The clock strikes two in the morning and the bed sheets are soaked yet again. Four times in the last week and almost robotically I’ve found myself in a new routine: school, homework, dinner and soon after asleep on the couch. Unfortunately, the rest is short lived. Bed soaking, body shaking sweats awaken me within hours as the devil dances through my dreams shouting “put up a fight”. Even 17 years later the thought of those sweats turn my stomach and result in an immediate chill.
At fourteen years old, many teenagers think they know it all. Sorry to disappoint, but I was no exception. I wasn’t a cool kid by any means, but I had made some friends, proven myself academically, and was living the good life. I felt the knowledge I had about me was far superior to that of any doctor I had encountered in the preceding months.
Days of absence and early dismissal began tarnishing my near perfect academic record: I was sick again. Repetitive visits to the pediatrician continually resulted in the same diagnosis: Enough of the damn viral syndrome. Five visits later I begged, yes pleaded for confirmation via blood work. My reward? Epstein Bar Virus was detected. As quickly as the needle poked through my skin to get at my tarnished blood, the hand that did so wrote me a “free pass” to be eliminated from further humiliating myself in high school co-ed gym class. Friends were envious. No more ugly gym shorts and uncoordinated attempts at being athletic.
Fast forward three weeks. Friday April 19th; the date is permanently engraved in my brain. It’s two am, the sheets are soaked, I get up to change my clothes, and as I pull my wet shirt off, something is different. My fingers start to move around my neck, slowly at first, and then quickly my speed changes to fast forward. A new development in hours, how could that be? Yes, the mirror doesn’t lie. Inhale. Exhale. As my brain is telling me to look at myself more closely in the mirror, my heart is speaking louder “yes, finally, a visual clue”. A hard mass, the size of an egg, was embedded into the left side of my neck and I silently knew my fight was about to begin.
I’m pretty good at pretending things are okay, even when they aren’t. Such is the case that morning, as I carefully chose a turtleneck to wear and asked my grandmother if I could be excused from school, after of course, my parents had left for work. An hour later she kindly escorted me to the primary care doctor for the last visit of that kind. The words are still clear in my mind to this day: “call her parents out of work immediately”. As my grandmother excused herself to do as she was instructed, it was my turn to face him and vocalize the thoughts that lingered in my mind and heart all along: “I have cancer”. As his eyes filled with tears, he looked defeated. In his Russian accent he managed to confirm my prediction and validate my fear. “It is highly likely that you do”. Even at fourteen, I was able to get the last words in: “That is between you and I until we know it is a sure thing. Don’t worry; I’ve got a good fight in me”.
And so the story begins.