I’m Not Afraid

October 20, 2008

What does it mean to have cancer? I struggle to grasp the answer. Something I blame when I don’t feel well? Something labeled as ‘the enemy’? Something that’s hardly recognizable in scans? Something I never imagined I could have.
It’s 4:30 am. An emotional, dizzy day turned sleepless night. Despite all of that, I feel absolutely wonderful.
Tomorrow I will exercise, read some Henry James, call a bunch of friends, volunteer for something, think up a new outfit, and sign up for classes. Once I get up. For now, I’ve stuck to writing this essay. That’s my life. The life that now includes this thing called cancer, but I’m not afraid.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid people won’t believe me when I say that. I’m afraid they’ll think my smile is just a happy mask. It’s not. I mean it. I’m afraid people will just think of me as “that girl,” the one with cancer. I’m not, no more than people at school are just “that boy with a lisp” or “that girl with an eating disorder.” I’m afraid of wanting to tell people I’m sick. I’m afraid of trying to hide that I’m sick. I’m afraid of making people feel sorry for me when I don’t need it. I have so much.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of the toll time takes. Time when I work first by taking pills and then by learning. I’m afraid of losing touch of the world where I become an adult, get a job, live independently. I should start now, so I can make it. I’m afraid of using cancer as an excuse not to work, an excuse not to try my hardest, and an excuse to give up. So I have to push myself and pretend I don’t have an excuse.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of making people think I’m not okay, when I am. I’m afraid of complaining about something too small. But I do it anyway. Just in case. I’m afraid of expectations. The expectations that cancer will make me some great person make me wonder. Have I really changed? I still feel normal. Am I supposed to change?
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of statistics. I’m afraid of thinking that so many of the people I see around me will have cancer later according to statistics. I’m afraid cancer will prevent me from helping people. I can’t donate my blood. I can’t sign up to donate my organs. I can only talk.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of getting mad at my mom. And then I might be mean to her. But I don’t mean it. I love her. I’m afraid of how my little sister is taking it; that it’s harder on her than she lets on. How much of it does she understand? Her life seems to be the same. But I can’t tell. I’m afraid of using cancer to make my Dad do too much for me. My dad works so hard, he doesn’t need more.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of my parents watching me in pain. Pain that I forget about the minute it ends. But they might not. I’m afraid of what cancer could do to my family. I’m afraid of a grieving family. But I won’t let them. They love me. I’ll live.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of being immature. I’m afraid of the immature sense of invincibility. I’m afraid of that being the reason I’m not afraid of cancer. But then again maybe it’s good for me.
I’m not afraid of cancer. I’m afraid that by now I’ve used too many “I”s.
Those are my fears; fears I only think about at a time like 4:30 am. They began a year ago when I was diagnosed with liver cancer. I’m sixteen now. My story is incomplete, but I’m happy with what’s there.
I’ve had chemotherapy, but my oncologist counters back. A chemo rash versus the full body brace he wore in high school. I’m not sure which is worse. I stay at home a lot. At home, my mom confides her wish to change places with me for my sake. I compare the me with some control and a young body to the me worrying about Mom, not knowing what to do. I glad for the way it is. I’ve had an eleven hour surgery. I undergo a successful surgery in a sunny, shop-filled, food-filled San Francisco while my classmate vacations in Italy. I’m not sure which is better. I’ve stayed in hospitals. At hospitals, nurses, the ones who do the ‘dirty work’ on long shifts, take care of my every need while smiling. At the hospital, J.P., a bright, confident resident, is the first to calm me down during episodes of hyperventilation with a chest and abdominal incision. I meet my first role models while my friend meets Justin Timberlake, with a thousand raving fans in-between. I win.
I’ve gone through something you can’t imagine, a pretentious voice whispers in my head. It’s perfectly in sync with the band belting out, “No you don’t know what it’s like/ To be like me,” on the radio. The song ends. “Come down to Macy’s for a…,” the following advertisement begins. I remember. I need to get new jeans… and something neon… maybe leggings. Neon and sheers have been all over the runway for spring. My mind eagerly starts listing. The wall around me crumbles. I’m human just like any other.
I’m not someone to feel sorry for. To me, cancer is just something that happened in my life. It’s not my life. My life is my family and friends. My life is my dreams: realistic and unrealistic dreams, achieved and bandaged dreams. I wouldn’t give any of these up even to be cancer-free. I’m grateful. I’m happy.
Lydia Teegan