How I coped with finding out I had cancer

Growing to understand a childhood health scare

Tessa prior to diagnosis
Credit: 
Photos supplied by Tessa Warburton
I didn’t know I had cancer. 
 
No, I don’t mean it ate up my insides for months before doctors detected it. I mean I had it, was cured and remembered nothing about it. 
 
My parents failed to tell me until I was five years old. 
 
Since I never knew about the cancer when it was happening, for the longest time I refused the title of ‘cancer survivor.’ Most people who have cancer struggle for years with the repercussions of the disease and are bedridden for months feeling like they’d rather die than endure any more pain.
 
I remember nothing of this suffering, so why did I deserve this title?  Why did I have the right to claim myself a survivor, when I don’t remember overcoming anything?
 
It was a family friend’s child who first accidentally informed me of my cancer. He left out the exact details, but told me enough to leave me wondering. 
 
When I asked my parents later that day, they told me the facts; I had a neuroblastoma in the form of a tumor in my stomach. It was the size of a plum and the tumor had been removed during surgery. For most people, finding out you have cancer is a truly formative life moment that shapes many other experiences and relationships you have. 
 
I didn’t have that same experience. For me, it was simply something that had happened that I had no recollection of.
 
What I do know about it comes only from what I’ve been told by my parents.
 
Before my diagnosis, my mother told me of how I’d been acting differently for some time. One example was how I would cry in the strangest moments. She took me to a doctor who told her time and time again nothing was wrong with me — he wouldn’t even perform any tests because he was so sure I was fine. She told me how she took me to a new doctor who confirmed her fears; her two-year-old daughter had cancer.
 
While I’m not sure how long I was in the hospital, I know it took two surgeries to rid my body of the tumor. 
 
After one of the surgeries, I apparently talked with a New York accent for a while, a strange side effect to be sure. As well, after the cancer went into remission, my whole body shook for a couple months as a result of the medication I was taking. All very heart-breaking for a two year old (or anyone) to go through, but I remember none of it.
While I don’t remember my cancer, it caused me to feel shame.
 
Since my body was so focused on fighting the cancer and because of the cancer itself, I experienced some developmental delays. 
 
Academically, I was behind all my classmates and my penmanship could best be classified as chicken scrawl. On multiple occasions, my teachers have exclaimed over the horror that is my handwriting. Basically, I felt stupid because my friends were all receiving straight As and I wasn’t.
 
When I started grade five, I began to see a tutor for math and English. The tutor evidently did wonders for my progress. While I’m still not great at math, nor am I a grammar expert, I can now write an essay and formulate my thoughts with the best of them (the best being my peers, not George Orwell or Mark Twain, obviously). 
 
However, despite the noticeable good my tutor did for my academic life, I didn’t stop feeling embarrassed for needing a tutor for a long time. I suppose because none of my other friends needed one, I felt like I was inferior.
 
Despite only learning about it later on, another reason I felt singled out over my cancer was because of the yearly checkups I received. Every year I go and see my oncologist to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned. 
 
I have blood work done and an MRI procedure, and it’s about as exciting as it sounds. 
 
I’m terrified of needles so the blood work is always difficult, and the MRI involves me lying absolutely still in a claustrophobic tube for an hour as doctors tell me to hold my breath for extended intervals of time. When my friends would ask why I missed school that day, I’d say I had a doctor’s appointment (technically not a lie) and when I was older, an orthodontist appointment (lie).
 
Besides the appointments and my parent’s memories, the only lingering reminder of my cancer is a long jagged white scar on my stomach. The tumor was removed when I was two and surprisingly I’ve grown quite a bit since then. As a result of me stretching out and up, the scar has also stretched. Now it spans the width of half my stomach and is as thick as my pinky finger — it’s not a scar that hides well.
 
When I was 13, I was in a dance recital and we wore costumes showing our midriffs. My fellow dancers asked me about the scar and I told them a bear had scratched me. I guess I’m too honest of a person, because I followed that up with “I’m just joking, it’s from cancer.” 
 
I had a lot of tact. When I was in grade nine we would change for gym, and when asked about my scar, I said it was from a shark attack, but once again, unable to tell a lie, I always followed it with the same revealing remark. 
 
Surprisingly, when I said I was attacked by a shark or bear people believed me and would comment on how cool I was, but when I said I had cancer, people got sort of quiet. Because of this, I wore a one-piece swimsuit for the longest time.
 
When I started university, no one knew about the scar on my stomach, but I’d gotten so used to everyone already knowing why I had one in high school that I didn’t even think about it. 
 
Surprisingly, when I inevitably wore a crop top I wasn’t as ashamed as I once was. When directly asked I’d tell the truth — I’d had a tumor removed when I was very young. What would follow were murmurings of pity, but I would quickly shoo off the puppy dog faces of the onlookers. Now, I don’t really mind the questions anymore, within the first week of school I even found myself answering it twice.
 
While the label of “cancer survivor” doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue, it’s no longer a title I completely scorn. I lived through the shame of not being as smart as my classmates, the countless appointments and the embarrassment of having a scar and being different. Nowadays, I can embrace this aspect of myself. If given the option to remove the scar, I don’t think I would. I finally see it as a symbol of survival and overcoming obstacles. And to me, it’s sort of badass.
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