Dear Cancer, You Inflict Pain

by Ellen O'BrienSurvivor, Brain Cancer & Breast CancerJune 3, 2022View more posts from Ellen O'Brien

Dear Cancer,

I am writing to express my anger regarding the pain you have caused. You have taken many things from my life that I will never be able to get back. 

My grievances began in 1993 at the age of five when you first arrived. You presented yourself in the form of a malignant brain tumor. Cancer, I know you thought this was a good age to enter my life because if I survived, I may not remember nor understand the treatment it would take to eradicate you from my body. 

Cancer, do you know what five-year-old girls are supposed to be doing at this age? They are supposed to be going to pre-kindergarten and making friends. Five-year-old girls are supposed to be learning how to swim or ride a bike in the summer. They are supposed to be going apple picking and dressing up for trick-or-treating in the fall, sledding or making snowmen and drinking hot cocoa in the winter.

But no, thanks to you, I was in the hospital going for tests, having IVs put into my arm, and being woken up in the middle of the night to check my blood pressure and temperature. I was being wheeled off to MRIs and CAT scans and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. I was losing my hair! Do you want to know what the worst part was? I was five years old, and I had no idea that this was not a normal life for a young girl.

Cancer, do you have any idea what it is like for a five-year-old girl to lose her hair? They didn’t make dolls or Barbie dolls without hair. Commercials were a constant reminder that you were different and don’t even get me started on mirrors! I felt constantly stared at, pointed at, and laughed at. It took me a long time to realize I was pitied. I can almost hear you laughing, but this is all your fault. 

Kids, without understanding, can be relentlessly cruel, but it’s nothing compared to the pity from adults. Don’t get me wrong, adults can be cruel, but the pity is worse. It weighs on you like you did something wrong. Pity hurts. “The poor girl,” while in the back of their minds they think, “thank God it’s not my child.” 

Cancer, you inflict pain on more than just your inhabitants.

I was five, my sister was just one. Do you know what one-year-old girls are supposed to be learning? First, a one-year-old is still adjusting to the world, their environment, getting to know the people in their life, and becoming familiar with the faces of their family. My sister, if she was lucky, had one parent at home looking after her. Other times she would be with an aunt, uncle, or a friend of the family. I am not saying that I am not incredibly grateful for all of those who cared for her, but this should never have been the norm. I am incredibly proud of who she is today. Despite you, she is one of the smartest, well-read, driven people I know. Don’t you dare smile and take credit for any of that. She did that on her own. 

Cancer, you left me feeling guilty. Let’s start with my sister. I was the older sister, I was supposed to be there to help, teach, comfort, and even argue with her. No, you robbed me of several years of relationship-building, but we are great friends despite you. In my opinion, she had to grow up too fast, learning to care for herself. My sister had to learn too early that the world is not fair. Cancer, all of that is on you.

 Cancer, your behavior was awful. You didn’t know this, but my mother had a daughter before me. Unfortunately, that baby—my big sister—died shortly after birth. Then I was born, and you came along and threatened them all over again. 

Here’s the thing, Cancer, not only did you invade my brain once but twice. Devastating my family, you slithered your way in when I was five, and even after surgery, you left something behind. I hear you laughing again, but your gift of dead scar tissue almost left me blind.

 Then you graced me with your presence again, resulting in a third surgery. This surgery occurred the day before my youngest sister was born. You forced my father to split his time and emotions between an Intensive Care Unit in one hospital and Labor and Delivery in another. I look at photos of myself holding my newborn sister and I am angry that I do not have memories of her childhood. She should not have had to grow up in your presence. That should never have been one of her struggles.

Do I have survivor’s guilt? I suppose you could say that. When I look back at everything you put me through, I do occasionally think that I am not supposed to be here right now. So yes, I hold a little bit of survivor’s guilt, but it is nothing compared to the anger I hold against you.

