It’s 3 a.m., and I’m wide awake. I’m giddy with excitement and scared. I am 41 years old and tomorrow feels like the first day of school all over again. Only it isn’t. Tomorrow is my first day back at the hospital where I work as a surgeon. Tomorrow is also my first day back at work after chemotherapy.
Two months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I underwent bilateral mastectomies with reconstruction and came back to work after being out for six weeks. The only things different about me were the scars on my chest and the fact that my breasts felt like water balloons. But everyone else didn’t know.
Tomorrow is different. I am bald. I can’t hide it anymore, and I am terrified of everyone’s reaction. There is no more pretending that nothing happened; my colleagues, the residents, the medical students, and, most importantly, my patients will know that I have undergone a life-altering change. I don’t want to be defined by my disease, but my appearance is now defined by my treatment.
What scares me most is people’s pity because I don’t want it. I just want to go back to operating and leading some semblance of my life prior to this nightmare starting.
What pisses me off most is people calling me brave. According to the dictionary, brave means “capable of dealing with danger or pain, without seeming to be frightened.” I feel like an imposter when I am called brave, like I am wearing a disguise that no one else can see. First responders are brave; members of the military are brave. I am not. I was, and I am, scared of the fact that my cancer can come back and kill me, that I may never be able to have children, that the future that I have carved so carefully for myself is so uncertain because my own body betrayed me.
To me, bravery implies a choice. A firefighter makes the brave choice to enter a burning building. I happened to wake up in bed with the house being on fire; only in my situation the house is my body, and the fire is my cancer. My choice has been taken away, and I have no control over any part of this process: from diagnosis to surgeries to being out of work to not being allowed to exercise. I am at the mercy of other physicians, who are my colleagues and my friends.
So what would I rather you call me? Nothing, but I know that won’t happen. Everyone is so uncomfortable already that people just speak about how I can beat this and give me all of this pink crap. I didn’t like pink before I was diagnosed with cancer and I still don’t.
I suppose you can call me resilient, which means “able to quickly become healthy, happy, or strong again after an illness, disappointment, or other problem.” Every day is spent trying to bounce back from each setback so that I can live my life the way I want.
So when you see me tomorrow, please don’t tell me how brave I am. Don’t tell me how strong I am. Just tell me that it’s good to see me and let’s get to work.
The author is an anonymous thoracic surgeon.
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