I think one of the worst things that ever happened to me was one of the most benign. In a graduating class of just under 200, I was voted, “Most Likely to Stay the Same.” At the time, I had my life planned out and none of it equated to standing in place. I was months away from college and what I thought was going to be a solid career in radio broadcasting. 9 months later, I quietly changed my major in the Spring and went for gender studies after a brutal awakening. Seven years later, I had a beautiful baby, but a lingering failure with men. Within a year, I had cancer.
My twenty-year reunion should have been this summer. Mostly grateful the pandemic gave me an excuse to stay absent, I wondered what a conversation with a twenty-year younger version of myself would entail. Could I even begin to piece together what would happen? “Most likely to get cancer again,” might have been more appropriate given the disappointing trajectory of disease that occurred in two decades.
I thought I was over these writings and this place, this grief, and this longing to not have to fight the same battles, year-after-year. I heartfully believed the tests would come back clean. I don’t feel sick. I never feel sick. I don’t know how to express what it feels like to mentally layer body part after body part into a invisible bin entitled, “things that want to kill me” when the container is already full. Some people got married, got advanced degrees. But sadly, I just got cancer.
That stupid graduation guessing game has followed me and what did it even mean? My yearbook quote was, “we cannot become who we need to be by remaining who we are.” Oh my god, the irony.
We ask a lot of cancer survivors. But mostly, the secret is, cancer survivors ask a lot of themselves. The people-pleasers among us don’t want to succumb to illness, so we become living, breathing examples of Dylan Thomas’ famed prose- sternly facing what’s ahead but toiling with inner fury. I’ve never been one for gracefully accepting a fate I don’t believe belongs to me and it has never been more evident than over twelve years of disease management.
In a stroke of lighting tonight that blazed past my bedroom window, I was jolted awake. Cancer was merely doing the job my brain provided, wasn’t it? Hurry, change, and grow- for nothing must remain the same. And it was at 1:17am on September 2020, that I finally accepted the fact that I had empathy for the overconfident mutations in my body that lacked a greater purpose. Dividing without stopping, cancer cells never mature. Perhaps, to beat my cancer once and for all, I had to let go of something that had also kept me the same: The debilitating fear that I was the human being I so didn’t want to be in 2000.
She tried entirely too hard. And she brought her parents joy. She imagined hopeful things like getting married and buying houses and creating change. She was funny at the most awkward moments and serious when no one else seemed to be. She was deeply into her faith and often led prayer singing in class. (I still can’t believe she did that.) I think she might have been fearless. The thing is, while I see her more clearly, I also understand her with clarity. In her struggle to wiggle, evolve, and burst as far away from the mold of who she was as possible, she grew without purpose when who she was…was pretty damn great.
So I have a new prayer: For each cell in my body to recognize its worth, to understand its true motivation, and to have the gift of evolution. To not force change to merely say it happened but to mature out of meaningful growth. I may not grow wildly old, but hot damn, will I grow well.
With a focus like that, how could any of these cancer cells want to stay?