Sickness separates yourself from your body. In sickness, your body is no longer yours to control. Instead, it is an enemy and you are the unwilling soldier. At least that’s how it felt for me. Suddenly, it is something that war has to be waged against and you are the unwilling soldier but still, in the middle of the night, it’s only the two of you together.
I’ve had chronic migraines for the last twelve years and that illness has seeped into every area of my life. I’ve missed out on family events, parties with friends, and graduations. I’ve skipped class, work, and dates to rest in my bed with an ice pack on my head. I’ve watched the hours, days, and months tick by as I sit with my aching body, unable to heal it, leave it, or forgive it.
This summer, I started working as a research specialist in a hospital. It was my first grown-up job and I was so proud. I was proud and working and happy. Except for the pain. The pervasive, unrelenting, unceasing pain. I went to doctor after doctor and specialist after specialist. I actually stormed into the office of a renowned neurosurgeon unannounced and demanded he look at my records. I had Botox injected into my head and my jaw, I had vials and vials of blood taken from my veins for tests, and I spent three days vomiting in the hospital after a particularly brutal round of painkillers.
Eventually, an angel disguised as a doctor figured out that I had a thyroid issue. While undergoing scans and tests for the thyroid issue, they found something else. Cancer. It was nestled into the side of my thyroid, living quietly in my throat. From there, things moved quickly. Surgery was scheduled and a week later, the surgeon took a scalpel to my neck and removed my thyroid and the cancerous nodules.
To move through life, humans must entertain a grand amount of self-delusion. There is one universal delusion many of us share: that the worst things can only happen to other people. That we won’t get in a car accident, that we won’t die young, that we won’t get cancer. And my god, we need that delusion. It protects us from the horrors of the world. It keeps the horrors firmly on the other side of the rose-colored bubble we live inside of. Unless that bubble is punctured.
Finding out I had cancer was like someone pricking my bubble and laughing in the face of my grand delusion and deflated ideas of security. Cancer was the world telling me that I wasn’t protected and neither was anyone I loved. Cancer ripped safety from my hands. Cancer was proof of what I now know is the truth- the worst things can happen to us, and sometimes they will.
I’m okay now. I should be okay. I’m lucky because I had thyroid cancer which boasts a near-100% survival rate. I’m lucky because I have health insurance. I’m lucky because I have a family who sat at my bedside as I struggled to wade through the anesthesia and then proceeded to curse at the nurse. (Sorry, Mary. I was really confused.)
Cancer didn’t only take my thyroid. It took the illusion of safety that I’ve carried with me since I was born. Now I’m scared. Often. I’m really, really scared. I’ve had horrible panic attacks that leave me screaming for breath. I’ve laid awake at night and wondered what else could be happening inside my body without my knowing. I’ve obsessed over pill schedules and blood draws and exactly how much vitamin D I need. And this week, I looked up from packing a suitcase to see my phone ringing. On the other end of the call was my doctor, saying there was a chance there was still cancer in my body. So this week, I take a shower and I brush my hair and I put on an outfit that makes me feel pretty and in control and I drive to the hospital for more tests. I walk into the cancer unit and hold my breath as the ultrasound technician maps the lymph nodes in my neck. Afterwards, I sit in my car and cry in the parking lot. Then I wipe my face and drive home.
Even in the face of uncertainty and sickness and fear, there is something else to remember here: I survived. The pink scar adorning my throat like a string of pearls announces that to the world.
Fortesa Latifi is the author of two Where Are You Press books,This is How We Find Each Other and We Were Young. Her work has also been published in Persona and Words Dance. She couldn’t stop writing if she tried. For bookings/interview requests, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She blogs atmadgirlf.tumblr.com.