It’s Back

This morning, I wake up feeling very sad, and for about two seconds I don’t know why I’m feeling this way.  Then I remember, “it’s back.”  It’s been this way for the last three weeks.  It’s as though on the nights when I can sleep, my consciousness forgets, but on rising my body reminds itself that “it’s back.”  I sit up in bed and stare at the wall in front of me.  My thoughts drift back to that day five years ago when it all started.  I can see us there, Tom-my-hero and I, sitting in Dr. B’s office wearing our Halloween costumes.  I was dressed as a cat and Tom was dressed as an old man.  Dr. B was saying something, but I was only half listening, since I was feeling a little annoyed at being there on Halloween.  Instead of listening, I was thinking about the fun night ahead of us when Tom and I would take my little sister Susie trick-or-treating.  I had thought that it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t paying attention to what Dr. B was saying, because I knew that Tom would fill me in on the important points later.  And so I thought of Halloween.  How ironic–there I was thinking about trick-or-treating, while life was about to play a trick on me.

I was making a mental note to remember to stop by Mrs. Olsen’s house since she gives out Butterfingers, when I heard Tom’s voice interrupt Dr. B’s.  His voice sounded so strange, forced almost, as he said, “Wait a minute, Dr. B, you mean she has cancer?”  Cancer.  Cancer?  All of a sudden the air in the room felt very heavy.  With a jolt, I looked at Dr. B, confused.  My mind filled with racing thoughts, and I wished that I had been paying attention.  I thought, “I must have heard wrong.  They’re not talking about me.”  Dr. B could tell that I wasn’t following the converssation, so he began to explain it all again, slower this time.  As he spoke, I stared at his lips.  It was as though my ears couldn’t or didn’t want to believe those words, so they needed my eyes to validate them.  As it turned out, Dr. B had been saying that the little lump in my neck underneath the angle of my jaw, that same little lump that didn’t even hurt and didn’t even move when I would stroke it over and over while bored in class, was cancer–papillary cancer of the thyroid, to be exact.  Papillary cancer of the thyroid that had spread to my lymph nodes.  How ridiculous I must have looked dressed as a cat, being told that I could die.

As Dr. B’s words began to sink in, I started to feel very light, as though I was floating away…Cancer…Cancer…To ground myself I glanced over at Tom, who earlier that day had shaved the top of his head to make his old man costume look more realistic.  “Boy,” I thought, “we did a really good job with Tom’s costume this year.  He looks really old.”  I tried to catch his eyes, but his eyes were so focused on Dr. B that they wouldn’t look at mine.  When they did, I was struck by how old his eyes looked, too.  Tom, whom I have known and loved for half my life, looked so old and beaten.  Tom-my-hero, who always rescues me from flat tires and rainy days, and from all those other little annoyances that keep one’s life from being perfect, couldn’t rescue me from this papillary cancer of the thyroid.

In that moment, I thought back to three weeks earlier when I had seen Dr. Jennings.  That was the first time the word cancer had been mentioned.  And then I thought about how it had all really started.  Four months ago, when Tom came down to visit me in Florida, where I was vacationing with my family.  On one of those rare occasions when we had managed to get away from both my parents and my younger siblings, Tom and I were sitting on Jennie, the sailboat, talking about our future together.  We were deciding what we should name our children, when he leaned over to kiss his favorite spot on my neck.  Pointing to a small, hard lump he asked “Jennie, why does your neck look swollen, right there?”  “I don’t know,” I replied, and I reached up with my hand to feel a small hardening on the side of my neck.  “I’m sure it’s nothing, Tom,” and quickly returned the conversation back to William and Christina.  I would have never thought of that little swelling again, had it not been for Tom.  The entire time he was in Florida, Tom insisted on talking about it.  I couldn’t figure out why he was so obsessed with it.  I don’t even think he knew why he thought that little lump was so worrisome.  “It has probably been there all my life,” I would tell him.  “Why are you making such a big deal over a tiny imperfection?”  I would ask.  But Tom insisted that if it had always been there, he would have noticed it before.  He continued to worry, and since I couldn’t bear to see him so preoccupied, I told him that I was probalby just coming down with a cold.  “In fact,” I had lied, “I have a sore throat.  It’s probably just my throat that’s swollen.”  That seemed to appease his worries for a little while.  But, four months later, when the swelling hadn’t gone away, Tom-my-hero made me go see Dr. Jennings.

I remember that I was wearing a paper gown and sitting on an examining table in Dr. Jenning’s office.  It was so cold in there.  I answered her long string of questions and stared at the diploas on the wall while she wrote in a note pad.  “It hasn’t gotten any bigger.  Personally, I think it’s always been there.  It’s really my boyfriend who”s worried,” I told her.  Without saying a word she touched teh small bump on my neck and held it firmly between her thumb and index fingers.  I thought she was trying to move it, so I said, “It doesn’t budge.” Silently, she began to touch the rest of my neck.  I could feel her cold hands probing deep into my skin, adn just when I started to feel as though I would choke, she stopped abruptly.  I guessed whe was searching for more little bumps, but I don’t know if she found any since she turned to write into her notepad.  Since she had nothing to say, I moved on to a different topic.  “By the way, Dr. Jennings,” I said, “I would like to start taking birth control pills.”  “Birth control pill?” she asked, “We’ll worry about that later, Jennie.  This is more important right now.  This could be cancer.”  That was the first time I noticed her eyes were green.  I hated her.  “She’s so stupid.  How could that dumb woman have a degree in medicine.  Twenty-one-year olds don’t get cancer.  I don’t get cancer.”  I screamed at Tom that night.  And, if it hadn’t been for Tom-my-hero, I would have never gone back.

