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I Hid My Illness for Years — Until One Day I Couldn't

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No one could fake “normal” better than me. I was 26 years old and preparing to get married the first time I found out that I had cancer. Determined not to get derailed by disease, I thought, “OK, this rare form of cancer isn’t going to slow me down. I will just have a little open chest surgery to get the baseball-sized tumor out from under my heart and no one will be the wiser.”

As I was laying on the operating table, I stopped the surgeon before he was going to put me under and said, “Make sure you don’t cut up very high. I am wearing a boat neck wedding dress and I don’t want anyone seeing the scar.”

Looking back, I see that my priorities may have been a little confused. I was more worried about what people would think when they saw the zipper on my chest than that fact that I was about to have a life-threatening (and life-saving) procedure.

I continued to work at my full-time job during chemo and radiation  after surgery. I may have spent evenings projectile vomiting all over the house, but no one in my day life was going to see the pain I had to endure. To the world, I was a champ that could handle anything. Even if I was bald at the time.

After a year of hell (and smiles), I was done with all my cancer treatments and ready to move on with life. Within a couple of years I’d almost forgotten the nightmare altogether. I didn’t identify as a cancer survivor because I’d never accepted that I’d had it. I never wanted to be the “cancer girl.” I just wanted to be living life like everyone else.

A few years later I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. That was an easy one. The surgeon simply needed to pull that baby out and throw it on the pile with all my other dysfunctional parts, and I’d be good as new. Who had to know? I could still keep up with the “normals,” right?

Then it finally happened. My secret life of illness crept over me like a heavy blanket and all I could feel was darkness. 

One day, I woke up with double vision. Then came the weakness and unyielding fatigue. Then the stumbling. More weakness came until I couldn’t hold my head up anymore and slurred my speech.

It was terrifying. A week later I was at the doctor watching his mouth move but unable to comprehend his statement.

Myasthenia gravis… myasthenia gravis?

What the heck was that? And why was it stealing my life?

I couldn’t hide my secret life anymore.

I also couldn’t joke away my medical issues and tell everyone how fine I was anymore. I had to figure out a way for these two lives, my “sick” and my “well,” to live in harmony. And worst of all, I had to accept myself and deal with the shame I felt for having health issues. 

Broken, I needed to decide if I wanted to be the hidden sick girl or the bold, strong one.

At first, I wasn’t sure I had the fight in me. Did I really want to live a life different than everyone else?

Then I saw it. The picture of my happy children, smiling back at me with the joy in their eyes I’d long forgotten.

The choice was simple. I needed to be strong for them. 

I worked for months to rebuild my body. Then as I got stronger, I realized I was not just doing it for them, I was doing it for me.

As the blanket of hopelessness began to peel back, a glimmer of light shined though. Then it got brighter. Then I got brighter. Accepting who I was, diseases and all, helped me become a more integrated version of myself.

I no longer had to fake being “normal.” I simply had to redefine it.

“Normal” is a relative term. Our lives are never linear, they are a hologram, comprised of many different angles to view our varied perspectives. After coming out of the illness closet, I am much more relaxed because I can own who I am, in sickness and in health.  It’s also enabled me to relate to others on a more intimate level because I realize now that their “normal” isn’t that normal, either.

Originally published: August 6, 2016
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