Last week, I had another cancer scare.
I’ve been in remission from breast cancer for about two years now. Every six months, I get a scan to make sure there aren’t any new shenanigans going on at my cellular level. Of course, “sure” is a relative term; I have what’s medically referred to as dense breast tissue, which is a technical way of saying my boobs are fibrous as fuck.
After this most recent scan, my oncologist called. The images showed a suspicious area the size of a grain of rice. I needed to go back in for an MRI-guided biopsy. She reassured me that sometimes these tiny spots don’t even appear on the follow-up scan – they can be just imaging blips, or regular hormonal changes.
This is the general reality of being a cancer survivor: everything could be fine, or some minute part of you could be decidedly not fine, and you just won’t know until you know.
For two days, I practiced the art of acknowledging fear without actually freaking out. Chances were decent it was all nothing, but I was also looking ahead to how another round of cancer might feel. What would be the same, and what would be new? What decisions would I have to make? What would it be like to exist in the liminal space of illness for a second time?
When you get diagnosed with cancer, you find yourself the potential protagonist of a whole slew of pop culture narratives, from Livestrong hashtags to Christian religious awakenings. Most of these stories have been easy for me to shrug off; I don’t own any rubber bracelets, and I haven’t been to church in years.
There’s one story, though, that did worm its way firmly into my brain, so seamlessly I didn’t realize it was just as artificial as all the others.
That first night after I got the news, I lay in bed looking at the ceiling, as one does when one’s hypothetical mortality suddenly becomes a calendar full of real chemotherapy appointments. Most of my thoughts were cloudy and distant, but one was completely clear. Whatever happened next, I was going to become a different person than I’d been before.
This idea didn’t cause any distress. It actually made me feel sort of galvanized. Excited, even.
Here’s something that’s always been true about me: I don’t particularly like myself. This isn’t to say I walk around consistently and completely disliking myself. It’s more as if there are two parts of my mind in constant conversation with each other. One part understands I’m a perfectly acceptable human being. The other exists solely to spew self-directed toxic sludge at every conceivable opportunity.
For me, this is what anxiety and depression usually look like – a shitty mental roommate continuously live-commentating the abject patheticness of my existence. A lot of the time, I can tune that part of me out using the kind of cognitive-behavioral tools they teach you in therapy.
But still, underneath the coping mechanisms, there’s always the belief that if I could change, become a slightly superior version of myself, maybe the shitty little voice would finally just shut the hell up. There’s always the belief that the voice is probably right.
Once my cancer treatment got underway, I discovered my noxious inner roomie had actually given me a gift. Those coping skills I’d developed to co-exist with her were also the skills I needed to handle the nattering worry that I might be dying. The years I spent learning to manage depression showed me I can live with fear and even despair, as long as I don’t mistake them for the full truth.
And yet, even as I walked all those well-worn mental paths, I was also waiting (secretly, hopefully) for the new me who would surely soon make her appearance. After all, wasn’t I on a hero’s journey, my personal descent into the underworld, from which I’d emerge a shinier, more enlightened human? Cancer had become the psycho-spiritual equivalent of a green smoothie cleanse or a silent meditation retreat – it would utterly suck, but then I’d be scoured fresh. I’d stop being awkward, uncertain, at odds with myself.
This is the true heart of most pre-packaged cancer stories, especially stories meant for women. It’s illness as self-help, as aspirational transformation. We are supposed to discover our inner strengths (you know, the ones we’ve been failing to demonstrate so far, because we aren’t yet our best selves). We are to inspire friends and family with our resilience (because our experiences are actually about how we look to everybody else). We are to wear pink spandex and run 5k fundraisers (because women can be tough, too).
We aren’t supposed to accept the full, awkward reality of ourselves. Not when we’re sick, and not when we’re well. The story keeps dragging us down a never-ending road of improvement, of suffering in the service of levelling up, in the hope that someday, finally, we will stop being merely who we are.
Meanwhile, while I kept waiting to self-actualize, the weeks of treatment went by. After nine months, after chemo and surgery and radiation, I was declared officially in remission. My body really has been through a hero’s journey, withstanding both the battering of cancer and the abuse required to save my life. It’s a transformation that will keep spreading its invisible ripples through my cells and organs for years.
But inside, in my mind, I don’t feel transformed. I feel the same as always, broken and sutured back together in all the same ways. And I’m disappointed to have survived without an upgrade, without the prize that’s supposed to come from traveling through the dark.
Here’s another thing that’s true about me: in the face of death, I still wanted to become someone else almost more than I wanted to live.
Last week, I had my follow-up scan. My partner drove with me to the hospital. The nurses squashed me into position on the procedure table and rolled me into the machine. Foreboding MRI noises ensued. Then, suddenly, I was all done. Just like my doctor had said, the suspicious spot was nowhere to be seen.
I felt more blank than relieved. As we left, I described it to my partner as an emotional hangover, an anti-climax. These descriptions are accurate, but there’s another one I kept to myself. Part of me was disappointed. On some subliminal, cellular level, I wanted a second chance to pass the ordeal properly and get the story right.
It’s the same part of me who’s been trained to hate everything I do, who’s convinced I’m so inept I even did cancer wrong. I must not have changed because I was too stupid to understand my own mortality. I must not have suffered as much as I deserve. These are the things she tells me on the days my coping mechanisms can’t shut her up.
On other days, I’m able to create a countering narrative. I reassure myself that life-threatening illness is not, in fact, a growth opportunity with correct and incorrect responses. That cancer is not a self-help program. I remind myself that none of us has to earn their existence through pain.
Some days, I even ask myself to consider the possibility that I didn’t need to change in the first place. I consider that even the shittiest, most broken part of me has played a role in my survival. And I try to see that in a life filled with uncertain fears and prospective joys, the only sure plot point is me.