The Roses of Pain

A piece I wrote the day before I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time…

Something nobody ever tells you about surviving cancer is that this disease stays with you. That no matter how many years pass and how long your hair grows and how much you start to feel confident and strong and powerful in your skin again, there remains a feeling of insecurity. Like a Wednesday morning breakdown on a public bus, hiding tears behind sunglasses as autumn sunlight seeps through the window, because your doctor hasn’t called you back and you’re so deeply afraid of returning to the place where you felt the most fragile. People don’t tell you that the hardest part is living with this pervasive worry that courses through your mind day in and day out, that you might lose it all again, that you might have to return to that island of isolation, again.

That’s not to say life in between the anxiety isn’t beautiful. In fact it’s quite the contrary. Life is ineffably magnificent. In between the moments of doubt, being in recovery feels good. Sometimes it can even feel euphoric and miraculous, like the first day of summer, like being a kid again and climbing to the top of the highest tree in your garden, or being a grown up and crawling into bed beside the warm body of a lover. That’s the gift of close encounters with death. That’s the prize. You’re able to cherish the way the light hits the water, smell the rich wood of a pine tree like you’ve never smelt it before, understand the that the sound of a child laughing in a playground is nirvana. You’re able to turn a monotonous morning commute into an observation of human life, the old man in the tweed jacket with his pumpkin briefcase, the woman with the tight knot of curls, scarlet lips and sad eyes. Food becomes more flavourful; a Friday afternoon, ecstasy. Life is illuminated by this unshakable understanding that each moment is short-lived, fleeting and fading and you can’t let a second of it slip by. You become hungry and voracious and desirous of everything. You want to grab it, squeeze it, pour it down your throat, in an attempt to quench this insatiable thirst for experience.

But I wish I could articulate what it also feels like to be 25 and terrified the swollen lymph node in your neck is a sign of relapse. A sign you might have everything pried from your hands once again. A sign you might lose the battle this time. What it’s like to watch people your age stress over outfit choices, nights out, college deadlines, over their future plans and career goals and relationships. Things you too would like to focus on but can’t, because all you’re doing is wishing and hoping and silently praying that your body is ok. That you are ok. That you’ll be able to stick around for the future too.

Cancer gives you perspective. Little things matter less. You stop hurrying, rushing, dreaming of the future, forgetting to be present. You find yourself more conscious in each moment, wishing for it stay, for the afternoon to pass by more slowly, for the sun to never set. You stop getting worked up over every little thing. When I see people getting mad at the traffic, pissed off that their train is late, castigating the waiter for taking too long, cursing a commuter for walking too slowly, words seem to rise from my throat in protest. I want to shout out, ‘Wake up and look around you!’ Isn’t it incredible that every one passing you by has a story? That every individual is so layered and complex, so full of sadness and joy, longing and hope. Look at you, walking down the street, using your limbs, your healthy body. Can you not see the gift in being here? But I stifle these thoughts. Who am I to tell people how to feel? Nobody likes a self-righteous Pollyanna preaching clichés about looking on the bright side. No, that’s not the point. Humans are mosaics of sentiment, multifaceted beings designed to experience every emotion. We’re supposed to get mad sometimes. We’re supposed to explode with anger and laugh so hard our tummies ache and occasionally sob like broken-hearted teenagers. But, there are moments when we can step outside of our story and learn to simply let shit go. A person cuts you off, a pigeon shits on your coat, your train is delayed, a stranger hogs the armrest. It’s ok just to accept the moment as it is and not allow yourself to be enraged by something that ultimately doesn’t matter. Cancer has given me the ability to step out of this narrative of victimhood and let gratitude gush from my veins and the beauty of every plain fantastic ordinary little thing become illuminated.

There are so many reasons I’m grateful for cancer and yet, and yet, living with this fear is debilitating. It robs you of a sense of freedom that your twenties is supposed to be about. Carefree, blissful, wild hedonism. How I long sometimes to just worry about the small things, instead of the big huge heavy things.

But, maybe that’s a fair trade. Maybe living with fear is worth it, if it means that I get to live a life that is also defined by love and appreciation, etched with silver linings. An explosive life, made of luminous colours and awareness. Perhaps, knowing and feeling the fear is a necessary element to seeing the miracle. Perhaps without insecurity, the world wouldn’t glimmer quite so brightly.

Perhaps, a life adorned with the roses of pain is even more spectacular.

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