Cancer, as if you haven’t provided enough stress, anxiety, and fear, let’s touch on the topic of something else you stole from me—memories. You may be patting yourself on the back right now thinking, “Well, I may have caused her pain, but at least she was too young to remember.” Yes, a lot of that is true. I am thankful I cannot remember most of my treatment. However, you also robbed me of many memories. The memories I didn’t get to make and the ones I cannot remember anymore. If we refer back to my sister for a moment, I know as we grew older, we became very good friends, but I have little memory of us growing up together other than pictures and stories. 

The memories I have from my school days are not good ones. That pity I mentioned earlier, came tenfold from classmates’ parents. I was like a china doll. I felt that my peers were only friendly because their parents took pity on me. Some were jealous because I received extra help, they did not understand how a brain tumor affects learning. I am grateful for my best friend of 27 years. She never judged nor questioned me when my physical or mental challenges presented themselves. 

Cancer, this rant brings me to another grievance, all the things I had to learn or relearn. I had to relearn how to ride a bike three times. Every time I thought you were gone, you came back. It was as if you came back just to wipe my memory clean. You stood there laughing just to see if I could learn it all again. 

As an adult now, I am just learning that all my trials and learning disabilities in school lie under the title of executive functioning. These are things most kids develop at, you guessed it, ages four, five, and six. There you are again, Cancer, another interruption in my life. Your timing is incredible. 

What skills did you affect exactly? Let’s start with my ability to multitask. I don’t drive. I have found ways to work around this inconvenience. For instance, rideshares and public transit help me maneuver through my city. You, Cancer, threw this roadblock of multitasking and divided attention into my path making things difficult to navigate. Maybe not impossible, but difficult enough to cause me anxiety and exhaustion. 

I love to read but my reading speed is about 90 percent slower than that of my peers. One adaptation I picked up on my journey has been audiobooks. Accommodations such as untimed testing, enlarged paperwork, and an assistant to help read content were also implemented in my learning. Alas, a door was left open for ridicule by my peers. It has taken a long time, but I have finally come to the realization that the blame should not be placed on my tormentors, but on you, Cancer.

Finally, Cancer, you have taken one of my dearest friends. A friend who was full of life. He was far too young to be one of your casualties. His spirit stretched as far as the ocean. He once shared his thoughts regarding you, Cancer.

“When you’re sailing, you must work with what you’re given. You can’t control the weather, but you can adapt to it. It’s a similar thing with cancer. Things happen that aren’t planned, as in the cancer itself. You need to deal with it, you need to move on, and just go with it.”

 Now, I have detailed all the things you have taken from me. Cancer, let me discuss the opportunities that have arisen in my life despite you. 

I’m an adult, now in my thirties. I am four feet, seven-and-a-half inches. By the way, I guess I should thank you for the height—no one ever guesses my true age. 

I graduated from Anna Maria College with a Bachelor’s in Art Therapy in 4 years. So, take that, Cancer! I have also successfully held employment for 10 years (with a little help here and there when needed).

I have had great opportunities to join a caring community including attending Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp six years in a row (a camp for children with serious illnesses). I have spent three summers sailing on the Harvey Gamage, an old-fashioned schooner—another opportunity made possible by the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and Ocean Classroom. It is upon this experience I wrote my college essay, comparing sailing to my cancer journey. These are some of the many adventures where lasting friendships were made.

You know, Cancer, other opportunities have presented themselves in your wake. I had the privilege to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, with the Knights of Malta, courtesy of the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp. In 2014, I was given the opportunity to attend the Stupid Cancer Summit in Las Vegas. The recent pandemic allowed me to connect with old friends as well as new friends through the Stupid Cancer and Elephants and Tea programs.

You need to know, Cancer, that I blame you! Even now as an adult, you still threaten me. Last summer in 2021, just as the world was getting back to normal, you showed up in another form, Breast Cancer. I am now a little over six months out from DCIF Breast Cancer surgery and have a follow-up next month. It seems you will always be there, lurking in the darkest shadows of my brain. Well, I won’t let you define me. I didn’t at age five, and I won’t let you now. I did not order you; you did not come with a return policy. So, Cancer, you will sit in the attic gathering dust.

A Very Dissatisfied Customer,

Ellen Rose

This article was featured in the 2022 Dear Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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