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Dear Cancer, You are the Great Paradox

by Emma VivianSurvivor, Breast CancerJune 15, 2022View more posts from Emma Vivian

Dear Cancer,

You have changed me in more ways than I can count.

First, there was the big change, the news of your existence falling from the sky, scorching the earth of my body, and breaking apart my safe little world. When you arrived, you changed so much. You illuminated the fragility of life. You belittled my belief that a quiet death in my eighties was all but guaranteed. As the safety bubble around me popped, my fear of wasting life rattled me to the marrow of my bones. It took all I had not to run away, only there was nowhere to go. Before I even knew of your existence, you were changing me from the inside out. Cells dividing and diverging into branches that burst through the meat of my breast.

When I began the treatments to get rid of you, there were the obvious changes, the ones I had been expecting—the hair loss and the nausea and the insatiable fatigue. But there were also changes I didn’t even know to expect, like fevers and mouth sores and restless, never-quite-satisfied, shallow breathing. You changed my body temporarily and permanently, stripping me of my period, the monthly blood a promise of my ability to create life. You took my breasts, and with them, the potential to feed my future children from my flesh. You robbed me of all the ways I felt like a woman—the things that made me feel like an attractive, living, breathing thing. Most of all, you changed my hopes for the future. My plan to spend my hard-earned savings on a house with my husband—rather than treatment costs and IVF—then fill that house with chubby, giggling babies.

Since I learned of your existence, I imagine your branches spreading to every crevice of my body. I obsess at the image of your branches in my bones, eating away at them until they are honeycombed, a mere breath away from crumbling into dust. But in the three years since your arrival, I have lost my oldest friend and my newest friend to brain metastasis, so now I imagine your branches coiling into my skull too, circling ever tighter until no ounce of my humanity remains.

I would like to tell you a secret, only it’s something you must already know: my whole life I have been a person who is afraid. Perhaps all of us are. Before you, I was afraid of so many silly, pointless things. I was afraid of not being good enough, and afraid of trying to be but falling short. Afraid of being seen and afraid of not being seen. Afraid of being “crazy” and afraid of being “normal.” But it all came down to one big thing, didn’t it? I was afraid of myself. Then you arrived, and I was afraid of you, too. It’s funny, because aren’t you just a part of me? A part of me gone wrong. I don’t know how to accept that. The fear I have of you when you are only a part of me.

There are other ways you have changed me, though. These were subtle at first. A prideful tear on my cheek as I sat on a beach in Maui after finishing six rounds of chemo. A greater awareness of the song’s birds sing at dusk and then again at dawn. A slow building, steady understanding that maybe I am capable. Maybe I am worthy. Maybe I am deserving of this life that’s been gifted to me.

If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be writing this. I wouldn’t feel the need to sit down and type my thoughts on a screen, black and white permanence of an impermanent moment in time. I wouldn’t believe my voice is important—powerful and needed in this bittersweet world. I would have just stayed right where I was, in a job that pushed me to panic attacks in the staff parking lot, too afraid to take the leap from the known into the unknown. I would have stayed unsatisfied, afraid of wasting my finite time on Earth, but never afraid enough to do something about it.

Cancer, you are the great paradox of my life. You have taken so many things from me, and yet I am thankful to you for sparing me, and in doing so, teaching me a lesson. You forced me to grow out of the ruddy filth of the trauma. Even after all the ways you have changed me, I am still here, still breathing, still dreaming about a better tomorrow. There are so many changes—but oh, how I am trying to let the bad ones go.

Emma Vivian

This article was featured in the 2022 Dear Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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