Survivor's Guilt

I’m embarrassed to be a cancer survivor. Everyone at work has signed up for Cancer Night Out in support of my recent recovery and it makes me feel nauseous. I’m glad they want to support cancer research; I wish they didn’t include my survivor status in the registration form. My cancer didn’t even seem like real cancer.

I walk up to the tent and give my name. The lady with a name tag that reads, Betty, runs over to me and gives me a monsoon of a hug. She asks, “What did you have?”
      “Just thyroid cancer,” I say as I instinctively go to my neck and glide my fingers over the incision. The doctor says it will get smaller, but right now it looks dreadful. Some people think I tried killing myself or was assaulted with a knife.
      Betty shakes her head, “You’re so young.”
      “I’m thirty-three.”
      “You’re a baby. Now, let’s get your t-shirt.” Betty goes back around the table and starts rummaging through t-shirts. She looks at me and hands me a medium purple t-shirt. The front has the Cancer Night Out logo of a hand carrying a lantern. The back has the word, “Survivor” in bold white letters. I start to shake knowing I’m a fraud. Some women lose their breasts. Some even lose their lives. I lost my thyroid and gained a good thirty pounds. Betty sees I’m hesitating to put the shirt on. “Come on, dear. Be proud of your accomplishment.”

I accomplished nothing. I had two surgeries. I had to drink radiation. I had a full body scan to make sure the cancer didn’t spread and the doctors got all of it from my body. I didn’t have to have chemo. I didn’t lose my hair. I wasn’t in the hospital long; a day for each surgery.

Betty is looking at me with huge hazel eyes. She reminds me of my mother; I can’t disappoint her. I put the shirt on over my black t-shirt. She nods in satisfaction.
      “Now,” Betty says to me, “be sure to come to the survivors’ roll call. After that, we take the first lap around the track.” I want to ask what kind of cancer she survived but I feel like it’s inappropriate. I decide since she asked me, it really can’t be seen as bad manners. “What kind did you have?”
      Betty smiles, “Ovarian.” I gulp. “How long ago?”
      “It’s been seven years now.” She reaches for my hand and I give it to her. She holds it firm. “It gets easier.” I’m not sure what she means and I wait for her to continue, “my sister died of breast cancer about the same time I was diagnosed with mine. I often wonder why I’m here and she isn’t.”

I nod and give her a real smile. I know I should look around from my co-workers, but I’m not ready to face them.

I walk away from Betty who promises me she’ll walk with me on my first lap. There is a small concert of local high school students playing cover songs and I stand among the crowd.
      “Can I have your autograph?” I turn around and see a young girl, no more than fourteen looking at me.
      I’m stunned. “Excuse me?”
      “You’re a cancer survivor, right?” I shake my head a hesitant yes. “I’d like to have your autograph.” She continues to press a book in front of me. I sign my name. “Thanks, and God bless you.”
      A beat too late, I say, “you, too.”

The high school band finishes with their cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and a man takes the stage. He announces he’ll be doing the survivor roll call. Betty comes up behind me and grabs my hand. As he calls each name, the crowd hollers, whistles, and cheers. When he gets to my name, my face burns; however, all these people I don’t know clap and scream for me just as much as they did for everyone else.

With the roll call done, he tells all the survivors to line up. “That’s our cue,” Betty says and takes my hand. A ribbon is placed at the start of the track, and a woman whose cancer has been in remission for fifteen years cuts it and we are off. Betty sees my eyes are watering and she says, “It’s okay.” I nod but still fight the urge to let the tears drop. Betty never lets go of my hand.

We’re a quarter way into the lap when a bunch of teens run up to us. They hand us a medal and a purple teddy bear. I lose it. The tears roll down my face.

Then I see all my co-workers standing in a clump. They have a sign with my name in puffy paint letters. They even have the thyroid cancer ribbon done up in glittery blue, pink and teal. They see me and cheer. Tara, the collector and organizer of the office registration comes up to me and asks, “Mind if I join you?” Betty takes Tara’s hand and we walk on to the finish line.

MM Wittle is a professor and an Assistant Editor with Philadelphia Poets. MM’s fiction has appeared in Transient, The Four Quarters, The Fox Chase Review, and others. MM’s poetry has appeared in The Bond Street Review and Philadelphia Poets and will be appearing in the Decades Review’s IX issue. MM’s plays have been short listed in the Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama in the UK. Follow MM on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MMWittle