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Zach Benak

Mind Over Body

When your mom gets cancer and then your dog gets cancer, it is only inevitable that you, too, will get cancer.

Your mom’s cancer was sad and scary, but also very manageable. A mammogram, a follow-up, a biopsy, a phone call with bad news, a lumpectomy, and ten weeks of radiation. Good words like “non-invasive” and “low-grade.” No chemotherapy! Big victory. There was no hair loss, no outward signs of sickness, no change in appearance that would suggest your mom’s body had turned on her. It was a brief debacle, July through November, and she was herself again within a few months. “Just a bump in the road,” said Aunt Kathy.

Your dog’s cancer was a bummer, sure, but also fairly painless. A water balloon-sized lump found in her stomach, a light-hearted attitude from your mom (We’re only allowed to have one cancer patient in this house!), a January check-up at the vet, a biopsy, a phone call with bad news, a lumpectomy, and immediate results that said the cancer was gone, and even if it did come back, it’s fairly common in dogs, and wouldn’t necessarily have an adverse effect on her lifespan. There was some canine whininess and discomfort after the surgery, but within a few days, she was back to being a happy, healthy dog, licking the fireplace and gently carrying stuffed animals in her mouth.

Your cancer is difficult and world ending, but also completely made up in your head. A lump lodged between your ribcage, right beneath your sternum, some rubbing and kneading on it, a dozen or so Google searches that tell you the lump is either an epigastric hernia (not likely, you’d definitely feel the pain, and it’s more likely to occur in toddlers) or your xiphoid process, a piece of cartilage that eventually ossifies. But your mind has already been made up, and you know it can’t possibly be just your xiphoid process, because it hasn’t always been there. Or maybe it has. Maybe you just didn’t notice it until now, because your mom got cancer and then your dog got cancer, and now you’re constantly fingering your entire body, checking for bumps or enlarged lymph nodes in your neck and armpits, any sign that something is internally trying to kill you.

You start to feel pain down there, in your chest. The lump itself doesn’t hurt (except when you press on it really, really hard), but the surrounding area does. You keep nudging your ribs, wondering if there are any growths on them. You feel a pit in your stomach that cramps up; you think your digestive tract is acting up. You remember how bad your acid reflux and heartburn can be, and wonder if that’s the root of the pain. Or perhaps it’s the cancer that has infected the surrounding area in your chest, and will soon spread throughout your entire torso and all of your internal organs unless you do the smart thing, the proactive thing, and schedule a doctor’s appointment.

“Alright, let’s see it,” the doctor says to you, as you lie on the table and suck in your stomach so he can see the protruding bulge coming from the front of your body. “Can you point to it for me?”

Holding your breath to be as skinny as possible, you point to the lump, jabbing at it to emphasize its existence.

“Okay, well move your hands!” the doctor says, annoyed, furrowing his wrinkly, gray brow, and so totally not convinced of what you have already convinced yourself. He feels it, but you decide you hate him before he gives his professional input, because how dare he snap at you like that when you’re being vulnerable and probably have cancer.

“I’m not feeling anything abnormal. I think it’s just your xiphoid process, which is a piece of cartila—”

I know what the xiphoid process is, you curmudgeonly piece of shit. I’ve read its Wikipedia page at least seven times, you mentally interrupt, not listening to the rest of what he has to say, because you’ve already determined that this will be the last time you see this doctor. Because you’re a hypochondriac. You’re anxious, messy, and paranoid. You’re way more sick in the head than you are in the body, and the last thing you need is an asshole doctor who makes you feel even worse about this truth.


Zach Benak is a recent graduate of DePaul University, where he studied Creative Writing, American Studies, and Religious Studies. His work has been published in Crook and Folly, and with the Chicago-based Asterisk Arts Collective. He loves elimination-based reality TV shows, and has dreams of his own to one day be voted off an island.

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