It seems superficial. A 25-year-old girl is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. She endures months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatment, loses her hair, immune system, strength, vitality, ability to work, and, ultimately, her health. But after achieving a hard-fought remission, the thought she can't push out of her mind? She may not be as appealing to the eye as she was before her diagnosis.
But that's my story. And the truth is, it wasn't even my diagnosis that shook me. After a long month of tests, doctor's visits and even one ambulance ride, I was relieved just to know what lay ahead, even if it was chemotherapy and radiation. After the thoracic surgeon finally left the room, leaving the news hanging in the air like a pall, I turned to my mother and sisters and casually asked, "Should we go shopping?"
It wasn't until my new doctor, an oncologist, told me I would lose my hair that despair reared its ugly, presumably bald, head. The frankly-delivered news made me realize I was about to lose control of my life, along with my appearance, relationships, strength, finances, to name but a few. Suddenly, the subtleties I had taken for granted my entire life -- the small things like an immune system and the ability to grow hair -- seemed precious.
I would be bald and perpetually sick.
I like to think I'm not superficial or petty. But hearing those words from my oncologist forced me to understand the value of the superficial. Worrying about my looks, my waist size, how I fit in a new pair of jeans, how I would get my hair cut next, was a luxury. It demonstrated an absence of weighty concern, a life that was simple and carefree. I should be lucky to have only trivialities to fret about.
While I was in treatment, I consumed food for sustenance (specifically, a bagel loaded with cream cheese after every chemo treatment). I didn't worry about my waist size or even my appetite. I stopped working, so I spent the days, weeks and eventually months in sweatpants and leggings, failing to notice the padding that slowly and steadily grew on my thighs and bottom (lucky me, I got the kind of treatment that makes you gain weight). Unlike celebrities and other fabulous people who are diagnosed with cancer, I wore no make-up to cover the dark circles under my eyes or to brighten up my sallow skin. My eyebrows thinned to pale, withered caterpillars, shadows of their formerly bold, thick, chestnut-colored selves. My face was hollow, my skin dry and flaky. The same old, crusty toque covered my bald head every day. I didn't bother to wear a wig. The foreign, synthetic hairs scratching at my face were far worse than the concerned looks shot at me by strangers.
It's been two years since those days, but I look back on the physical attributes of my pre-cancer self often. Recently, my friend posted a picture of the two of us before my diagnosis on Instagram, part of the #throwbackthursday meme. I couldn't help but comment very matter-of-factly, "I swear I was prettier before cancer."
My friend, of course, denied the fact. But she's being nice. My hair, finally grown back to its pre-treatment volume and length, doesn't hide the deep, dark circles that have permanently formed under my eyes. My skin has regained its color, but the stress of recovery has left me full of anxiety, which I know is causing my skin to lose suppleness, becoming tighter and prematurely aged.
To be honest, I look back on my cancerous weight loss with envy. I was the skinniest I had ever been (since high school) before my diagnosis. You try telling a 25-year-old that isn't worthy of envy.
But wait, what was it I said earlier? "I should be lucky to have only trivialities to fret about?" Could my superficial concerns be an indication that I'm finally 'better'? That I can once again worry about the mundane, after a brief lapse worrying about the fatally serious?
Perhaps. Or perhaps I'm in denial about the very real possibility of relapse or secondary cancers. Maybe I refuse to be trapped by my disease, and would prefer if everything just went back to normal.
Or maybe I was prettier before cancer.