piece on my neck is oddly warm. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the grainy black and white semicircle of the ultrasound image on the screen. This is like every pregnant woman at the doctor stereotype I can think of, except she’s looking at a fetus shaped tumor instead of the miracle of life. My darling little cancer baby.
After I graduated, I moved out of the country for a year. I was anxious and unhappy in general. I compared my experience to that of those around me; I felt sorry for myself about what happened, then hated myself for complaining about it. I should have felt more grateful, I could have had it worse. Much worse.
That’s the needle? Shit. That’s so much bigger than I remember. You’re fine. You’ll be fine.
I came back home and moved to a new city. I still wasn’t happy, but I pretended to be. At every turn, I beat myself up for how I felt. What did I have to be unhappy about? Life had been good to me. Sure, a few bumps in the road, but nothing that hadn’t been experienced and conquered by others. The shower crying got excessive. So I busied myself. I found a job that I loved. Then I found a hobby I loved. Then I found out the “best” cancer came back.
Ok, breathe. Not too much. Don’t move. “Yeah, go ahead.”
Breathe. The smell of the alcohol swab lit my senses on fire. Everything ignited. My heart started to mambo in my chest, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep still. I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO MOVE. It was real again. The pain was too familiar. What if it spread? Don’t cry. I hated that I had to do it all again. The doctor’s visits and blood tests and ultrasounds and biopsies and scans and injections and radiation and questions and waiting and HOLY HELL I’M GOING TO GO INSANE. The only thing I could focus on was the needle. Why does it feel so hot? It was excruciating in a way I’d never felt. How long does she need to be in there? Just take what you need and get out. Please. The pain was a contradiction. It was focused and dull at the same time. She’s moving it around?? Why is she moving it around?? DON’T MOVE, ALEX.
When the needle came out, it felt like it was pulling me with it. My face was hot and I was still holding my breath like the good doctor asked. I felt like a fish on a hook, at the mercy of this now non-sterile spike. Not so bad, right? Could have been worse? I was too tired to beat myself up this time.
Just breathe. You’re done. Get your parking validated before you leave. Don’t cry. It wasn’t that bad. Don’t cry. Where did you park? Over there. Okay. Good job, kid. Not crying. Don’t need to cry. Okay, maybe a little. Maybe a lot.
Radiation treatment again with team M.D.
You’re going to be okay.
Round two wrapped up by the fall. When I started telling people that I was in the clear, it surprised me to see how relieved they were. To me, it was still “just” thyroid cancer. Comparatively, I thought, it was better than skin cancer. Better than breast cancer. Better than lung cancer. I failed to see that comparatively, no cancer would have been the best option.
Let yourself smile today. Genuinely.
I started taking into account the massive blow it had inflicted on me, physically and emotionally, and so I started to let myself off the hook. Nothing happened overnight, but the subtle changes started to surface. Less anger and frustration, more thinking and understanding. The grand scheme of things fucks with everyone in a different way. I don’t get to decide what comes my way, but I certainly don’t have the right to imprison my happiness as a toll based on some insane notion that I haven’t suffered enough.
Fire is fire.
You ever burn yourself on a candle, and then wonder how something that small could leave such a blistering pain on your body? For whatever reason, I ignored the fact that the heat of a single match has the same capacity to burn me as that of one hundred. I got scorched by, what I deemed to be, a small flame. It still hurt. Could it have been worse? Yes. But I don’t need to add kindling to that fire. It could have been better, too.
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