Things I’d Want You to Know

by Jenny LeonSurvivor, Breast CancerMay 5, 2022View more posts from Jenny Leon

Things I’d Want You to Know: A Letter to my Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

Things I’d want to know: you will have a son then a daughter. Both will have your luscious, loose brown curls and wide eyes wrapped in blankets of long, black lashes. Sometimes you will look at them and think “I would, literally, withstand anything for you.” And you will.

You will meet a wonderful man after you waste a lot of time on a really shitty man. You will tell him on your second date that he is the first truly good human you have ever met. This will remain true. He is the kind of person who picks up your trash if you miss the garbage and doesn’t even make you feel bad about it. This man will be your mind when your thoughts stall, your heart when you feel as if yours no longer has the strength to beat, and your hands when you cannot feel. He will love you, in spite of all the ugliness, the weakness, and the anger of cancer. In fact, he claims he loves you more because of it. He will empty your drains. For this, you will be eternally grateful. He makes you believe that if the worst were to happen, your children would be taken care of in exactly the way you would have wanted them to be. This is the most reassuring yet heartbreaking truth you could know.

You will continue to love the color pink, in spite of it being a color for little girls and country singers, in spite of it being a color associated with the hardest event in your life.

Things I wouldn’t want to know: you will continue to have a tormented relationship with your body for most of your adult life. But your body will continue to serve you – steadfast like an old, trusty horse.

You will lose the person you thought you were many times over. But in each instance, you will realize that while you may not be the person you at one time desired to be, you are the person you always knew you were.

You will face a loss you never expected to face: the loss of your breasts. You were told you were crazy to fear cancer at such a young age, but you were right. Trust your instincts. They will, quite literally, save your life. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Trust your intuition.

You will learn to tell yourself stories in order to survive. This is an invaluable skill. It will serve you in good stead throughout the rest of your life.

People will assume you want to bury cancer deep down in the dark caverns of your empty breasts and never talk about it again. But the scar on your collarbone brings forth visceral memories of the way it felt when the needles stabbed you weekly; the sight of a turkey baster at Thanksgiving makes you shudder with images of the Red Devil; the deformities on your chest do not let you forget that the skin has been pulled, pushed, cut and reshaped beyond anything recognizable as natural; and a clump of hair in the drain can still make you wretch uncontrollably. Easy for them to forget. You live with the reminders on a daily basis.

It is you that feels your skin prickle as April approaches, the anniversary of your diagnosis. It is you that remembers your hairless, bloated, post-chemo frame every November. It is you that cannot look at any pictures of 2019, the year your daughter was born, the year you were treated for cancer. An entire year marked by trying to stay alive, days in the calendar permanently branded by the particularities of suffering.

But cancer can also be beautiful. By pushing you to the limits of what it means to be human – heart pumping, cells reproducing, excreting, exhaling, bleeding – it teaches you how to love your existence and how to be loved for your existence.

You will realize how little control you have over the outcome. Rejoice in the emancipation this knowledge brings. I hope you will spend the rest of your life focused on how you choose to spend your time, the projects in which you want to engage (and withdraw from), happiness, perspective, whether you fancy a second serving of chocolate cake, the way you like to style your hair and whether or not you want to watch one more show before you go to bed.

I hope you will not spend your time obsessing over the big things. If I hadn’t had that second piece of cake, I may not have gotten cancer. This is an illusion people white-knuckle, like a blankie to make them feel protected against the monsters under the bed. But, you know, the monsters will still get you or they won’t. You are not bound by the cages you have built for yourself.

So, do not worry too much about the genes lying in wait. In fact, I wouldn’t even read this letter, if I were you. The truth is it won’t change anything. And it doesn’t really answer the question you want answered. I don’t really know if you survive. I’m still waiting to find out, myself.

I can tell you that a lot of really wonderful things will happen to you. You will walk down the aisle in a white dress and see your person grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. You will hold your firstborn against your breast for long, lazy, never-ending hours. You will never hold your second born against your breast because you will lose your breasts on the twilight of her birth. But your love for her will feel more miraculous because of that juxtaposition between light and darkness, between life and death.

You will watch that same daughter squeal in sheer elation on her third birthday, as she leaps up and down in a pink and purple dress. You would undergo that torture of cancer treatment a million times over to see her jump like that.

A lot of shitty things will happen to you too. You will lose friends, breasts, hair and time to cancer. Some of these losses will regrow, others will be for the best and some will hurt more than you can bear. But you will bear it because you need to be here to see that girl jump on her third birthday and hopefully her fourth, fifth, sixth and fiftieth. And you will appreciate every birthday, every moment as if it is another stolen chance at life, another opportunity to be grateful for the narrow miss.

John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” You will sing that song to your newborn son and ruminate on that line, knowing there is something you are still missing. Your desire to know will tug at you like a hunger to plunge to the bottom of the dark, unknowable sea. Until one day you realize you now understand. There was more to it. You were right.

Love,

Jenny

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