Symptomatology: II. Giving Names
All symptoms threaten us with cancer because cancer is an abstraction. Knowing that our bodies have something to say but unsure how to understand them, we take their every utterance to mean the same thing. Ventriloquial cancer, the disease which is not one, is the one disease that can speak through anything, and it whispers to us in all tongues.
How much stranger things become when this polymorphous shadow takes definite shape. Cancer is one thing: pure potentiality, pure menace. But where cancer as such names the bare fact of an antagonistic power, cancer with a name promises some power to the patient. Why do gods hide their true names? Because they think naming makes them small. Because they know that what is small is actionable.
Still, names sometimes sprout thorns when we try to handle them. Just as we are warned against indiscriminately researching our symptoms, so too should we avoid aggressively investigating our diseases. Uncertainty produces anxiety because when we know too little we tell ourselves too many stories. But knowledge begets knowledge, and knowing too much can paralyze us. Read widely about a loved one’s ailments or your own and you will wind up frozen, suspended between penetrating dread and false hopes.
My own endocrinologist suggested a single site, one that offered a repository of information gathered by thyroid cancer survivors. Their introductory handbook is thorough and measured. It lays out survival rates (high) and treatment options (primarily surgical) with precision and care. I should have been reassured. Why, then, did reading the section on my disease’s symptoms leave me publicly sobbing on the metro?
Thyroid cancer rarely reveals itself in its early stages, causing neither pain nor impairment. Indeed, it can sometimes go undiagnosed for years, cells quietly multiplying at a glacial pace. It is the nodules in which it takes root that are typically discovered first. Sometimes, only sometimes, their small swellings produce the kind of symptoms that might be misattributed to the common cold. I was neither hoarse nor short of breath, but that rounded pressure in my throat, the marble just above my breast bone, was suddenly hard to ignore.
Similarly unavoidable, was the difficulty swallowing I noticed at my next meal. The muscular contractions of peristalsis, normally as routine as exhaling stale air, began to feel like a conscious action. Food coated the roof of my mouth, pushed back against my tongue, explored the walls of my esophagus. I told myself the feeling was psychosomatic, but the knowledge provided no comfort. Whether my disease was asserting itself or I was asserting the reality of my disease, the fact was that it was there.
So why did I break into tears? Perhaps because I already sensed that the very idea of a symptom can give shape to unwanted sensation. My doctors had given name to my cancer. In its own turn, my cancer had given name to things I might never have otherwise noticed. In the first days after my diagnosis, cancer had been a dream and my actions in response to it those of a sleepwalker. Symptoms, the mere names of symptoms, shocked me awake.
Here I am, sitting bolt upright in an unmade bed.