It’s dark. I should attempt to snag a few hours of sleep from the quickly dying night. Instead, I read the stars out of the window, point out Orion, Cassiopeia, and the Pleiades to myself. The stars remind me of my dad. We used to go camping as a family and stare up at the stars. My dad taught me to string Christmas lights, plant raspberries, make biscuit dough. When we moved into our forever home, he built a dining room table and bookshelves. He nursed the yard back to health and planted snapdragons and honeysuckle. He built us a swing outside and promised us a treehouse. And then he got sick.
There’s a lot of debate about when cancer was first discovered and what it is exactly, and there’s still plenty of unknowns. There are hundreds of kinds, most with names that just sound mean: metastatic squamous neck cancer or paraganglioma. The number of cancer survivors will be millions by 2030 but there’s a lot these numbers can’t possibly represent. That’s because cancer is a lonely heart’s club, and it’s difficult to understand unless you’ve had it.
My uncles, when they came down for the funeral, built us a treehouse that I resented until the day we moved. My father was everything to me, and when he died, I retreated into myself. I hated it when my mom called me by his nickname for me, I hated it when teachers or parents of friends asked me how I was. I hated what I saw as pity, and what I now recognize as love. Two years after we moved from the house Dad built, I’d get my own diagnosis.
My mother comes up with a nickname of her own for me. She calls me “cancer girl” and we joke a lot about it, maybe more than we should. I wish I didn’t need to tell anyone, I’d go at it alone, hammer and tongs. It’s the kindness I find hard to repay. I’ve been given so many gifts, so much food, so many kind words, it makes my head reel. I have to be careful not to diagnose these acts as pity and assume the hostile attitude that keeps me safe from accepting love. I have the best support system in the world, and I am still so lonely. It’s a feeling of harboring a parasite. My own body has mutinied, my own body has turned against me, and I have to keep living and feeding this thing that I have created.
There are a lot of things I don’t talk about. But gradually, over two years, my mental health has crumbled slowly away. I get anxious and tremble so much I can’t hold my hands still, or worse, I feel nothing. I have horrible mood swings: be on top of the world during the morning and barely able to move in the afternoon. I can barely get out of bed, barely brush my teeth, barely remember to eat or drink or get enough sleep.
My hands are always cold, no matter how many layers I have on. I had to stop my calcium supplements because if my calcium levels drop too low, I could die. This is a worse-case scenario. Thyroid cancer as a whole has a good prognosis and chances of death are slim. And still, I am so exhausted by it.
I know the emotionless art of doctor’s waiting rooms, I know the apologies, I know the consolations they offer. I know needles in my throat, and in my arm and in my blood. I am tired of being a good patient, tired of people telling me how sorry they are. No one means to stare but yes, they do. The scars are too obvious for that, long and purple, reminiscent more of a knife fight than of a surgery, although maybe those are the same thing. One reaches underneath my jawline and the other touches my collarbones. There will be a new scar where the drain was, where the stitch above it was that my grandmother had to pull out.
What the hospital did well is remind you of your still-primitive nature. You rely on others to eat, sleep, drink, and pee. You can’t put an extra blanket on if you’re cold and can’t take it off if you’re hot. The Maternity ward was also home to Pediatrics, and it brought nine new lives into the world while I was around. They moved one of the babies into the room next to mine and paused to show her to me. Her name was Isla, she was exactly a day old, and she had bright blue eyes and a surprising amount of dark hair. And even though I was arguably just as helpless as this baby, something below my scars burned for her. I wanted, somehow, to make this place better.
Yes, the world is dark. Your father who you are the spitting image of may one day die, though he loved you enough to live for you. Your mother who holds you now may hold your hand in the hospital and hope your breathing stays steady. Your grandfather who comes to gaze at his very first grandchild may travel across three states to say goodbye if he needs to. You may wonder how you are so young and yet so old, have seen things that others twice your age shudder to think of. You wonder why you got the easiest cancer. You wonder why you get to live. And yet, you are thankful it’s your cancer, and not someone you love more than yourself. You have the strength: this I promise. Often, we wonder what we would do if our parent dies or if we get cancer. You know the answer: you keep going. You fight and gather those you love close and you fight. You’ll keep fighting. You have to, because even though you’re cancer girl, you are so much more than that.