The piece you’re about to read is the eighth in a collection of introspective, raw and impactful pieces to be published here on MEDUSA. Motivated by the cathartic power of writing and reflecting, many of our contributors are sharing the words they would offer to their younger selves if they were able to travel back, reach out and subdue the uncertainties they encountered earlier on in their lives. With such an open-ended prompt, the letters divulge a myriad of memories, affording insights into challenges faced, extending words of wisdom and ultimately honouring and acknowledging how much the author has grown and learned.
Izzie Heis is the incredible poet, academic and writer behind this deeply moving piece. In her letter, she lovingly extends a wealth of comfort and reassurance to her teenage self during a time of unfathomable suffering – we’re truly endebted to her for sharing her experiences. With great compassion, vulnerability and courage, Izzie meditates on resilience, offering a message of indomitable hope.
Take a few moments of calm to enjoy and let us know your thoughts,
CW: this is a letter discussing my experiences of being a paediatric cancer survivor. If themes of cancer and death are upsetting to you, please proceed with caution.
Dear Teenage Izzie,
I think about you every day.
I think about you curled up on your bedroom floor, too overwhelmed to form a solitary thought, whilst the world rushed dangerously above your head.
I think about how you wore your favourite dress to hospital appointments, and smiled at anyone who looked at you, hoping they would change their sombre expressions, and smile back at you.
I think about the day when, finally, after maybe the fiftieth read, the spine of your copy of The Fault in Our Stars snapped between your fingertips, and the pages fluttered to the ground. You trembled as they fell; you believed those covers held the only friends you would know who understood what it was like to be you.
I’m sure you know why I am writing specifically to you, rather than the many other variations of us out there. But let me take a second to tell our reader the details you have already heard one hundred times.
In my early teens, I was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. My world was thrown into absolute chaos for several months. However, I was extremely fortunate: the cancer was removed with a single operation, and I sit here now, completely cancer-free, with no indicator of my troubles but an annual hospital appointment and three faint surgical scars.
So here I am, Little Izzie: the only person in the world who can answer the dozens of aching questions that you ask yourself every day. I could fill a book with what I want to tell you. But, for now, I have two messages for you, that I will try to keep as brief as I can.
The first is that, even to this day, you are the bravest person I have ever known.
This will come as a shock to you. You think you have handled this terribly. From extracts from your diary, and from the hazy memories I have of you, here is why:
- You cry, a lot, and you’re sure sometimes Mum and Dad can hear you.
- You wince when the nurses take your blood pressure.
- You’re sure your friends are mad at you because you’ve been away from school for so long.
- You can’t always remember all the medical names that describe what happened to you, and you still get shy and mispronounce them when you ask questions to your doctors.
- You want to be perfect; you want to bake cookies for the little children on your ward; to go and thank all your nurses and doctors individually for all their acts of kindness. But your brain feels so heavy and numb from your constant fear, all you can do is sit and smile, weakly.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I smiled to myself when I read this list back. Back then I had such minimal life experience, I had no idea what coping with anything big looked like, let alone something so big it threatens to swallow you whole. My younger self asked her parents how they were coping, and listened, regularly, played with her little sister every day, attended every single hospital appointment, researched hundreds of words of medical jargon, and apologised profusely for every tear she shed in public. I was a child. Looking back, I realise I was nothing short of remarkable.
Now, Little Izzie, for my second message I want to remind you of a moment, a painful one, but one that must be remembered, nevertheless.
I want to tell you of the first day anyone said the word ‘cancer’ to you. You looked out, upon the sea of faces of medical professionals that surrounded your hospital bed, and quietly asked the question you had been thinking about all day: ‘Am I going to die?’. To this day you have never seen a room shrink to wide-eyed silence so quickly, their guilt hanging heavily in the air. I can’t remember what feeble words of comfort they offered you; all I remember is that you knew as well as they did that nobody in that room could tell you that you would be okay with any degree of certainty.
From this day onwards, you convinced yourself you would never live to be an adult. No matter how many times doctors, surgeons, nurses, and radiologists, used words like “healthy”, “gone”, “successful”, “better”, you didn’t believe a word of it. On your eighteenth birthday you swilled your first ever legally-bought drink in your hand, in shock that you could touch the glass, taste the rum, as if they proved that the whole day wasn’t a mere fever dream.
You’ve achieved more so far than you ever thought you could.
You’re seven years cancer-free, soon to be eight. You’re already planning the giant party you’re going to have when you hit ten.
Not only do you have the GCSEs you feared you’d never pass due to missing so much school, you have A-levels, a First-Class degree, and a pending Master’s, too!
You’re a published writer; that’s right, your thoughts have branched out from the hundreds of tatty notebooks in your bedroom drawers, and now sit proudly for the world to see.
You’re a poet, an academic, a proud queer woman, dog-owner, degree-holder, the list goes on.
The message I ask you, the person reading this, to take away from this piece is to be kind to yourself, no matter what you’re going through. One day your future self will be smiling upon you, pushing all the adoration they can muster upon to you, in the hopes that you may feel it. No matter how terribly you feel you are handling this, whatever this may be, I promise you, you are doing great.
Little Izzie, you spent every second of your life post-diagnosis feeling guilty for surviving what others didn’t, feeling that every second you existed was one stolen from someone who deserved it more. Darling, you deserve everything you have achieved and more. This is your life: not your second chance at one.
You thought cancer was the end of you. Heartbreakingly, devastatingly, for too many people, it so often is.
For you, my love, cancer was merely the beginning.