All Pains Aren't Physical

Continuing our series featuring the submissions of winners of the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation's annual Andre Sobel Award, this week we share the Second Place winner's essay, "All Pains Aren't Physical." In respect to their privacy, we are respecting the wishes of this entrant to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their beautifully written submission about their experience being a young adult struggling with catastrophic illness.

For the next few weeks, we will share the winning essays and the amazing young adults behind these entries. More information and the full list of winners and their essays are available on our website.

"All Pains Aren't Physical"

There are times when the word "cancer" is just too heavy for me to pronounce; as if saying it is harder than living through it. It seems like ages ago, and yet I remember like it was yesterday. I don't like talking about it; it hurts like hell to remember, even for a moment, but I remember:

I remember the date.
I remember the time.
I remember what I was wearing.
I remember wanting to cry - but being unable to cry or afraid to.
I remember it felt like a dream - waiting and hoping I'd wake up and it
would be over.
I remember the unbearable ache of waiting and not-knowing the evening
after my chest x-ray.
I'll always remember every moment of it.

Most of all, I remember the loneliness. Maybe you might assume that the worst part of cancer is the pain of the chemotherapy and its many side effects. But for me, the worst part was the painful loneliness.

Because the chemotherapy and its side effects kept me home or in the hospital a lot of the time I needed to take a medical leave from school, and that only added to my feelings of loneliness. I not only felt alone, but I felt isolated and forgotten.

Sitting in that empty hospital room I found myself hoping that people would make a special effort to include me, or remind me that I was forgotten. I even imagined that friends would surprise me with gifts, cards, or even an impromptu gathering - just for me. But that didn't happen. My life was in limbo. Their life was not. I had all the time in the world to talk, they did not.

Life went on for my friends. They still has parties and sleepovers. Photos were taken and posted on Facebook. They were still making plans, but not with me. Because of my absence, they assumed that I wouldn't know what they were doing, but what they didn't know was that I filled my days trying to remain a part of my old life via Facebook and Twitter, living vicariously through their lives. But I wasn't a part of anything. The days went by: Where is my face in those photos? Where are my invitation (s)? Does anyone even miss me? Can you at least pretend to include me? Can you please not make it so easy to forget me? I'm still here damn it! Please don't give up on me! Don't you know that you are my lifeline, my lifeline to live? Why are you cutting it?

All I wanted was for someone to say that I was beautiful and that nothing was wrong with me. Day after day, all I hoped for was for the chemo to come to an end, but when it ended, I hated that it would start again. And I just did not want to start again.

All I wanted was my old life back; I wanted to pick up where I left off. But I couldn't because I wasn't the same girl. I was a slower, weaker version of myself - more exposed. I didn't know what was worse: sitting at home fearing that I was forgotten, or returning to school and fearing that I would be the topic of whispers and stares. In my mind I thought I knew what they were thinking - "Is that her real hair?" "Boy, that's a nice wig - I wonder how much that cost?" "Why does she get to be late?" "And I thought she was all better - why is she still getting "special attention?"

It was hard to stop holding on to what I no longer had. And even harder to pick up the pieces of my "shattered life" and start to rebuild, one piece at a time, starting at the center of it all - starting with me. Starting with my perceptions.

It wasn't until after my friend Mariah shared a paper she wrote about the day I told her I had cancer, that I realized that my "cancer" was deeply affecting not only me, but those who love me.

I ask why you weren't in school. My mom is in the seat next to me, waving her hands into little waves, mountains, telling me to hurry.
The ice cream in the backseat is melting-we need to hurry, so you
need to hurry too. You are a pain, slowly waning, sucking away from
me. The song on the radio muffles your voice, and the arms waving,
and the ice cream melting in the back seat, and the dogs barking are
making it very hard for me to hear you. I want you to spit it out,
because I am shaking, spinning out of control. I ask you if you are
sick. I am convinced, because you skipped the math test on
Thursday. Bitter misery of jealously. The painful, painful irony.
You whisper my name, tell me to stop joking. Why are you talking
so softly? You are making me angry because I can't hear you above
the barking dog and the song on the radio. I tell you to speak up, but
you don't. You just break up your syllables- your voice is broken.
And my voice is about to break too. You breathe in, inhale softly,
and I swear you have stolen my air too. You tell me you have cancer.

Mariah's paper was the jolt to my emotional recovery. Before then it was impossible for me to see past myself to see that this "cancer" wasn't just about me. "My" cancer was affecting everyone.

I can tell you that cancer disrupts a lot of your relationships. Your friends won't know what to say or do, but you should not take that personally even though your heart is broken. You'll cry for no particular reason, and it will make people uncomfortable. Some friends will rise to the occasion, others will fall. You will fight with your best friend, just because. And the one person that you imagined would never let you down probably will.

You'll learn that everyone has to learn how to recover from it. There's no one-size fits all when it comes to recovering from cancer, because it's not just recovering from the disease. There are the things that I will remember, and those that I want to forget. There are the piteous feelings I harbored, and yes, I sometimes still succumb to. There are the relationships to be mended, or their loss accepted. There's no right or wrong when it comes to healing. I know now that we are all healing and helping each other to heal. There are so many, many aspects to cancer. I realize that it's not just about me.

I'm not sure when my healing - our healing - will end. It's a "work in process." Truth be told though, today I am less fragmented and more composed that I've been in months. I am growing stronger every day. We are all growing stronger in ways that I didn't even know was possible. We are all healing.