But I had gone back, and she had sent me to Dr. B, an oncologist.  And then, two visits and a biopsy later, there I was, dressed as a cat, leaving Dr. B’s office knowing that I had cancer.  We went trick-or-treating that night by our old neighborhood.  The drive back to my parents’ house was very quiet.  The radio was off, Susie was asleep in the back seat clutching her candy bag, and Tom was lost in his thoughts.  One of my favorite things to do is to have Tom drive me around at night, but I wasn’t enjoying that ride.

There was something sad about that ride.   I was thinking how I always love coming home to shower the day away.  But I knew that there was no showering away this day.  I would come home that night and take off my cat costume, but I was not going to be able to take off my diagnosis, as Dr. B had called it.  “Your diagnosis” he had said a few times, as if I would ever claim cancer to be mine.  I had felt more comfortable when he had just called it cancer.  “Your diagnosis has an excellent prognosis.”  It even rhymes.  I made a mental note to say that to my parents when I gave them the news.  I was dreading that moment, for I knew that would be the hardest part.

The next morning, I walked into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee.  My mom looked up from where she was sitting and smiled at me.  My dad hugged me as I walked by him on my way to the coffee maker.  I poured myself a cup of coffee.  For two seconds, I wondered if I was allowed to have coffee now that I knew I had cancer, but I concluded that I didn’t care whether or not coffee was bad for me.  I wasn’t going to let this cancer change my life.  I made a mental note, though, to call Dr. B later and ask him if it’s okay.  I stood by the coffee maker sipping my coffee and scanned the room.  Scattered around the kitchen were tall, black garbage bags filled with the remains of my sister Angie’s Halloween party.  From the fragments of coversation, I could tell that the party last night had been a lot of fun for the guests, but not for my parents, who had stayed to chaperone.  I guess in the excitement of chaperoning a bunch of junior high kids, my parents forgot about my doctor’s appointment.  When I finally sat down at the kitchen table, Dad just asked me how trick-or-treating had gone.  “It was a lot of fun, Dad.  Susie got a lot of candy.” I was glad they had forgotten.  I wanted them to not know, even if just for a few more hours.  Then my mom remembered.  “How did the appointment with Dr. B go?” she asked.

As I gave them the news, I tried to use the same words Dr. B had used, the same tone.  I had his card in my hand, and as I spoke, I rubbed it over and over with my thumb.  This motion was very soothing.  It was as though the card was transmitting Dr. B’s composure to me.  I can still see my mother’s face crumbling as she grabbed the meaning of my words.  I remember thinking she looked so young and helpless with all that sorrow on her face.  She looked so light, like she might float away.  My dad, on the other hand, was expressionless.  He’s always trying to be strong for us, to protect us.  His eyes focused intensely on me as he concentrated on what I was saying.  They looked just as old as Tom’s had the day before.  I told them how Dr. B had said that we should call him with any questions.  I laid the card on the table.  My dad, instinctively trying to take control over the situation, quickly reached for the card and stood up to get the cordless phone.  Realizing it was too early to call anyone, he soon returned and sat down, laying both the card and the phone in front of him on the kitchen table.  I made sure I told him that papillary cancer of the thyroid has an excellent prognosis, and that that meant that very few girls die from it.  Somehow, that didn’t reassure them.  In retrospect, I can tell that the prognosis had been very reassuring to me, because when you’re young, cancer is something you can beat, especially when it has a good prognosis.  But parents have seen so much; they think differently.

Now, here I am, three bouts of radiation, two surgeries, and multiple MRIs later, and I was supposed to be cured.  Cured of that papillary cancer of the thyroid that had plagued my last two years of college.  Cured with only the scar on my neck to show for it.  The scar has a story, too.  For the first few months after the surgery, Tom was always showing off the scar to our friends as though it were a prized possession.  “Look what Jennie has,” or “Jennie, show them your cool scar,” he would say when friends would come see me after I had left the hospital.  That scar had been a source of pride to me, as well.  I used to love it.  It was the reminder that I had stared death in the face and I had won, Tom-my-hero had won, my family had won.  However, in the last few years, I began to think of it as just a scar.  I didn’t think it was ugly.  I didn’t think it was pretty.  I was just tired of it.  Therefore, during the day, I hid it behind a pretty gold necklace Tom bought me when I first started complaining about it.  But, at night, I took off the necklace Tom bought me when I first started complaining about it.  But, at night, I took off the necklace, because Tom-my-husband-who-is-still-my-hero still loved that scar.  Right now, I realize I hate the scar.  That stupid scar is a constant reminder that “it’s back.”

Five years later, it has come back to mock me.  Papillary Cancer of the Thyroid laughs at me, telling me that all this (Tom, our pretty yellow house, my leather brief case, my wonderful family) was all a beautiful loan.  It’s back to snatch them all away from me, to snatch me away from them.  I don’t really understand how it can be back after I have traveled the world and gotten married and become a lawyer.  And why exactly now, when I’m vying to become a junior partner at work?  Why does it come back now that I have so much more to lose?  It’s just not fair.


Claudia Lora, Chicago, Class of 2002