Irreversible Marks

By Jessica Lynn Whitaker

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On June 10, 2015, I walked into a clinic with a cough and a lump on my neck and said, jokingly, “I have to make sure I don’t have cancer.” The doctor who saw me never uttered the word “cancer” but as I navigated the confusing lingo of health insurance policies—as I was stabbed with a needle and exposed to radiation, as I was poked and prodded—the word “cancer” echoed through my blood. It coiled in the pit of my stomach. It stuck in the back of my throat. It danced around me, unspoken yet understood. It wasn’t until a month later that it solidified; it was a wrinkled sheet of paper that I could hold in my hand. The words “Hodgkins Lymphoma” were printed in black ink on copy paper. It was a fax, so it was blurred a bit. There were a bunch of words I didn’t understand, but the reality of it—the word “cancer”—was present in the room, sitting between me and the apologetic look coming from a doctor I would never see again.

 

“Do you have any questions?” she asked.

 

Yes, I thought, but it would be weeks of blood work and PET scans before I could even think about voicing them out loud.

 

I didn’t feel the full weight of how my life had changed until I started chemo on August 25th. At the beginning of summer, I had a job and a promising artistic endeavor with my boyfriend. I had a New Zealand visa and a one-way plane ticket booked for Auckland. I was looking forward to finishing school in the fall and applying for grad school in the spring. But, as I sat in the dimly lit infusion room, with lukewarm jazz playing in the background, the pathway I had carved out for myself was changing, like an earthquake cracking the steel supports of a bridge.

 

The word “cancer” didn’t dance around me anymore; it sat on my shoulder, a crow cawing in my ear. I went through eight months of chemo. I was hospitalized several times. It wasn’t long before I began to think of myself as a number: I became the sum of my white blood cell count. I was bones being held together by bruises. How many do I have today? Four? Five? Will that one ever heal? Once, I was so weak, I stopped eating for four days and lived off of IV fluids. Another time, I was in so much pain, I could barely breathe and spent most of the day sitting in a hot bath trying desperately to feel human again. Often, I was so depressed, I spent entire days crying.

 

Yet, as I sit here, typing this, it feels like it barely happened. Did I really have cancer? It’s been just over three months since my last chemo session. My hair is growing in thick and quick. I look healthy. I look normal, save for the thick, red scar on my chest from my port catheter. I’ve started working again. I’ll go back to school in the fall and finally finish my degree. However, it’s important to remember that although the bruises are gone, they’ve left an irreversible mark on my life—a mark with which I am constantly coping.

 

In the meantime, I’ve found inspiration in my experience and have created a number of artworks, some of which are currently on display at Barton Spring’s Square Rut Kava Bar in Austin, TX. You can also find some on my website and on my Instagram.

 

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