I lie there staring at ceiling tiles, my body firmly pinned against the table. Fire ignites in the crease of my arm, then crawls through my veins, slowly engulfing my body. The room begins to spin, and my eyes lose focus. Panic overwhelms me. Did I just say good-bye to my parents for the last time? Will my best friend ever know that I love him? What if I never wake up? But my eyelids continue to grow heavy; within seconds, I’m out.
It’s hard to believe that two months ago, my life was completely normal. Well, normal by my standards, at least. At 15, I was trapped in the monotonous rut of cross-country practices, yearbook meetings, and perpetual homework. Too often I isolated myself from my family, even skipping meals to slave away at problem sets and essays. The need for perfection consumed me. I devoted my life to school.
Then, within a few weeks, my secure grip on my perfectly planned life slipped out of my hands. I was zipped from hospital to hospital in a race against time to remove the foreign entity thriving inside my skull.
Dr. Allen entered with a quick knock.
“Good afternoon. How are you feeling, Kathryn?” she asked. Her puppy eyes already conveyed the inevitable news.
“I’m fine,” I lied.
She opened my folder to search for paperwork.
“As I explained before, there was a slight possibility that the deafness in Kathryn’s left ear could be caused by a rare tumor. To eliminate this possibility, I sent her for an MRI with contrast. The results are back, and unfortunately, Kathryn, you have a brain tumor. Although large for its kind …”
My father abruptly stood and walked out of the room.
“… it’s likely an acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor encompassing the hearing, facial, and balance nerve. Because of its size …”
Dr. Allen’s voice faded into the background as I noticed my mother’s reaction. She tightly grasped her hands, focusing her attention on the doctor, her glossy eyes desperately begging, pleading, searching for any glimmer of optimism in the diagnosis.
“Do you understand, Kathryn?” the doctor asked.
“I’m sorry. What?”
My dad reentered just in time to hear the details.
“Elderly patients with acoustic neuromas are simply given periodic scans to monitor growth because these tumors are so slow-growing they’re unlikely to cause any negative side effects before the end of their lives. Because of your age and the abnormal size of the tumor, observation is not an option. A certain type of radiation can be used to break down the growth, but this works best for smaller tumors. Unfortunately, surgery seems to be the best option for you.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Dr. Allen asked. She and my parents seemed to be shocked by my reaction. “You’re a 15-year-old girl who was just unexpectedly told you have a tumor and need brain surgery. ‘Okay’ is your reply?”
The doctor’s remark still echoes in my mind. Why wasn’t I more emotional about the diagnosis? Saying I was numb would be a lie. Naturally I was curious, anxious, overwhelmed, and terrified. After all, I was a teen – a hormonal roller coaster. Thus the real question is not “Why wasn’t I emotional over the situation?” but “Why didn’t I express my emotions?” Why did I feel compelled to hide my feelings?
I grew up the only child: my father’s “baby girl” and my mother’s best friend, the center of their love and attention. Fifteen years of being an only child made me want to protect my parents from this agony.
Because of its location, removal of the mass proved complicated, which is why I am currently suffering from unilateral hearing loss. It’s the reason why I now suffer from facial paralysis. But most importantly, it’s responsible for the change in who I am today.
Strenuous surgeries to remove the tumor left me feeling like a puppet; with both arms outstretched, I was brutally whipped between states of absolute bitterness and guilt. I knew I should be grateful, but I couldn’t help but feel furious at the world and at God. I was only 15, yet my trademark smile had been stolen (replaced with a droopy smirk), my hearing abruptly failed, and I was falling behind in school.
I became a self-pitying monster.
Then, as if my blindfold suddenly vanished, I finally saw how truly blessed I was. I was tumor-free. Cancer-free. I had a loving family and supportive friends. Even though I’d partially lost movement in my face, at least I could function normally. Although I lost hearing in one ear, I wasn’t completely deaf. And school? In the grand scheme of things, I realized it was the least of my concerns. God had graciously provided me with a second chance at life; that was nothing to complain about.
Although I never dreamed I would admit this, my experience has been a blessing in disguise. I desperately needed to realize that life is not perfect – that I’m not perfect. No longer am I the meek, shy girl wasting her school years in the solitude of her bedroom. I’ve branched out, even joined a theater group. When I step on stage in front of thousands of people, I’m no longer ashamed of my disfigured face. Now I view it as a sign of bravery – it proves that with enough perseverance, I can overcome any obstacle.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.