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Linsey Maughan Headshot

Coming Clean About Cancer

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I am writing from the final throes of age 29, a narrowing corridor of weeks until I embark upon my 30s this April.

I imagine the general populace reaching this vantage point, this breathless end to one's 20s, and I suspect them of having the same urge I do: To look back on 10 years of quasi-adulthood accumulated, to thoughtfully evaluate the sum of them, and to glean something.

But for some of us, our 'survival' of this particular decade is jarringly literal. To this day there exists an uneasy, disassociated feeling inside me as I admit I am someone who might not have made it: I am a cancer survivor.

Six years ago I was 23, and not all that far removed from an operating table. I had undergone a mastectomy of my left breast in December of 2006. In a Saint Louis hospital, my parents, brother, friends and then-boyfriend had taken turns sitting beside me while I lay heavy-eyed under a morphine drip. There was a bra with a Velcro front closure I had awoken from surgery wearing, and it held a pile of gauze snug to my chest. There was, beneath the gauze, a freshly stitched and nippleless left breast. It contained a tissue expander.

Within a week I was deemed cancer-free; the surgery had been successful, and there'd be no need for chemotherapy or radiation. Six months later, I offered up my healthy right breast voluntarily, glad to be rid of a part of my body that seemed so apt to betray me.

I obtained a pair of silicone gel implants, selecting the size and material myself after fondling a selection of samples one day in a doctor's office. I knew I would never love my new breasts -- cold and alien things -- but I also knew they would afford me a natural appearance in a shirt, a swimsuit, a dress.

Mostly, it's like it never happened. Whole weeks pass without my discussing it. I am faced with my scars each morning in the shower and don't think twice about them, though they remain as real as the day a plastic surgeon sewed my incisions shut. Six years and counting, and the cancer has not returned.

In the sweep of these years, I've lived in four states and six cities, traversing the eastern half of the United States for school and work and love (and also, as it applies to all three, the lack thereof). Each move brings its own cancer reset -- who among the new people in my life will I tell, and when? I don't feel obligated. But can anyone truly know me without knowing about my cancer?

I am a cancer survivor.

How many times do I have to say it before it feels normal to say it?

How long till I can think of it without my heart twisting up in a faint sense of panic?

This is largely what survival has been for me, a growing number of questions, most of which don't have answers. Such uncertainty used to cause younger, more wayward versions of myself a mountain of anxiety. In recent years, I've gotten on better terms with the unknowable.

In regard to the cancer-impacted collective who may or may not be reading this -- I dream us engaged in a universal sigh for everything saved and destroyed in the mess of cancer. I see us disarmed in equal parts by all that manages to endure in our post-cancer lives, and all that is lost.

Survival is a strange emotional process, a contorted world within a world. I don't believe there
is a right or wrong way to live in it.

But we do learn things. Day to day, I find my story ending gratefully, I'm still here. It's getting easier with age.

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