Naming ‘It’: Me, My Tumor, and Cancer
The first time I noticed “It,” I was looking at my reflection in a dingy bathroom.
“Hello,” It introduced itself, “I’m new, but I’ll be here awhile.” It was a lump on my neck, found only because it cast a shadow.
“Do you have a name?” I asked, hoping in vain that this time It would answer. Silence, as always, would follow. Just the steadiness of my heartbeat, pulsing blood through my veins—through It, feeding It, helping It grow. Out of my control, yet within me.
I bargained with that silence as if it would have made a difference. “If you go away, I’ll go to the gym more. I’ll eat fewer desserts.”
“I’ll work harder in school. Go to the gym EVERY day. Eat no dessert.”
But the bargain felt complete, and the silence less threatening, and Its presence retreated back into the corners of my brain. I carried on, hating the body that put me in this position. Feeling helpless to do anything, yet determined to do something—if I couldn’t control It, I’d control everything else.
This cycle repeated for months. Until the first time It broke the silence.
“My name is Danger,” It said, “and you should fear me.”
“What kind of Danger?” I asked. But my translator, the doctor, didn’t know. It wasn’t speaking clearly yet. The doctor needed to make a personal visit. Needed to cut It open and confront It. Surgery.
So It had a name. A vague name: Danger.
But I was no closer to knowing what kind of Danger. An urgent one? A false one? “It’s most likely nothing,” the doctor said. The visit would be a formality, just to confirm this.
The Danger’s silence was deafening. I went back to bargaining, desperate for more control; more information. My bargaining had me eating too little, working too hard, and stressed out about how to act ‘normal.’
I looked like I had it all together, people later told me. Wrong: I was a sad and anxious human.
In the midst of these bargains, I learned about cultivating a gratitude practice while scouring health blogs for diet tips. Be grateful, and happiness will follow, the experts said. I wanted to be happy.
So I would wake up 5 minutes earlier and list what I was grateful for. My family, my friends…the usual. Then 5 minutes became 10, and I listed more things: the opportunities to attend college, and to live near the best hospitals in the world.
One morning, there was something new on the list. I hadn’t planned it. It just slipped out unexpectedly:
“I’m grateful for my body.”
My body, inhabited by Danger, my elusive enemy? My body, the home of that tumor? No, that can’t be right, I told myself.
But then I thought about it. My body lets me run and jump and sing and laugh and love. My body was fighting back against Danger and all his pervasive silence.
Okay…maybe I could be grateful for my body.
It became my mantra. Even on days when I didn’t believe it, I expressed gratitude for my body. In the beginning, that was most days. But I had believed once, so I knew I could believe again.
The next time Danger broke his silence, it wasn’t good news. The visit that my doctor paid didn’t confirm It was “nothing.”
“I’m sorry, but it was cancerous.”
So that’s your real name. Not “It.” Not “Danger.” Cancer.
But the name, Cancer, was liberating. While fog had once obscured the path to health, now I had a flashlight, and a map. Now I knew my enemy. How to fight him. How to beat him.
I think that I’d known all along that It was really Cancer. It hadn’t felt like a friendly tumor when I first found it. It felt wrong, full of dark energy. Panic and anxiety greeted me whenever I examined It in the mirror.
But now that it’s all over, pride greets me when I look in the mirror. My scar is a daily reminder that two surgeries and radiation sent Cancer packing. My body fought back. She wouldn’t let the worst happen because she was strong and full of love. Now, when I run or jump or sing or laugh or love, it’s a victory lap.
Cancer wanted to rob me of fully embracing life, but I didn’t let it. There wasn’t one specific moment when I realized that I had really started living; there were lots of small moments that added up:
Like on the day I was three months clean, and my friends surprised me with an enormous card telling me how proud they were and how much they loved me. That was the day I realized that I didn’t fight cancer alone for a single moment.
Or when I was eight months clean, when I walked out of class at the Sorbonne and realized I was living out a childhood dream, to study in Paris. That was the day I realized that I should continue to dream, because those dreams could come true.
Or when I was sixteen months clean, and the leader for a retreat I had agreed to help with kept poking just a little bit more than anyone else had at my feelings about cancer, and I admitted out loud for the first time that I had been scared. That I had pretended I wasn’t so no one would worry about me. That was the day I realized the importance of being truly vulnerable and honest with myself about my feelings.
Really living means being aggressively friendly to friends new and old. It means saying yes to pizza AND fries, because life is too short to choose. It means running faster, jumping higher, singing louder, laughing longer, and loving deeper.
Really living means I don’t bargain with the silence. I fill it with life.
Kitty Sargent is a recent graduate of Boston College, where she studied Political Science and French, and served on the executive board of Real Food BC, a food sustainability group.