The first time I heard this cancer diagnosis, I didn’t react to it. The doctor simply read from my pathology report and started explaining the treatment plan. I was seated on old, unstable chair a little behind the doctor to his left and over the course of that session, I found myself arching my neck, trying to read the report on the doctor’s desk; like I was trying to steal my diagnosis. He tried to address me as much as he could, but mostly it felt like he spoke to my family: the four people that sat crammed around the table. At some point in the session, feeling a tad lost, I interrupted with an, “I’m sorry, is it malignant?” The doctor turned a little, nodded and said yes. I spent the rest of my time in that office nodding as he answered everyone else’s questions. It wasn’t shock or denial anything emotionally alarming, I just didn’t feel any particular way about it. Maybe it was how discreetly the doctor said it, or how much support I had seated in that tiny doctor’s office in Doctor’s Plaza, or maybe I just didn’t fully realise what it meant.
The second time, I wept. This time, I was seated on a raised chair in an examination room on the sixth floor of a cancer center. The surgeon explained my pathology report as light heartedly as he could. It was a low grade salivary carcinoma (cancer of the salivary glands). He reiterated his confidence at having removed almost all of the malignant cells (99% he said), stressed that further radiation and chemotherapy would be somewhat of a preventive measure as much as it was treatment and highlighted that as far as cancer goes, this was on the good side: there was little to no chance of metastasis; the tumour was only locally invasive. I don’t know if I believed him. Like the first time, I nodded, maybe even smiled and waited for him to be done. As soon as he left the room, my cousin rushed to my side. I waved her off with several “I’m okays” thinking I wasn’t going to cry, at least not right away. My cousin and the surgeon’s assistant stood on either side, and I stared out the window, at the parking garage across the street. I kept thinking, if I can just make it to the car, then I can say I was brave if I ever have to tell this story. But staring at those many cars, an irrational panic set in. What if we never found our car? I turned to verbalise this worry, but the tears beat me to it. It was the first of the many forceful, involuntary cries I have had in the last few months. My whole body cried. Legs, thighs, gut, chest, face, everything.
I spent the rest of the day surrendered to my grief. I didn’t even try, any movement-any indication that I was alive really- was enough to make me heave. At some point on the car ride home, I had a mini panic attack and my cousin just held my hand through it. It was all she could do. We were smack in the middle of a bridge and she couldn’t stop even if she wanted to. A few miles later, she stopped at a service area to talk. She said what people typically said in moments like this and I sat, not really listening: I was trying to stop my brain from working. After a while, as these things go, she expected me to say something. I guess my efforts had worked because I didn’t have anything to say. For the first time in my life, I was utterly speechless. All I had was an awareness of how nonsensical everything was. It was like running a marathon for months, and the track suddenly turning to an endless open field. It felt like I was standing on this open field, exhausted and hurt, wondering why I even ran to begin with. Because for months, I had been as good as possible. I took this illness with all its changing diagnoses with a sense of humor and incredible capacity for pain. I stretched out my arms with no more than a shrug and let them prick me. I fasted and ignored my anxiety inside all the machines they shoved me into. I joked and laughed even after the surgeon removed everything he could remove from the right side of my face. I didn’t complain when my nose was packed all the way to my sinus and I couldn’t breathe. I confronted and made peace with my mortality as quietly as possible so as not to upset my loved ones. I had been good through so much, only to end up here. What do you even say? All I could do was cry.
I am now on my fourth week of chemotherapy and radiation. The thing about chemotherapy and radiation, is that things get worse as treatment progresses. It’s a hard thing to sit with: the awareness that only more pain is coming. Yet, I have found, the things that make me cry have very little or nothing to do with the actual treatment. So far, my face has gotten a lot darker (almost unnaturally so), my gums are painful and bleed at the slightest touch. The right side of my mouth is torn and my lips are bruised and bloody. My tongue has patches of purple and I’m lucky if I can taste food. Eating is a lot harder: I can’t open my mouth wide enough to put enough food in, and my muscles are weakened so chewing becomes painful after a while. I have reduced hearing on my right ear. What’s left is periodic high pitched ringing. My nose is bloody and I’m too fatigued for anything. Even so, these aren’t the things that worry me. Even reading through them now, I thought, it’s not so bad.
We often think that going through life-altering things is an all-consuming endevour. We think people with terminal diseases just sit around waiting for death. And maybe they do in some cases. What I’ve found, is even though I’m constantly sick, it only means that I’m asleep a lot more. My mind is occupied with other things. It is both sad and consoling that I can still be vain. I worry about what it means for my desirability now that my skin is a lot darker and my face isn’t that symmetrical. I worry about finding a partner I can trust with this kind of history. I wonder what my future intimate moments will look and feel like now that my upper palate is basically a removable obturator.
I also worry about my career. I think about what it means to be a writer who doesn’t currently write. What will this hiatus mean for editors and peers and my readers? What does it say about me: my determination and discipline? What new dynamic has been established with my writing? How much of my sense of worth can/should I still draw from it? Am I failing as a writer? Am I failing at life? What will happen when (if) I do get better and all I have is blank pages? Because while I am aware of how necessary it was for me to let myself do nothing; to give myself the time and space to process this difficult time without the pressure to convert it into stories, I don’t know if this rationale will hold once this is behind me and I’m back to feeling like a bum writer.
I have also contemplated the concept of legacies. Especially what it means when we proclaim that we aren’t ready to die for whatever reason. I think most people whimper on their metaphorical death beds regardless of when they die. Very few people are ever truly ready to die. That being said, I am okay with my death, especially as it relates to my legacy. For a really long time, I couldn’t process this illness because I didn’t want to think about my death. I didn’t think that I had made my mark as a writer: I still needed to write a few books. Now, if it happens it happens. My life, however long it will be, is already valid. Nothing, not the work I do or the people I care about, factor into my life’s inherent validity. Existing in this moment in time is all the legacy I need. Figuring this out has been the biggest upside to this illness.
On one of my hardest days, I was in bed crying when my cousin came in. He said whatever and asked to hug me. In the middle of the hug, I realized I couldn’t feel my tears. My face was still numb after my surgery. I started laughing and when he asked why I said, “You know what’s funny? I can’t feel my tears.” Not feeling my tears was the other upside for a while, but I’ve since regained feeling and now everything hurts.
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