The Brave Face

By Jessica “JP” Protasio

It hurts. I lick my lips and taste the salt of the tears rolling down my face. I’m uncomfortably clammy, the hospital gown is itchy, and everything about my body feels heavy. If not for the bed being propped up, I think I’d lay on my back all day, sink straight to the center of the earth, and drown in my anger and self-pity. Stupid window, such a tease. Stupid nurses who don’t understand me. Stupid pain meds that aren’t working. I want to scream and falcon punch someone in the face, but I’m hurting too much to do anything about it. I don’t have the energy to complain. I don’t have the capacity to express how much pain I’m in, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because it’s not getting better.

A couple of visitors enter my room. I try to smile but I’m not sure what the expression is across my face. I follow them with my eyes and nod greetings and I think I answer, “I’m OK.” I am glad they’re here. I just don’t have the energy to entertain a visit at the moment. About 10 minutes pass which feels like half a year to me. I finally apologize with half a laugh about my pain and my difficulty in processing what’s going on. Suddenly, they tussle with the staff to get a doctor. I feel the chap of my lips crack and sting as I smile with gratitude and a bit of embarrassment as the nurse administers an extra dose of dilaudid into the central line in my neck. The visitors stay a while longer. I hold one of their hands and squeeze it periodically. I feel the need to reassure them as they comfort me. I put on that brave face.

September of 2010 was one of the ugliest periods in my cancer journey. I had just been through a failed liver resection, my cancer had spread, treatment was agonizing, and I was worried about everything. Whether it was the pain or concerns about having a job to return to, it was on my mind. I hadn’t yet met up with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, and we were only a couple months into this whole cancer crisis. There were complications with the resection that resulted in other procedures and several days of sepsis prevention. These were adrenaline-pumping moments where fear grasped hold of me through disgusting and terrifying events–fighting dangerously high fevers, being packed down with ice, uncontrollable shaking, and the inability to control what my body was doing…and the pain. The pain was excruciating. It felt like I was watching an episode of House, M.D.,  and I happened to be the main character.

I was fortunate to get visits daily or so for an hour or two and that made things brighter, but that also took a lot of energy. I felt like I had to be strong for others just as much as I needed to be for myself, if not more. I felt like I should make things easier on everyone by taking things more lightly, maintain my normal attitude and positivity because truthfully, I couldn’t afford to get depressed. Plus, I needed the people around me to be feel upbeat too. I didn’t want to bring anyone down. I wanted to show everyone I was fine and that everything was going to be okay no matter what. It was all peaches & cream with chemo & radiation on the side.

Who was I fooling? No one. I was alone most of the time, and let me tell you plainly, it wasn’t peaches & cream. It was ugly. It was nasty. It was gross, and I was miserable. Those dark moments alone changed my life at its core. It revealed my humanity, vulnerability, and naivety about cancer. It gave me the opportunity to lean on people and help people who wanted to help me. I discovered what I was capable of and what more I could do and how I could still make the world better just by being in it. It made me see that no matter what I would lose, there’d still be much to gain from being an active player in this world.

Most importantly that ugly and disappointing time showed me that a brave face is one that doesn’t make excuses or dismisses the reality of what’s happening. A brave face confronts cancer–even if it’s through angry tears–and is resolved to push through the pain for the promise of relief. A brave face has chapped lips, sunken eyes, and still cracks a smile or terrible joke. A brave face is one that asks for help.

Today, I’m thrilled to say that I am approaching my first transplant anniversary. I have a new focus in life, and, a few weeks ago, I had my first clean blood test with normal levels on all counts. Recently, I shared my story at the Blue Jeans Ball and helped raise money for local cancer initiatives so that other young adults wouldn’t have to brave their journeys alone. I know there’s a reason I experienced what I did, and I know that something wonderful can come from it. So, wherever you may be in your journey with cancer, be it a survivor, caregiver, or close friend, be proud of your brave face, it can inspire others. I know when I meet other survivors and hear their stories, it inspires me.

JP is a Children’s Instructor & Research Specialist at the Savage Branch of the Howard County Library System. She is a Pajama Time storyteller, wannabe triathlete, KPOP-addict, baker of cupcakes, and a cancer survivor.