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

Not Like the Others

by Aubrey DanielsonSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaMarch 1, 2023View more posts from Aubrey Danielson

We have made this drive before. However, the rocking of the car as it hits various cracks and potholes now leaves us worried about tire alignment rather than whether my mouth is aligned with an emesis bag.

I can stave off the beasts of negativity that paw at the edges of my mind until we reach the Cancer Center.

I cling to my independence as I walk through the familiar doors, no longer the only one wearing a mask for my protection. No longer wrapped in jackets and beanies in 80-degree weather.

Now, only my medical bracelet gives me away as the patient. I play with it on my wrist, a small “28” on its side reminding me of my age. It once read “25,” then “26,” and then “27.”

I am not like the Others.

I look around the waiting room, observing those who came before and after me.

The familiar muffled sounds of HGTV take off the slight edge of fatigue and anxiety that fills the room. The lady two chairs over holds her husband’s banded hand tightly, as if she alone can protect him. A man across the room nods off, his nervous wife looking around uneasily. They are called into the conference room reserved for social worker visits. The room where I was asked if I had a last will and testament and encouraged to prepare one when my bracelet read “26.”

I am not like the Others.

As my name is called, I stand up, not realizing that the sudden shift in altitude hasn’t made me light-headed. Today, I have forgotten where I came from.

I am led to exam room 2b. The room where my stem cell treatment all began. Only my mom is with me this time. They don’t need to drag in extra chairs for the rest of my family.

It is in here we sit, waiting for the nurse to arrive and rattle off the list of seven pills I used to take but no longer do. I’m not sure why I don’t correct them. Maybe it’s fear that I’ll relapse once the pills are removed from my chart. Maybe I merely forgot what it means to not have a pharmacy for a nightstand.

My mom works on a crossword puzzle while I attempt to read, eyes scanning the same sentence. Everything will be fine.

The door handle jiggles and a peppy nurse I have never met before walks in.

She asks how I have been and eagerly takes notes. The exchange is much shorter than it used to be. I no longer have chemo-induced hives or insomnia to inquire about. I merely work long hours and eat a lot of ice cream. My issues read like a headline for US Weekly rather than a CVS receipt.

The nurse nods sympathetically as I talk before informing us the doctor will be right in. The thick blanket of anticipation settles over the room with the sharp click of the door handle behind her.

“Eggs for fertilization. . . three letters. . . ,” my mom reads aloud.

“Ova,” I offer. My mom nods as she fills in the blanks.

“Have you received this year’s bill for egg storage?” she asks.

For a moment I forgot that my fertility is locked away in a freezer in a hospital basement, waiting for me to discover if my treatment did in fact silence both the cancer and my ovaries. More unseen scars lying quietly below the surface.

“Not yet,” I reply.

I am not like the Others.

Each minute that passes by waiting for the doctor to arrive sinks my stomach further as if it was an internal game of Battleship and my immune system has already claimed my freighter.

There’s a certain assumption that you won’t be seen on time. The ill outnumber the saviors. But after a certain threshold of tardiness, your prognosis dips. Once a delay in visitation has been caused by your failing immune system, you will always assume this is the case, even if it is because of someone else’s failing immune system, or merely bad traffic.

We are deeply connected, us cancer patients. Connected through the unspoken understanding of what it’s like to look at ourselves in the mirror each morning, staring at our sunken eyes and bald scalps. Connected through the communal assumption that we all have contributed too many medical ID bracelets to various trash heaps and memory boxes. Connected by the fact that one medical hiccup in our daisy-chain of neighboring appointments ultimately triggers a prolonged day for the next patient. And so, the dominos tip.

We are not like the Others.

We continue to look over our shoulder, ensuring the Beast remains dormant. We are simultaneously running from our diagnoses and relapses while chasing a time that seems to have picked up the pace from when we were last “normal.” Before mortality was thrown in our faces.

With each diagnosis comes the painful awareness of the delicate glass box we exist in. The light no longer bends around what we seem to only discover in old age and tragedy, and instead rests squarely upon the facade of fragility. We now more clearly see the thin line upon which we all delicately balance. Now, if we are lucky, we can hope to one day inhale deeply, our lungs filling with the air of the shifting seasons as our futures broaden beyond the next few hours, days, and weeks. . .

We are not like the Others.

Remission has left me split between two selves. The Patient who fought for the opportunity to fill their lungs with the future for one more day, and the Survivor, whose lungs have tasted that very air, yet remains unsure of what to do with the second chance they have been given. The Patient had a clear directive to survive. The Survivor must develop their own. Once you fight for one more breath, what do you fight for next?

I no longer trust my body. A dull ache in my hip or a random fever sends my mind spiraling. (I feel unremarkable. Right? This is what unremarkable feels like. I hope this is what unremarkable feels like.)

We have been remarkable for so long that we have forgotten what it means to feel “normal.”

There is a silent resilience to being in remission that places you in the gray. You are expected to move on, as if you are a butterfly that needs to prove there was some transitory reason you were one of the lucky few chosen for this fight. As if you had two pairs of wings to pick from at the end of treatment: the pair you discover after awaking from a deep sleep and the pair you are only awarded if you never do.

I spread my newfound “wings,” only to realize that I never learned how to fly. So, I remain in the shadows, observing and taking notes. Trying to subdue the voices of frustration for being where I am, knowing that where I am is a gift.

The handle of the door jiggles before it opens.

I inhale deeply as my mom squeezes my hand.

We are not like the Others.

This article was featured in the March 2023 Unseen Challenges of Survivorship issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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