You’re lucky to be alive. Sometimes you take it for granted, even with the constant reminder that greets you every morning in the mirror. A jagged 10-inch scar running from your left ear all the way down your neck is the most visible, and yet the least significant, scar you have. You can’t feel the scar, or the surrounding neck or facial skin. You can run your fingers across your face and neck and easily mark the boundary of feeling and non-feeling.
But you don’t have to touch the flesh to know that the nerves are dead and that you feel, quite literally, nothing where the scalpel sliced your neck wide open. You can feel the non-feeling. A distant “tug,” when you swivel your head from side to side. A phantom flesh feeling – after almost forty years of having sensation you’re acutely aware of the lack.
Your left ear rings. All the time. Constantly. They told you it’s a side effect of the chemotherapy and that if it didn’t subside in a year, it never would. It’s been almost four years. You know you’re stuck with the ringing for life, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Your mind has the wonderful ability to tune out the sound so you’re barely aware of it most of the time. Your mid-range is shot to hell. You can’t hear a thing if someone tries to talk to you and there is background noise. Again, the chemo did this to you.
The inside of your neck, on the left side, is hard to the touch. Under your skin, a mass of scar tissue has taken over the inside of your neck and esophagus. This is from the thirty-five radiation treatments you had to endure as they burned the good flesh to kill the cancerous flesh inside your body.
The radiation had other effects as well. You lost all of the salivary gland on the left side of your neck. You can’t eat without a sip of water with every bite. You can’t go more than half an hour without water to quench your parched throat. You’re embarrassed to eat in front of others because your food often gets caught in the desert of your throat and you gag and bring food back up just so you can try to swallow it again.
You get lockjaw and sudden painful neck cramps all the time. Your neck is deformed on the left side as a result of the surgery that removed your cancer. Your doctor took good flesh along with the bad to ensure the cancer was fully removed. Half of the neck muscle has been removed and lockjaw and cramps are the permanent side-effect you’re forced to endure.
You have a massive hiatal hernia and a near-constant pain under your ribs as a result. The feeding tube that punctured your abdominal wall weakened the muscles in the entire area. When you recovered and started working out again, you didn’t realize how weak your core muscles were as a result of that feeding tube and you ripped your muscles wide open, creating the hernia by doing chin-ups in your living room doorway.
Your cancer has been gone for nearly four years now. You hope it never returns, but you live in constant fear of it. This is your biggest scar, this fear of a recurrence of your cancer. Every ache, every pain, every physical anomaly sends you spiraling into a pit of despair. You hate going to see a doctor now, after so much poking, prodding, invasive surgeries and instruments, and yet you get antsy and your anxiety skyrockets if you don’t see your oncologist every few months.
When you emerged from your cancer battle with your first clean scan behind you, you made a promise to live more fully, more passionately, more intensely. Just….more. You did exactly that, for a while. You reveled in your new lease on life. You were happy in a way you had never been happy before. You were active, involved in the community, and full of vim and vigor.
And then, one day, you realized that you had sunk into the same tired routines you had lived with your entire life before the cancer. Sure there are differences, you are a better man than you were before, but you have not come close to realizing the dreams and promises you had made to yourself when your life lease had been extended. The millions of lilliputian stresses and decisions in your life have dragged you down and anchored you into mediocrity.
So here you sit, smiling mirthlessly at your computer screen as you type this. It’s midnight and you’re in a darkened room, wondering where you went wrong. You’re a cancer survivor. You’re one of the lucky ones. You have a wonderful life. A beautiful, loyal, and devoted wife as well as three wonderful children share this life with you. But you know you haven’t reached your potential – that you are not living as completely or fully as you promised yourself you would.
You keep telling yourself that this dark cloud that hangs over your head will go away when you reach the five year mark. That’s a lie and you know it. Your fear of a future with cancer is preventing you from moving forward. One step forward and two steps back. You live in fear of cancer. Intellectually you know that you need to manage this anxiety – that a fear of a possible future shouldn’t affect your present. Emotionally, though, underneath that thin veneer of logic, you’re gibbering in terror at the thought of cancer finding you again.
Curious that you always come back to this. You’re a hypocrite. You want people to see you as strong, brave, and as a survivor – but you spend your days filled with doubt and fear. Your heart is pounding even as you type, because the act of writing about it makes you think about it. Sometimes it beats so hard you feel like it is going to explode out of your chest.
But no one ever sees this. They see only what you want them to see. A man in control. Strong. If they only knew how full of unspent angst and anxiety you are.
Maybe that’s what all cancer survivors do, you muse. Maybe they all have the same fears you do and they all keep it bottled inside. The image of this amuses you; millions of survivors walking around living seemingly normal lives and yet harboring a secret terror and shame inside that they think is unique to them alone.
Shame. That’s the word you’ve been looking for. You’re ashamed of yourself for not being more than you are. You’re a smart man, you tell yourself. If you’re not happy, change something. Change anything. The definition of insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time. You know that the only thing you can change is yourself.
Are you strong enough to change? Can you rise above the fear that has held you back and prevented you from being the man you said you wanted to be?
You don’t know – but you do know that evolution is gradual – tiny changes over time to create a whole new species. You know you can’t make grand statements and sweeping changes and hope to succeed.
You feel a little better having recognized and acknowledged your fear and shame. Tomorrow, you decide, you’re going to make a small change in your life. Tomorrow, you’re going to look at that scar on your neck in the morning and smile at it – not taking for granted that you are alive.