In the movie in my mind, I am the valiant card-carrying cancer warrior, a runner of marathons and wearer of pink. I carry a shield emblazoned with “I SURVIVED!” in huge letters as I cartwheel into oncology offices and sprinkle strength to other patients like fairy dust. I am the comforter of the lost and the downtrodden. For the ones who have lost hope or feel helpless, I am their rock.
I get congratulations for maintaining a sense of humor in the face of adversity, a calm expression during moments of extreme pain. A role model and an inspiration they call me.
It’s a good movie, where I am the hero and I win at everything. At life. At death. At any struggle. But it is, unfortunately, a movie.
Getting cancer is common these days. It’s an epidemic. Fortunately, there are enough movie scripts for dealing with it that I already know how my days will play out. The familiar tropes pop up so often in my real life that I’m no longer surprised by their appearances. I just continue playing the role that I was thrown into. I know how to make everyone laugh at me. I know every breast joke. I’ve written my own stand-up routine. The one-liners and comebacks are right at my disposal. After all, I’ve been watching these tear jerker movies since Terms of Endearment, and my story has a happy ending. I’m not turning into anyones Wind Beneath Their Wings so quickly.
But there is an unscripted part of cancer that I haven’t found in movies or TV. It’s the part that is debilitatingly real. It’s that part that makes its appearance during sleepless nights and 2AM phone calls to friends. It’s the shameful, weak, pathetic part of the cancer warrior. The part that is scared of surgery. That is terrified of the drugs that are constantly coursing through her body. The part that wonders if all there is left is the cancer warrior. If that shield will forever be held up for everyone to see and that it will be the only thing they see. That the pre-cancer person is gone, replaced by someone who looks like a hero but is really just a fragile, scared, wretched girl, looking for someone else to be the champion. Looking to be saved. Looking to get back to where she was before her life was turned upside down.
In short, a fake.
Pain doesn’t always have a logical cause. For weeks I felt the physical pain of surgery, recovery, and reconstruction. I took my meds and threw myself into distractions as my body healed. But as the physical pain subsided, something happened; I wasn’t bouncing back. Instead, a cloud moved in, consuming my nights with a different pain. Guilt that maybe I brought this on myself. Shame that I couldn’t just be happy that I was going to survive. Profound loss for the disaster that was my body, my mind, my soul.
I tried to intellectualize it. I knew that I was so lucky. It was only Stage I. Some people with less fortunate diagnoses would do anything to see that on a pathology report.
And yet. And yet.
Sometimes pain isn’t logical.
There is no logic with this cancer thing. If left alone, it will kill you. If treated, it still kills you. At least a part of you. People who have been there have told me that it gets better. Even with the ten years of medication and all the horrible side-effects, they tell me that I will get back to the old me.
I’d like to believe them.
Most people think I’m already there, packing this experience up into a neat box with comments like, “So you’re done?” or, “So you must feel great! You’re done!”
And I guess for everyone, I am. I’m back. I’m smiling. I’m telling jokes. I’m the warrior. A survivor.
But all I am truly grateful for, truth be told, is that they can’t see me at 2AM.
Can’t see me at all.
Until my movie starts again the next day.