I stared at the word in front of me. It stared back, its font made bigger with each tick of the clock by its unrelenting, dogged determination to not shrink back into nonexistence.
“Tumor,” it said.
On January 14th, 2019, I discovered I had a tumor in my pancreas. The doctor laid out the facts: In the best case, it was benign and I would be free to go in three weeks. In the worst case, it was malignant and I would need to remove a third of my pancreas. This meant another host of possibilities, ranging from a high risk of cancer to never being able to have children (while I was never crazy about children, I was even less crazy about not having the choice) to extensive damage to the spleen. In other words, a lifetime ahead of being all–too–well acquainted with the doctors.
And probabilistically, it was a 50–50 split.
Admittedly, my immediate reaction was Oh man, this is really going to mess up my Five Year Plan™. It was after about two minutes that it hit me—Oh fuck, I might die, followed by Well, this is REALLY going to mess up my Plan™.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t really even have a plan. I was that person who would announce to the world that I was going to be a lawyer one week, a journalist the next, and a writer for The Daily Show the next. My friends quickly learned to dismiss my every grandiose declaration of my major (which, after jumping from Cognitive Science to Religious Studies to Economics, became Philosophy). If anything, that Five Year Plan™ was a nebulous swirl of vague buzzwords: “internship,” “GPA,” and “[insert club name] President”—words that promised some arbitrarily defined measure of success.
Yet, while I was unsure of the exact details of the Plan™, I was positively and definitively sure of one thing: There was no room for a tumor in the Plan™, let alone a cancerous one. Everything was ruined. I would have to drop out of college. I’d be unemployed and homeless. I’d die a slow, miserable death in the merciless cold under a bridge in Brooklyn. Not to be dramatic.
These thoughts, however, were nothing new. In fact, they were exact echoes of similar ones that I’d had two years earlier.
The summer after freshman year, my childhood best friend died. Over the next six months, I nearly lost both of my parents on separate occasions, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and my sister got married (which is good!), but it felt as if I had lost the last bit of what was completely and wholly mine.
And I cried. Of course I did. It’d probably be psychopathic of me if I didn’t. Choked with anxiety and paralyzed by the guilt of not having tried enough and not having done enough, I jumped at an unexpected “hello” down Locust Walk. Any large group setting meant hours of mental preparation beforehand. The uncomfortably lukewarm pangs of panic became routine.
Even knowing all this, though, I balked at the idea of actually dealing with everything (or anything, really). I was never much one for surprises, and the sudden flood of them left me clinging on to any remaining sense of familiarity, i.e. the Plan™.
I allotted two weeks to get over myself. After that, I needed to continue with my life. And so I did, blindly following the Plan™ to a fault. I went to all my classes, spent hours lazing around on couches not my own, and presented myself at those weekly GBMs. Each minute of my life was assigned to a category of work or play. Ten minutes to walk to class. 50 minutes to finish the reading due Wednesday. One hour at Distrito. While I did acknowledge some inkling of the importance of mental health, self–care too was mired under a pretense: Doubled up with my meals, I gave myself exactly 30 minutes to eat and relax (which, with only a little shame, somehow still meant I was fully Kept Up With all 15 seasons of The Kardashians). Any minute over or under was unacceptable.
Being at Penn didn’t exactly help. This school is a place where competition thrives and the pressure to do the most and be the most permeates the student body. It’s a school with a go–go–go culture, a train that will take all those on board to its final destination of success. To me, that meant if I stopped for just a second to linger on a passing thought, I would fall off the train and it wouldn't wait behind. I would ruin that Five Year Plan™, never be successful, and die in the cold under a bridge in Brooklyn.
My days planned down to the minute eventually took a toll. I still went to my classes, still grabbed dinner with other people, and still went to GBMs. By the terms of the Plan™, I was still on that path to “success,” but with the anxiety reaching new heights, so too was the path until I was walking a high rope, trembling with each step that, if missed, would lead to a harder crash.
The tumor forced me to take the semester off. For the most part, the beginning was spent just waiting for the next consult, the next scan, and the next set of results. Not knowing when and whether I’d need to be admitted to the hospital, any planning was out of the question. So, for the first time in what felt like a long time, I had absolutely nothing to do.
At first, it was a little unsettling. The voice in the back of my head dictating each second of my day was suddenly stripped of its powers. It was the feeling of having the whole day ahead just for myself. A sort of looseness that disregards the iron grip of the clock. It was the feeling of not being anxious, and it was unsettling because of its very unfamiliarity.
From time to time, my mind wandered back to the Plan™. The remnants of the unshakable feeling that I had failed because I wasn’t hitting the right buzzwords lingered. They’re still there and they’ll probably be there next week, but hopefully, a little weaker in presence. It takes a lot of reminding myself (though a little less every day) that first, I need to be alive and healthy, physically and mentally, to then succeed—on my own terms.
January 14th was not exactly the best day of my life, but it wasn’t the worst. On that day, I worried about my Plan™, which, stripped of all its flair, was nothing but a plan for no mistakes, no surprises, and no changes. As it turns out, that’s not really a thing. That day forced me to give myself time, a situation I never would have willingly chosen for myself, but probably needed the most. That day, I found something that gave me the time to reach Level 1500 on Candy Crush, blow through all three seasons of The Good Place, and—beyond that—just sit peacefully with myself. My tumor eased my anxiety and for that, I am, at the very least, grateful.