After I got home from the hospital, my mother said, “There! That wasn’t so bad after all, was it! You were all scared over nothing!”
It hadn’t really hurt. I had had no complications, and I had been released early. I had been in a terrible panic leading up to the surgery, and a terrible panic as they put me under the general anesthetic, but in spite of the lack of pain, I can’t say I was scared over nothing. Knowing what I know now, I can’t even project myself backward as any less scared than I was.
I was scared from the first biopsy last June, though I clung to the mild confusion of the attending doctor who couldn’t work out why we were even doing the biopsy. A long-standing goitre, probably the result of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; why were we making this fuss? I was reassured by his unconcern. But when they asked for a second biopsy, I felt a quiver in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t entirely believe it, I thought I would be vindicated, but I had this sinking suspicision, this strange clawing that reminded me that I had reason to be worried.
My family doctor told me the results by accident; I went to see him for completely other reasons. “They’ll probably want to remove the nodule,” he said. “You won’t even need to take pills.”
Surgery. That was in October. I knew even then that it was coming, and I wasn’t scared of the surgery per se, but it was something more. Something radical was changing. Someone was going to change my self-perception, me. Someone, something, some diagnosis. There was a constantly shifting diagnosis, lots of caginess, lots of reassurances.
When I finally saw my endocrinologist a month later, she had very little to say. “Two questionable test results,” she said. “That will have to come out. Are you ready to have surgery?” She booked me an appointment with a well-trusted surgeon, and I got into a cab and went straight to the bar.
I’m not sure I can describe what’s so scary about it. Your own body turning on you, hiding secrets from you. I’ve never felt the mind/body divide so much as in those moments, as if my body is a stranger to me. She never said the word, she never said I think this is cancer, but she barely needed to. I felt the words as if she had.
And I felt angry. I’ve had this weird thyroid for 17 years. Has it been sitting there festering, slowly preparing to turn its claws on me, all that time? What if they open me up and discover that I’m a lost cause, incurable, a sad morality tale about not following up properly on medical issues?
That might have gotten to the root of my fear, and the greatest lesson I’ve gotten from this. You cannot trust that someone else is going to look after your best interests. I knew I had a strange thyroid. I clung to the story I wanted to hear, that it was just weird, funny-looking, but otherwise okay. I told every doctor I’d ever had the whole story of how it was found, the tests each doctor performed and its results. “It’s not cancer,” I’d say. “It just looks like cancer.” My certainty seemed to convince a legion of doctors, all the way along. If you want them to leave you alone in your delusions, they will do so. I was angry that that legion of doctors, who should have known better than to trust a 20-something or 30-something when she says that something in her body looks like but is not cancer, allowed me this hall pass into happy, quiet denial. But I was even more angry that I requested it. This was primarily my fault.
When I met with the surgeon in December, he talked to me as if I already knew, as if the words were already on the table. “This is cancer,” he said. So simple. He gave voice to my worst possible fear; not so much that it would be cancer (though that was certainly part of it) but that someone in his position would believe that it was with so much certainty. In his certainty I had no refuge in denial. I wasn’t ready to face it. It was a dark shadow of a possibility that I had been dodging for most of my life.
I was (and still am) scared of cancer. It’s that weird insider who goes wrong, the member of the family who stabs you in the back, the part of your own brain that throws obstacles in your way or distracts you with terrifying ideas. It’s your dark twin, hiding always a few steps behind you, your anti-self, reaching out to trip you up. It’s you; the part you don’t like to acknowledge. Your demon self. The part that runs of to worship the devil and dance with the witches in your absent twilight memory. It’s a nebulous enemy that you have to embrace, because you can’t distinguish it from your friends. But I’m not sure if it’s that that scared me so much, or, not just that.
As my fear drifts away (for the most part), it’s hard to fully capture the motives and logic behind it. I closed up my office on my last day at work and trembled; it was one of the hardest things to do. I would not come back there until it was all over, and that was not reassuring. I would come back with some kind of dark, sad knowledge, I would be inalterably changed. It’s not the scar. It might be the knowledge of my own mortality, as if, on the operating table, I would see the date and cause of my own death written above me on the ceiling. It might be that on my return I would be, without any more reassuring doubts, a person with cancer. I am honoured to be among the many others that bear the title, but was terrified to join their ranks. Talking about how curable it is (which it is!) was less reassuring and more coldly definitive; no matter the outcome, I have now passed by that particular guillotine. It’s shallow and nonsensical, but I think it was at least partly at the base of that fear.
When my friend Jason came to pick up my cat, who would be his houseguest until I returned to health, I collapsed in fear. With him gone, I have more undeniable proof that I would really endure this, it was real. Real, and soon. Denial is a beautiful mask, so easy to put on and hide behind. Each little thing that pushed the mask askew caused me to fall to pieces.
People have often told me that I am awfully calm and controlled about all this. I have no idea where that impression comes from. This has certainly been one of the most uncontrolled and least calm period of my life. My hindbrain has been constantly making me leap and twitch, prompting me to fight or flight and uncontrollable tears and hyperventilation. But fight against whom? Flight from what? The answer is me in both cases.
When I walked into the operating room, I can’t tell you why I broke down, except to say that I was inexplicably terrified. Inexplicable because I trusted the people in the room. I trusted the surgeon, I had no doubt that the surgery would go without a hitch and they would take the best possible care of me. I wasn’t even that worried about pain, because I knew there would be morphine, I knew they would give my any pain killers I needed to make it through. I knew I would be monitored. I can try to rationalize it and say that it had to do with mortality, and facing this evil version of myself that could, in time, kill me. I could say that that moment took me from normal, 33 year old woman on the verge of getting married, with a fantastic job working with fantastic people, to 33 year old woman with cancer. But I’m not even sure that’s at the heart of it. That hindbrain response is powerful. A sort of psychological fight or flight took over, and I just reacted to the fear outside of all logic. There is a point where you just can’t endure another bit of stress, where you just can’t bite it back. There on the operating table I was struck once again by the mind/body split; my body was reacting on its own to the stress, the idea of the tools of the surgical trade which would shortly slice me open. You can only talk yourself out of so much.
A week later when my surgeon told me the truth about what was inside me, it was, on some level, my worst fear. There wasn’t time for me to respond; we had other things to talk about. It was, for the most part, over. It was there, and now it’s gone, and there’s no evidence that there’s anything remaining. I’m not a morality play, I’m evidence of good diagnostics and the value of early detection. But walking out of that office and telling my mother, my father, that their youngest daughter had…I couldn’t even say it at first. I got teary. “It’s over,” I could say. “It’s okay, but…it was. It was.” I’ve already had the panic and fear. That reaction was a quiet little shadow of what fear was there before. I can’t deny it anymore; the reality of this situation is carved into the base of my neck. I suppose I’ve forced my demon self out into the light now. Painful, but less difficult, perhaps, than constantly searching for her.
It may be easier to face truth than possibilities. But I’m still not so sure. The truth is very stark. But maybe the constant dip into denial calls out the demon in us.