When Life Gives You Cancer, Milk It
Isabella Blu Ptito-Echeverria
Credit: @offermoord // DeviantArt
I used to frown upon those who took ‘mental health breaks’ from school. I figured the line between self-care and self-indulgence would inevitably blur upon dropping out. “Just an excuse to get stoned, wallow in self-pity and do nothing with your time,” I judged.
This criticism was the excuse I used to keep myself from tending to my own mental health issues. The constant helplessness I felt grew engorged like a cancerous tumour. Getting out of bed was difficult. I regularly had dissociative spells of face-picking, and I often bit my nails down to the quick. I seldom did my homework, even though I’d been keeping track of due dates and deadlines throughout the semester. “I will never be a drop-out over this shit,” I’d tell myself as I ached with disinterest during lectures. I ached with disinterest as I hung out with friends, which was more like watching my friends hang out as I watched them through the window of a house I could never leave. I viewed my melancholy as a whiny, belligerent teenager that needed to shut the fuck up so that we could do what needed to be done in the pursuit of our goals, whatever those were. I never let myself view the sadness, anxiety and disinterest I felt as a disease that interfered with my life. I trivialized and white-knuckled my way through it. I was its willing, belittling host, and I let it grow. It eventually grew so big it nearly killed me. That is, I nearly took my own life over it.
Hospitalized, I was sent in for a CT scan to assess the damage of my attempt. Coincidentally, that scan uncovered that this near-constant ball in my throat, which I assumed was just anxiety, just teenage melodrama, just psychosomatic-- was literally a cancerous tumour. Thyroid cancer; a papillary thyroid carcinoma, 2.3 centimetres. A tumour the size of an eyeball had been growing in the right side of my neck for who knows how long, and I’d had no idea.
Upon hearing the news, my brother, a cynical sigma male nicknamed ‘the Optimizer’, the most adamant about me rushing to finish CEGEP, called me. To my surprise, he asked, “Are you going to take a leave from school?”
I’m allowed to do that? was my first thought.
I’d wanted to take this semester off since it began, but I’d always frowned upon the idea. I was sure my family would think less of me for wanting to take a break from school over something as trivial as ‘mental health struggles’. But now I could take that leave under the guise of it being because of cancer.
Even though I’d already stopped attending classes, I suddenly didn’t feel guilty over it. I MIO’d my teachers about my diagnosis. I finally felt like I had a legitimate excuse to be out of school; It felt pathetic to say I was too anxious and depressed to come to class, even though that was also the truth. When my disease became physical, I took it seriously. But why only then?
I attribute it to a longtime struggle I’ve had with self-respect. I’ve spent a long time under the impression that I’m only valuable if I’m spending my time productively, be it by making art, furthering my academic career, or self-improving. For a while, my inner voice sounded like a factory owner mercilessly ripping on their worker: “You better keep working, Isabella! I don’t give a shit if you’re ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’!”
Physical hindrance is the only excuse to stop working, that is, if you view people as machinery. If the struggles are invisible, as mental health issues are, does it mean they’re infinitely endurable? No one gets called weak when cancer prevents them from working, even though both cancer and mental health issues fester, grow, and obstruct, like tumours. That got me thinking– the pressure put on young adults these days, to always strive to be the most optimal versions of themselves– is rather cancerous. As Edward Abbey puts it, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”.
Nowadays, I’m learning to enjoy doing nothing. I spend most of my time seeing my friends, going to shows, and watching TV. While that may look pathetic to you, it’s serving me damn well. I’m coming to terms with the fact that both my mind and body need the break. Human beings are not machines created to optimize and produce for all eternity. I am allowed to enjoy my life, even if it isn’t always yielding something tangible.
It isn’t self-indulgent to take breaks. Enduring suffering for long periods of time in hopes of achieving something will slowly drive a wedge– one with the potential to grow cancerous– between you and it. From now on, take your suffering seriously; Don’t wait until you have a literal tumour poppin’ out of your neck to do so.