The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Debts We Don’t Owe

by Aisha Bien-AimePatient and Survivor, CLL, Colon CancerJanuary 24, 2024View more posts from Aisha Bien-Aime

In February, I was faced with a sudden bout of severe pain and imaging that showed significant enlargement in one of my ovaries. Although I’ve since learned it was benign in origin, the debilitating pain and protracted (months-long) screening saga that followed triggered a fuming sense of betrayal that I couldn’t shake for about a week.

When the worst of this groaning ache subsided and I finally had the bandwidth to indulge in the luxury of introspection (rather than trying in vain to numb all manner of sensation), the emotional ardor had only just begun. The burden of this new diagnostic mystery was only now able to settle itself squarely on my shoulders as my initial ultrasound warranted just enough concern to require additional imaging studies weeks later, but insufficient clarity to (yet) pose definitive alarm.

While it was still too early to come to any real conclusions, I struggled not to simmer in frustration over the prospect of another weighty diagnosis requiring urgent intervention and derailment of my newly-fitness-focused routine. I wavered between a sense of déjà vu, taking me back to the bewilderment of my second cancer diagnosis, and injustice that this could come at a time when I felt particularly triumphant in my physical well-being.

For context, my mid-to-late twenties were marred by bizarre symptoms from an ailment that was eventually diagnosed as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Fortunate enough to have a relatively indolent blood cancer, I had been on some form of targeted therapy for almost five years when—out of the blue and on the heels of a cross-country move to the DC area (quite unlike the slow build of my CLL diagnosis)—I discovered I had a malignant tumor in my large intestine, shortly after the cherry blossom season of 2022. I promptly had surgery, yielding optimal outcomes across the board, including pathology results that again reminded me how lucky I am (despite the obvious).

Since recovering from my second cancer, I’ve been active in ways that were, for most of my life, well out of my comfort zone. Rather than treating it as a decorative shell, I’ve recently honored my body for its incredible range of function, embedded intelligence, and harmonious, physiological synergy. I have plotted and exerted myself toward unfamiliar feats of physical fitness, independence in spaces that I would seldom previously visit alone, and even adjusted my nutrition to support this newfound muscle-building. Rather than viewing physical fitness through a lens of diminishment—in both the size of my physical body and scope of permissible activities or foods (tedious cardio or a raw vegan diet)—I had recently struck such a perfect equilibrium between chasing strength-building challenges AND perfectly laminated Saturday morning pastries.

This made the timing of any potential health setback especially maddening.

Ultrasound number two gave way to another study weeks later, with each set of findings requiring more precise imaging. 2023’s peak bloom came early, and I eyed the blossoms with suspicion, wondering if they could become a personal harbinger of malignancy, heralding some Kafkaesque cancer Groundhog Day.

Still, I tried to approach this angst in a constructive way, reminding myself that cancer—specifically, the premium it assigns to your notion of time—had taught me not to worry about a nebulous future occurrence that hasn’t actually transpired; that, as Mark Twain put it, “Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe.” That said, I wanted to put another lesson into practice: that it was okay to vent my frustration and feel my anger. I had a right to be upset that the ordeal took me away from my health goals for some time, even if other potential impacts were still unknown. I had also learned that my well-being depended on being able to express that very frustration (of course, before moving on to bigger and better things in a timely fashion). So, I gave myself room to be distracted by silly (and not so silly) things: frivolous docu-soaps, competitive baking shows, scenic walks, and latte strolls. And I effortlessly declined some invites I would otherwise have anxiously fretted about fitting into my calendar.

Several imaging tests and doctor’s visits later, I’m grateful not to have given this pseudo-problem any more of my energy, as it settles into uneventfulness. At the same time, I hope it’s made me a little better at juggling the inevitable setbacks and triggers that lie ahead; at feeling just enough to let it go and move on, without taking me away from the glorious present (at least not for too long).

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