“Looking back now, I can say that I’m actually glad that I had cancer.”
There are ten marks on the inside of my left tricep. Ten tiny patches of delicate, pale skin within single-digit-millimeter proximity of each other. Those marks and the succession of stitches between my breasts are the only of several scars on my body that have significance to me. I place emphasis on them because they were not made in the course of an accident like the majority of my skin flaws. No, they were created, had practical purpose then, still have important purpose now. They serve as a reminder of my strength and as a memory of my lesson learned. Those marks and stitches and I met when I became a cancer patient.
I still remember freshman year most clearly of all the grades. I remember working that year with relentless vigor to improve my image and GPA ranking. You see, I didn’t have high self-esteem. I felt like there was nothing special about me. So I vowed to see my high school years out differently than my middle school ones. I became obsessed with every strand of hair that flung itself at a strange angle, every point of a grade for every class on my schedule. I became obsessed with every detail. And as a result, I had finally achieved what I wanted: a self-satisfying appearance and class salutatorian. I gained a lot from my hard work, but I had also forgotten and lost many things along the way.
Then on a very fateful day in spring of that year, the foundation I had so carefully built was suddenly attacked: I had gradually become sick and was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
When I was first taken to the hospital to be diagnosed, my doctor sat me down on the bed in the room that was assigned to me. My parents very quietly stood by while my doctor sat next to me and solemnly stared into my eyes. She bluntly, but gently, breathed, “Joanne, you have cancer.” At this point, Mother sobbed loudly, Father stared blankly, Doctor gauged my reaction, and I sat there, comprehended, and simply said, “Really? Okay then,” and proceeded to order lunch from the hospital menu.
To be frank, I was more surprised that I was not shocked about having cancer than the news of having cancer itself. Actually, to begin to describe the sensation I felt after hearing my diagnosis would be sort of like…relieved. Relieved? Any normal human being would not be relieved after hearing that he or she has cancer. So what was amiss?
The first few days of the stay at the hospital were out of the norm for me, due in large part that it was the most rest I had gotten since the summer before. I was also left with no work, nothing to do. So I had to cope by sitting and thinking. After the first few days of reflection, I began to slowly understand my initial emotions. My strange peace was because I was finally free; cancer had freed me from my vicious, self-imposed cycle. In the hospital, I was finally forced to only focus on my health, something that was trivial just days before my diagnosis. In the hospital, I finally realized that so many things that I reveled in were being placed above my own happiness. School didn’t matter (that much, just not to the point of mental and physical instability.) My looks didn’t matter. No more studying till dawn. No more waking up two hours before school to prepare myself. I didn’t have to please anyone anymore. In the hospital, I was finally content. And I saw at last that the life I was trying to live was not fit for me: all work, no simple pleasures. I was concerned with petty things, forgot that there are more important things in life than how I look for one day or what grade I scored on some quiz.
In the midst of my rampage, I forgot what it meant to really value myself and the little things that make me smile; because I had set my standards so high, I was blind to anything else except success. Being confined in a hospital made me realize that I had built up my hopes with the wrong standards.
The two months in the hospital passed, for the most part, smoothly, though I had to have surgery twice, once to put a long IV inside my body through my arm, and the other to put a steel contraption in my chest to easily draw blood. But to be frank, I was very content with being lazy all day and not going to school (a rare pleasure for me), although other times, I felt extremely frustrated and often screamed into my pillow because I hated being caged. Nonetheless, during those two months, I don’t remember ever having felt sad simply because I had cancer. Yes, the hospital itself was very trying, but the fact that I had cancer never bothered me. Looking back now, I can say that I’m actually glad that I had cancer. Even though I became mad with boredom and bad food (if it can even be called that), my sitting and watching through the walls gave me the silence I unknowingly needed to see how wrong the direction of my life was.
After my return to school following the summer of my hospital release, I started to lessen my class rigor since it interfered with my out-patient treatment. Having less honors classes was a direct correlation with having less work, and I was able to enjoy my extra time doing things that I had forgotten I loved, like reading, drawing, talking to my best friend.
Now, three years later, I’m not sure what my classmates think of how I feel about my cancer since I never talk about it. Perhaps they think that I see it as a nasty scar on my life, something that I pretend never happened or am trying to repress. Maybe they think that I’m just too uncomfortable to talk about it. To a point, I am uncomfortable if someone constantly talks to me about only my health, but I would be more than willing to talk to those who are sincerely curious about my past. Because I want the world to know that cancer was just an obstacle for me. A big obstacle, no less, but like any other one, it was something I was able to learn from, to grow from.
There is a space on my transcript that accounts for days I have been absent. In the space is a number: more than a hundred and still counting. I have lived through more than six thousand days, and yet, the days signified by the number are the most significant to me. Each and every one of those days is a reminder of my relentless strength to keep moving forward and a memory of my lesson learned that life is more than a day’s events.
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