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97%. That is the survival rate for thyroid cancer. It’s the first thing I looked up after my diagnosis. I felt like something inside me shattered. I told myself I could live with that because, statistically speaking, I would be okay.
However, my parents had a different reaction to the news. This was one of the few times they had been in the same room since I was 13 and one of the only times they agreed on anything. I saw the fear in their eyes, expecting to see their fear mirrored in mine. Within minutes, my father found the best doctor in Chicago specializing in thyroidectomies, while my mother stared at me and held back tears, longing for me to expose my feelings – any feelings. That’s not what I did. Numbness overtook my body, and I looked at my diagnosis through rational eyes. I knew if I could focus on the objective numbers and statistics, I could avoid the whirlwind of emotions that I was feeling.
After three nights alone in a hospital miles away from home and two fresh incisions to my neck, I finally woke up in my bed. I put on my favorite dress and my newest accessory, a white bandage, and went to school. Quickly, I learned my parents weren’t alone in their desire for emotions. Whispers and curious gazes followed me through the hall. When I answered my classmates’ questions, they pulled me into a hug I didn’t consent to and told me, with pity in their eyes, how sorry they were for me. These were people I had barely spoken to, but who acted as if having cancer was some sort of secret, and now that I had told them, we were best friends. I knew they meant well, but I could never give them what they wanted from me: emotion. Before my wounds healed, my doctor told me my cancer had returned. I felt as if my scars reopened. I recalled the pain and loneliness of my first surgery, accompanied by stares, and realized I would have to do it all over again. Before my parents could see me break down, I excused myself to the restroom; I let myself feel the emotions I had locked up inside: fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness. Instead of helping myself, I told myself lies about my vulnerability making me weak. I absorbed everyone else’s feelings about me while simultaneously ignoring my own.
It took a second cancer diagnosis for me to realize I am not a machine. I don’t want to view myself as a “victim” but I realized I had to accept that this was something that happened to me: I had cancer. By acknowledging and confronting my own emotions, I had finally begun mending the brokenness inside that had been hurting me since the day I was diagnosed. This experience taught me that an absence of emotion isn’t what makes a person strong, but weak. By being honest with myself about how I’m feeling and why, I’ve gained a better understanding of myself. Now, every morning before I take my required medicine, I’m reminded that I should embrace my vulnerability, not fear it.
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