I knew we would meet one day. I can’t explain it, and others can’t understand, but you apparently knew too. You were the thing I was most afraid of, next to airplanes. When my surgeon told me you had arrived, I asked if my constant worry had manifested you into reality. He said he doesn’t believe in that, but if it were true, I could also manifest my way out of this. My first cancer lesson on perspective.
When he confirmed you were here, I laughed. Of course, I thought. The thing I’ve been most fearful of is staring me in the face. Actually, it lives in my face, right by my tonsil. I can only describe my next thoughts as flipping through a Rolodex (if you were born when iPhones already existed, that’s a rotating card organization device), frantically searching for the “right” feelings to grasp onto, to ground me. The thoughts flashed before me like images; I could suddenly visualize words, as my surgeon was explaining important facts that I didn’t hear and still don’t remember. The two thoughts that stood out were 1) I never needed to stress that much about work and 2) relief from the weight of anxiety. When the thing you fear most happens, it seems silly to have spent time fearing it at all.
My fear of you manifested in an obsession with health and wellness, doing all the right things to “make sure” I’d reach 80 unscathed. I followed the rules, Cancer. I did what I was told would keep you away. I didn’t smoke, I ate whole plant-based foods, I taught yoga, I appreciated the hell out of living, and knew what a gift each day was. I fixated on every minor health concern, shelling out copays like candy in order to get everything and anything checked out. My therapist says sometimes anxiety serves as a form of self-preservation. My fear may have saved my life and led to earlier detection, but at what point does fear become obsession? Carrying around the constant worry about you was nearly as exhausting as the marathon of treatment. And deep down, I still knew I wasn’t in control. No one’s to blame. You don’t discriminate.
In meeting you up close, Cancer, I’ve learned you seem to instill fear and try to prevent living. On that first day of our relationship, I thought I’d been absolved of my fear forever. But as you shapeshift in response to treatment, so has my dread. Instead of worrying about if you’ll happen to me, I now ask, will my scans come back better? Will the adriamycin (chemo) cause heart failure? Will there be a recurrence…if you even leave? Will I get c diff (bacterial infection in the colon) again? Will anyone love me without my long hair? Do I even know who I am? What if the worst happens? Everyone else will move on, but I’ll miss them. What if I don’t get to do all the things on my list? How do I even go back to work? I’ve lost time that would put me on track to a higher salary and a different title. Does any of that matter? All my friends are buying houses, planning weddings, and raising children. Will I get to do any of that? Will I end up alone, just you and me Cancer, forever? Will my forever be 50 more years… or one?
You’re a rare kind of cancer, too, one I’d never heard of before and didn’t know I needed to fear. Rhabdomyosarcoma. I am roughly 1% of adults whose lives you invade. I’ve been called a unicorn so many times I can’t help but long to be a horse. One of your special qualities is that you haven’t always responded to treatment as my doctors expected. We’ve finished our protocol but you’re still around. Shrinking, but present.
There have been moments in our relationship, Cancer, when I, too, have felt like I’ve been shrinking, but present. Those are usually the darkest moments when I think, “once cancer is gone, I’ll do…” and name something on my “to live” list. But I realized we know each other too well now. Even if you clinically leave, I will always be concerned about you. I’ll worry about you coming back, I’ll worry about the damage you left in your wake. My fear may shrink, but it’ll still be present.
I think back to my hospital bed where we first met and remember the relief I felt when I confronted you. I’m reminded that fearing something doesn’t stop it from happening. I realize I’m going to have to find a way to live with you forever, Cancer. Whether you are active or I’m in remission, I’ll have to live, anyway. Every day I’m still here is an opportunity and a privilege. I don’t intend to waste that time fearing you. I can’t control what you’re going to do, but I can control what I do with the time I have. However many days I have left, within whatever limitations I’m working, I’ll live, anyway.
You don’t seem to like living, Cancer. It’s been your goal to prevent me from doing so. You know, if I go, you go with me; that’s always been your desire. My surgeon doesn’t believe in manifesting. My genes mutated. It’s impossible my fears manifested into an error in my cells. But if he did believe in it, he said I could manifest my way out of this, if I thought I worried my way into it. I took this as a lesson in mindset. My surgeon is a smart person and he does believe attitude is important. So, here we are. I was afraid of you, and you arrived. Now, I’m telling you I’m still afraid, but I’m living anyway. I’m going to go to the beach (with sunscreen), share meals with my people, hike mountains again, watch sunsets, and listen to live music. I’m going to work to make sure fewer people know you, Cancer, and advocate for them if they do. I’m going to read books, I’m going to write books. I’m going to take up ceramics and play with my dog. I’m going to teach yoga again. Sometimes, I might rest. But, I’m going to do all the things you want me to stop doing. If that scares you, Cancer, you should run. You can leave. But I’m going to live, anyway.