Cancer, or the Day God Was Sick



There’s no way to talk or write about illness; none that is good enough, anyway.



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Yo nací un día

que Dios estuvo enfermo.

— César Vallejo, “Espergesia”

I was born on a day

when God was sick.

— César Vallejo, “Espergesia”

I was 16 when I traded in my school uniform for a coarse hospital gown.

As my friends snuck off to parties, I snuck out to the garden of the hospital where I was forced to stay inside for weeks at a time receiving life-saving chemotherapy. Not that the treatment ever felt life-saving. At times it was more like life-crushing, life-sucking, life-suppressing even, with pangs of pain sharper and more bitter than the cancer itself.

When my peers were looking at colleges where they could spend the next four years, shopping around for a future, I was wondering whether I would have one at all, scoping out the comfiest chair in the infusion unit and waiting to receive the next chemo drug on the roster. This torment dominated my life for two years. My thick, waist-length hair fell out, then grew back in fuzzy patches, then fell out again. I tripped over my own feet.

Then, one day — it was all over. I had my last chemo and got to ring the glorious bell that marked the end of treatment. My hair grew back. I got into college, a good one too. I joined The Crimson and became its president. Every month when I had to get a blood count to make sure the leukemia hadn’t returned, I held my breath in fear. Somehow, the results kept coming back clean. Monthly check-ins turned into semesterly check-ins into yearly check-ins; these clean bills of health suggested I was truly okay, truly healed.

But I always felt — I always knew — that I was living on borrowed time.

Just a few weeks ago, in December of 2022, I hit the five-year mark from the end of treatment. I was now considered “cured” — an odd term that meant that my chances for relapse were so statistically low I was now considered fully free of the disease that had haunted me for seven years.

I should have felt relief. Relief that the ground beneath me was, for the first time in years, settled and solid enough to hold me.

But last semester, I was struggling to go to class, to complete my work, to sleep at night, to eat three meals a day. I felt needles in my shoulder so sharp that I ground my teeth to dust, gulped down more painkillers than I care to admit, and ended up at the emergency room not once but twice. Looking back, I think I knew that it went beyond the stresses of senior fall or Crimson presidency — that something was not right.

When I went home over winter break, expecting to rest after a very long and difficult year, I saw my longtime oncologist, Dr. De Angulo. Doctors as good as him, as kind as him, don’t exist too much anymore; they’re confined to feel-good shows and other fictional realms. Even years after my initial treatment, he will pick up a call at any time of day and has become as close as family.

I had been in remission for so long, he said, that it would be very unlikely that I was relapsing. “I don’t think this is leukemia,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. All of the tell-tale signs of leukemia — suppressed blood counts, bruising, fever — were absent. There was no reason to suspect it had come back.

Still, Dr. De Angulo suggested, almost timidly, a bone marrow aspiration. The whole thing was supposed to be a calming, if excessive, precaution — so I could return to school with peace of mind for my very last semester, for my graduation, and then for the start of the new, exciting job that was to follow. “Just to be safe,” he said.

When he thought I wasn’t looking, I saw his eyes water from the corner of my own.

Forty-eight hours and a bone marrow aspiration later, he confirmed that I had beaten the odds again — but this time, there were no bells or celebrations. The leukemia that had been so unlikely to return was back with a vengeance, leading a military insurgency on my until-then-at-peace bone marrow. Ready to devour me from the inside out, just when I thought it never would.

***

People write about illness in funny ways. We use metaphors: We talk about “kicking cancer’s ass,” “fighting disease,” and “staying strong.” It would make you think that Cancer has a full-fledged army, a nuclear arsenal included, and an array of vicious little troops. That it’s an enemy nation we can, through nationalistic fervor alone, hope to defeat.

There’s no way to talk or write about illness; none that is good enough, anyway. You can try to describe the pain to the reader, you can detail the battles of the war, but you cannot show the reader the pain itself.

You cannot make them understand the pain of having to fight a years-long battle with cancer not once but twice before your 25th birthday.

You cannot make them understand the pain of having to answer: How do you fight something that’s inside of you? How do you heal a body with drugs that kill every cell in its path? How do you ask your own blood to work properly, please, just this time?

How do you begin to think about grieving for yourself?

***

There’s a certain stillness in the air the day before chemo. The palm tree fronds seem greener, the sun warmer, the light reflecting off the pool a little brighter. It’s as if the world is taunting you, reminding you that it’s your last day of freedom before that life-saving poison exiles you to a dark room or a hospital bed, or generally anywhere near a receptacle to weather its harsh side effects.

Today, I am feeling this again. The orchids near my room are blooming bright purple. The birds are singing their tunes, and the lizards are playing hide and seek with my dog as she chases them across the yard. The pool seems so cold, so tempting — a last invitation before I get a tube stuck in my arm that I’ll have to keep dry for seven months.

Today is my last day before I begin chemo again — before I ship off to war for another two years.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to offer — no inspirational words, no promise that “everything happens for a reason,” no certainty that after all of this, I’ll come out stronger on the other side.

I was born on a day when God was sick. Maybe he was battling with himself, then, too.



— Raquel Coronell Uribe ’22-’23 is the President of The Crimson’s 149th Guard.