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What's In a Name?



My palms sweat when I’m nervous. There must be some five-syllable medical term for this condition because it is not an insignificant amount. It happens every time I show up to have something done. In two days I have been stuck in the arm six times. The first needle was badly done, and a third of my forearm is now all shades of precious gems. Today, four days later, is the first day I can straighten my arm completely; though I am trying not to since the pain makes me feel a little queasy. I have an extremely high threshold for pain. I wonder how bad this actually is. I’ve never been good with needles (unless it’s a tattoo needle), but the thought of having countless more appointments over the next several weeks makes me feel sick to my stomach, and suddenly my arm starts to hurt even more. The mind is a powerful thing.


My hands glistened with sweat at each needling, and each time I was the first to bring attention to it. There wasn’t a chance that the nurse or technician didn’t notice it, and I thought it would be more awkward if we all tried to ignore the great lake forming on the arm rest. At one point the sweat was so thick there were hills and valleys on the table where my palms had been. Another one had me throwing out a pair of rubber gloves because my hands were so wet I couldn’t get them on. I’ll spare you the reason for the rubber gloves. This is rectal cancer. No one needs me to share that much. Each time, I held up my hands as they sparkled in the fluorescent lighting, and I would casually groan and say oh man, my hands are so sweaty. And every time the nurse or technician would reply, why are you nervous?


Why am I nervous.


I went to work on a dude ranch in Colorado when I was 19. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I had to escape the turmoil at home. I chose the ranch because it reminded me of a time when things were difficult but I was still happy; I was still okay. When I was sick as a kid I would spend hours watching Nickelodeon, and one of their shows was “Hey Dude,” a kitschy, tween comedy about young adults working on a dude ranch where every day was filled with teamwork and fun. They were happy. When I watched them I was happy, too. Twelve years later, I was in a dark place surrounded by deception, and I wanted some of that happiness back. That’s the magic of nostalgia, I suppose: it’s transportational and, if you let it, transformative.


The ranch was life-changing. So much of who I am today is because of those months tucked away between two mountains, a rolling river carving its way down the center. I was a housekeeper and waitress, and those that worked with the interior didn’t mingle much with the exterior crew. That didn’t keep me from watching them. One of the head wranglers caught my attention more than the others. He was tall and rugged. The dirt seemed to have made itself a part of his skin, and I wasn’t sure whether his hair was dirty blonde or just dirty. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were because his cowboy hat always rested low enough to keep them covered, but his mouth was always twisted into a smirk like he knew more than the rest of us. When the guests were around there would be a piece of straw bobbing up and down at the corner of his mouth as he chewed. When we were in staff quarters the straw was replaced with a cigarette and the smoke would billow and bubble beneath his hat’s brim. He was mysterious and dangerous and wild, and he made me feel inadequate. Inadequate at what, I still don’t know.


Every now and then I would hear him moan from pain somewhere on his body. He would chuckle and say flatly, it’s the Big C, finally come to take me in. His words gave me chills. He was so cavalier with a word that had the power to stop my breath. It was the one word I have been more frightened of than any other, and he treated it like pudding or socks. He named the enemy. And he did it often, but to him the words he said were just that: words.


I suppose that when you can name the enemy you take away its strength. We are most afraid of the things we cannot see, the things we cannot name. These are the things with the power to break us down, not because of what they are, but what our minds turn them into.


Why are you nervous?


Each time they asked me that this week I wanted to say I’m nervous because there is a needle in my arm. I wanted to say that I’m nervous because I’m getting injected with something. That I’m nervous because I’m going into surgery. I wanted to say I’m nervous because I’m worried the needle is going to come out like it did on prick number four on Friday.


I’m nervous because I have cancer.


Friday was prick six, and when the technician asked me why I was nervous while I fumbled around with the rubber gloves I smiled from behind my mask and said because of everything. I shrugged. “It’s cancer.” I said. And I had done it. I had named it. And I felt empowered. The technician seemed caught off guard only briefly, and then we started talking about it as though it were a common cold. His buddy had recovered a few months ago, and friend had recovered a few years earlier, and something occurred to me: this is common. Cancer is common. We button it up and hold it to ourselves, but when we do that we give it power. We allow it to hold us in its grasp. When I named it, the word loosened its grip on me.


This weekend has been hard. I haven’t felt particularly well, but most of that is the anxiety that comes along with not having a concrete plan in place. I’ll speak with the surgeon on Tuesday and hopefully will know the specifics on what to expect over the next ten days. In the meantime, I’m in flux between feeling like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me and feeling like feeling there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me is the clear sign there is something wrong with me. None of this makes sense.


The more I say that I have cancer the more I feel like I’m finding my feet. The more I face this realistically, the more grounded I become in trusting in the knowledge of all the people who came before me. The more I face this head on and take back the power in my words the stronger I feel. Words have the power we give to them, and I’m trying to take the power back.


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