Content Warning: The following post deals with issues like illness, anxiety, depression, cancer, death, and grief. It can get a little heavy. At the end of this article, I posted a very funny and relevant Jim Gaffigan clip for anyone interested.
The other day I had a headache. It persisted for several hours, ruined a perfectly good Saturday, and was content to remain throbbing in my forehead while I desperately searched for remedies. I drank water, rested, walked, took aspirin, and even looked up foods to eat that I thought might help. Eventually, the headache went away, though while I was indisposed, I had the same thought I’ve had with every headache since 2014. I have also had this same thought when I’ve slept too much, got dizzy, or just felt a vague sense of being “unwell.”
The thought is, “I guess I have a brain tumor.”
Then comes the next thought. “So now what?”
Not “Why do I think I have a brain tumor?” If you are a logical person, you might be wondering why my thoughts immediately stray to such a morbid possibility. Or you think I’m a hypochondriac. That is a fair question, and the reason is that it is what happened to my mom. In 2014 she was diagnosed with brain cancer. In the weeks leading up to her diagnosis, she was very tired, and that was it. My family had no other warning and was unprepared to deal with the outcome. For the next year of our lives, she fought a war of attrition against this malady and eventually lost. It was grueling, cold, and horrible. The effects of her illness and passing still linger in my home. Sometimes those effects manifest themselves as the occasional panicked thought of “do I have a tumor like she did?”
The sad thing is, when confronted with my mortality, I search my soul for a path forward, and that path tends to involve doing absolutely nothing.
Realistically, if I had genuine concerns, I would go to the doctor and look into my options. I’ve read Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” and picked up a few things. I would likely refuse radiation because I have seen up-close what it can do to someone. If I could have this fictional tumor surgically removed, then I would, and I might consider doing a few rounds of chemotherapy, but only if it would not seriously impact my quality of life. I am not so terrified by the looming Spector of death that I am willing to destroy what remains of my life, vainly chasing non-existent cures.
If you’re new to my writing, the tone of this blog post might be confusing. You may very well be thinking, “Isn’t this the freak who writes ‘Ice Planet Barbarians’ fanfiction and mermaid movie critiques? So why is she talking about something so sad?”
That’s the thing about living through a tragedy. One moment you’re working on sexy alien fanfiction, and the next moment you’re thinking about the last time you ever heard your mom speak a full sentence. Then you’re thinking about work or what you’re going to have for lunch. Then you wonder why you never shaved your head in solidarity, and wish you could go back in time and do things differently. And then you wonder if the bagels you like are on sale and work on your sexy alien fanfiction some more. Dark memories are like that. They don’t live in a lonely cave in the furthest corners of your mind but rather side-by-side with your other memories. And then they sneak up on you when you’re trying to write blog posts about romance novels or stupid movies. And they definitely make an appearance when you have an otherwise normal headache.
It is interesting to see how brain cancer is portrayed in the media. I think I’d call the 2011 film “50/50” pretty realistic, even if it did not feel like what my family experienced. I appreciate that the film followed the main character’s tumultuous journey into the unknown. And it touched on how disappointing and isolating the experience of illness can be. Though other films and books are less realistic. The creators of these works often treat brain cancer like a magical illness. They usually don’t know anyone who was personally afflicted, so it’s easier to write about than breast or lung cancer. Brain tumors are treated as a freak occurrence, like getting impaled or eaten by a shark. The creators are saying, “I know that this can happen, but as I personally do not know anyone afflicted with this, it will remain within the realm of fiction.”
But it is not fiction. Brain tumors are very real, and they do happen to real people, and they destroy lives. When my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, I did not know that we would feel the ripple effects of her illness for the rest of my life. My family has never been the same since she was diagnosed. I wish the media was more sensitive in its portrayal of illness and disability, but specifically in the loss of self that can often come after a diagnosis. The story of her illness was not “one person gets sick and bravely soldiers on,” but was so much messier than that. I think the world needs to understand the sheer amount of disappointment that accompanies a diagnosis. Disappointment in friends for not being more empathetic and available, disappointment in your family for not being perfect caretakers, disappointment in your body, and disappointment in yourself.
I say this so that someone else may understand what it is like to live through a tragedy. It is horrible to watch your parent go through something like a terminal illness, and it is worse when that illness feels like a freak accident. We’d spent our lives fearing Type II Diabetes and heart failure like they were the Bogey Man, and yet the true culprit was a brain tumor of all things. As we had no family history of brain cancer, her diagnosis unfortunately also opened the door for conspiracy theorists to posit why she had been afflicted with this condition. Could it have been the result of her comically large cell phone, or was it from standing too close to the microwave? Did it have to do with a poor diet, and therefore, it was her fault for liking cookies too much?
I have heard many possibilities for why she got sick, and to be frank, I don’t need to hear any more. I have no interest in hearing a half-baked hypothesis about why GMOs or wifi or poor genetics killed my mom, and I don’t think I need to explain why I feel this way. I can say that this experience has branded me, and as I might never know why she got sick, I do not know what I can do to prevent my own brain tumor from forming.
So far, I’ve been lucky. I do not have a brain tumor, or at least I don’t think I have one, and I may never have one. The only way I would know for sure is with an MRI or CAT scan, and as those are not freely performed with my yearly physical, I likely won’t know until it is too late. I say this not to be pessimistic, but because it aligns with my lived experiences.
As for my life now, unless I begin showing serious symptoms of illness, I’m not going to do anything different. I’ll still try and cram a salad down my gaping maw once in a while and maybe avoid sticking my head in the microwave. Other than that, there is nothing for me to do. It’s frightening to have so little power over your future, but I have also found calm in this feeling. There is nothing I can do, and therefore there is no reason for me to worry. Whatever happens, happens.
For now, I’m going to return to writing about sexy aliens.