Peak Inside: Can’t Pull The Cancer Card on Heartbreak, by Emily Jack

The cancer card will get you a lot: free samples, discounts, meals. Having cancer is also the ultimate excuse to avoid most situations. However, it will not keep your heart safe. I was torn apart when I was broken up with 3 days before my cancer diagnosis, and was hit hard by the realization that I couldn’t pull the cancer card on having my heart broken for the first time.

The outline of the breakup doesn’t seem all too uncommon among teenagers. We were together for 2 years, but she left for college while I still had another year of high school and we weren’t making each other happy anymore. That much seems typical enough. We shared a lot together. She felt my pain with me and I took some of hers in return. I sat with her as she took her first doses of estrogen and spironolactone, a moment we had waited so long for. She sat with me when everything in my head was too loud. I watched her grow boobs. She watched me fall apart. When she left for college and began to fall in love with everything again, I almost died of cancer. This part of our story was both unexpected and un-welcomed by both of us.

During my first couple of days in the ICU I was more sad than scared, but it wasn’t because of the mysterious mass that was closing my airway. I was sad because I had been broken up with 36 hours prior, and I was going crazy because the girl I was in love with was reading my messages and not responding to them. When the anesthesiologist from interventional radiology came to my hospital room to apologize for having to put me through three procedures at once without being sedated, I explained that my crying was not only caused by the pain that only a bone marrow sample and a spinal tap can offer. The situation I was in was already surreal, but I was even farther away from it because of my distance from her. My heart was still with her, which made adapting to my new circumstances feel impossible.

During my first round of chemo, I cried because I missed her. While learning how to do my lovenox injections, I cried because I missed her. Three weeks ago when I learned that I was in remission, I cried because I missed her.

Love is a drive and she was exactly that for 2 years straight. I put all of my energy into loving her, thinking about how I could be a good girlfriend to her throughout her transition, and learning about what it meant to be in a relationship. I didn’t know what to do when I lost her, my structure, and was faced with an extreme that has a vigorous physical protocol, but a vague emotional one. I live through my feelings, so heartbreak is really what seemed to be killing me. I just happened to have physical side effects that matched how I felt.

Heartbreak forced me to be myself when I didn’t know who I was. It’s challenging for me to accept that throughout this complete shitshow of a year, I’m growing too. It hurts to think that I’m happier without a girl that gave me so much light, a girl who made me see so much magic in the world. It’s scary to find that magic in myself because I feel so betrayed by my body and the ways in which it’s capable of hurting me (let alone other people). I’m not ready to fall in love with myself, and I don’t want to be in love with her, so I don’t really know what to do. Who am I without reciprocated romantic love, and who am I without life threatening illnesses?

I’ve realized that it’s easy for me to get mad at cancer because I have a one-sided relationship with it. It hurt me,  it made me miserable and I hate it more than anything. It’s not easy to get mad at my ex-girlfriend because she hurt me and made me miserable because I love her more than anything. Both leave me speechless though. Love and hate go hand in hand, but so did we, and for a while she was what made me happy. Cancer makes me sad and only sad, there’s nothing good about it and there’s nothing I’ll miss about it.  Heartbreak hurts more than cancer because I lost someone who I love more than dogs and weed. How am I supposed to walk around knowing that a huge part of my life is absent right now. How am I supposed to pay attention to anything when I’m going through dopamine withdrawal? How am I supposed to say goodbye to sultry summer nights, to the laughs that turned into kisses, to waking up next to someone who reminded me of the sun. How am I supposed to say goodbye to someone that drives me so crazy that she reminds me of the fucking sun? And why did she have to be replaced with literal cancer? Why do all of my happiest memories have to feel unattainable? Why can’t I talk about her without crying? Heartbreak makes me feel so small.

I thought that cancer would be the exception in any relationship, but in our case it was all the more reason for us not to be together. She needed to thrive , and I couldn’t because all I could do was survive. I exhausted her with both mental illness and an undiagnosed physical illness that I was determined for her to cure with love, because I didn’t know the severity of how sick I was. Perhaps there’s a more raw sense of thriving within survival ,l but while I was in it, surviving felt like coming home to a room that permanently smelled like half smoked joints, dirty clothes, and stale orgasms. It wasn’t pretty. I spend a lot of time being mad at her for being happy, being disappointed in myself for being sick, and being sad because ultimately I just want both of us to be happy. I’m envious that I can’t be happy with her, can’t be happy like her.

We don’t talk often because we can’t. We talk sometimes but there are too many feelings that hurt too much. The breakup and my illness are two very separate events within our relationship, but they both coexist inside of me, and for me to even consider anything she has to say about her being hurt or angry at me. Even though my sickness gives context for the way I acted around her, it doesn’t change the fact that I hurt her. We’ll find a time to talk because she deserves to be listened to and she needs to heal as well. That much we’ve talked about. I wish that we were kinder to each other while we still had the chance, and sometimes all I want to do is laugh with her about how ridiculous this entire situation is. We thought we had been through it all.

It’s exhausting to be so vulnerable all the time, but I’m looking for strength within the vulnerability. I’m proud of myself because I’m tender and because I find truth in softness. I process completely and thoroughly, which can be agonizing but ultimately makes me understand myself.

I think about her everyday. Sometimes I get mad at her, sometimes I wonder if she’s thinking about me, sometimes I wish she was holding me, and most of the time I’m really glad that we’re not together anymore…. But I guess that’s love.


 Emily Jack is an 18 year old High School senior living with Non-Hogkins Lymphoma in Brookline, MA. They enjoy giving fake Ted Talks, the rush of high school curling, and coughing when other people cough as an act of compassion.

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