Written by Likam Kyanzaire
I was diagnosed with brain cancer at two years old, had my surgery at three, and by grade school, I was only in the hospital twice a year for checkups. If you ask me what I remember of cancer, it is freezies and McDonald’s at check ups. It's only through stories that I remember the chemo days, missed birthdays due to sickness and those dark times they weren't sure I would make it. I had always considered myself lucky, not remembering the difficult times. But it also makes it harder to associate with other survivors who remember their sickness and treatments better than I do. In many ways, I believe my mom has more in common with other cancer survivors than me.
Despite feeling completely normal for much of my childhood, I was the ‘cancer kid’. For me, it meant constant well wishes from distant family, giving announcements and plays about my miracle journey sprinkled with a level of over surveillance that would make Big Brother blush. It was my own 1984 done under the auspices of health & safety. Do not get me wrong, I understand the fears of my family, and their joy at my health, but at one point I was told I couldn't go on monkey bars because I have cancer. I didn’t understand. It was dissociating as a child, being told you are sick and can’t do what other kids can do, especially when you feel fine. As an optimist it really felt like the world was against me.
Being put in special classes when my reading level was higher than my grade, taking the special kids bus when my house was five minutes away, makes you feel different, helpless, and sometimes even broken. Worse still are the constant reminders, whether in school or family functions, that I'm ‘special’ and unlike other kids. To this day, I still hate standing out. I've had enough being ‘special’ to last a lifetime.
I took that insecurity with me to school everyday, I spent my childhood lying about my body scars, or what appointments I had, worried people would find out I'm a ‘cancer kid’. I wanted to be known for being me, not that kid who’s diseased.
The older I got, the less special treatment I had. Able to put my medical history out of my mind, it felt like I was gaining a whole life and identity of my own. Yet when you learn something at that age it's not easy to let go. My identity as a ‘cancer kid’ had to be hidden, or I'd risk losing myself in the pity and condolences of others. Thinking back, by the time of being officially cleared at fifteen, telling my friends would have been fine. But it would be another decade before I would volunteer the information to my then girlfriend and find out it didn’t severely change our relationship. Telling someone was such a relieving and confusing feeling. Having just accepted the need to hide my diagnosis as a child, this was my first time challenging myself to be more open, and I really liked it. I was wrong to doubt the people around me, and it felt cathartic trusting they will see me for who I am.
A really life changing discovery that only happened because I told someone of my cancer. From then on, I’ve worked at my own pace, telling those important to me. In fact, it seems ridiculous now that I was ever afraid to share my story. How could one piece of past information affect friendships over a decade old. Even more, I now tell strangers, letting them come to whatever conclusions they want about who I am.
So a piece of advice on how to tell people you have cancer (or had)? Do it with an intention of healing, discovery and closeness.