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Excerpt: Stronger

Excerpt: Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book

BY Natalie Flechsig
PUBLISHED June 17, 2009

Two frogs fell down a well. A group of frogs gathered to watch, and they yelled down at the frogs, “You’ll never get back up!” One of the frogs became discouraged and gave up and drowned. The other frog kept jumping and eventually got out of the well. The frogs that had been watching asked, “Why did you keep trying when we told you you’d never make it?” The frog replied, “Oh, I thought they were words of encouragement!”

My mom told me that story after the doctors determined that I had osteosarcoma. Finally, a month into my freshman year at college, I knew why I had been limping the past five months. There was a cancerous tumor in my left femur. After a month of scans, tests, and chemo, I underwent an operation to remove my knee and parts of my femur and tibia and had them replaced with a titanium prosthesis. Six months of chemo followed, along with a regimen of physical therapy that I had to endure if I ever wanted to walk again.

I thought, if Mom is willing to tell me stories about talking amphibians, there must be a good moral. She also said, “You don’t have to win every battle to win the war.” Over the next nine months, I had to learn not to resign myself to the fate predicted by some of my doctors. I struggled with everything—uncertainty about the future, hair loss, nausea, fear of needles, weekly blood tests, ER visits, major operations, a biopsy where they didn’t give me enough local anesthetic, lack of sleep, mouth sores, trouble and pain with walking and bending my leg, and being stared at in public—and I’m glad I did.

The whole ordeal has given me more confidence in my ability to defy expectations, as well as a deep appreciation for what my family and friends will do for me. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger, and though at first I thought everything would kill me, I now have a new appreciation for a lot of things.

I’m also having more fun at the hospital and spending less time in bed. When I arrived for my most recent session, I announced a crutch decorating party in the playroom. Six hours later, after playing games and talking, we all got tired and retired to our rooms.

I ran into two of my doctors.

“Natalie, you’re like the poster-child for chemotherapy. Do you have any idea how hard I try to get these kids out of bed? And then you come along and everyone’s in the playroom.”

I said, “Well, maybe they just got really bored.”

Then she replied, “Nope, pretty sure it’s just you.”

So that was nice to hear. Natalie, the optimistic frog!

A team of six doctors tours the hospital each day, spending a few minutes with every patient. This is my favorite part of the day and amuses me to no end. Personally, I don’t find my mouth sores very interesting, but the doctors are fascinated. They gather in a semi-circle around my bed, one of them shines a light in my mouth, and they all simultaneously lean forward as far as they can and crane their necks to see, and let out a collective “Ooooh.”

The next day I decided to treat them to something really fascinating—my leg! I rolled up my pants and demonstrated my leg-bending skills. They asked a bunch of questions about skin sensitivity, etc., and then did the whole leaning in to look at my mouth routine again.

They make me feel like a celebrity. Only, instead of walking the red carpet, I’m sitting in a blue hospital bed, and instead of flash bulbs going off in my face, they’re shining lights in my eyes to see if my pupils dilate, and instead of wearing a gown designed by someone famous, I am wearing a hospital gown that is a little too breezy in the back, if you get my draft, er, drift.

I am getting stronger every day, physically and mentally. I no longer get winded walking to the kitchen in the morning. I don’t get tired from standing up long enough to make a sandwich. I go out of the house almost every day, be it to physical therapy, lunch, or both, and I don’t need a break just from walking to the car. I am also better at getting up from the floor or a chair, and just moving in general. My sister even says I’m “stealthy.” While I wouldn’t quite call myself that (you can hear me coming because I use a cane, just in case), I feel so much better.

My anxiety has lessened. I have people praying for me who I don’t even know, in places I’ve never been. With so much support from well-wishers, I can’t help but be cheerful.

When I went to get fitted for my leg brace, I was dutifully wearing my protective mask, something I hated to wear in public not so long ago. The lady who was doing the fitting asked me, “How did you break your femur?” and I realized she didn’t consider me a convalescing weirdo wearing a mask, but rather just a normal person who broke a bone. I was even more surprised to find myself glibly replying, “Oh, I didn’t break it, I just have cancer.”

The other day, I went out with my boyfriend for dinner. Someone sneezed, so I busted out my trusty mask. A little girl, still too young to understand the concept of speaking in hushed tones, immediately turned to her mom and, while pointing at me, loudly asked (twice), “Mommy, why is that girl wearing a mask?”

About a month ago, this would have been my cue to turn away abruptly, tears spilling from my eyes, complaining bitterly about “looking like a freak,” but I found myself unperturbed. I turned to the girl, smiled and said something like, “I have to wear a mask because there are germs in the air and that makes it easy for me to get sick.”

The girl said “Oh!” and proceeded to ask me if I wanted to hear her sing “The Bunny Song.” I used to glare right back at kids staring at me (I knew they didn’t know any better but I felt like a walking freak show), but now I realize that, like Mom told me, once you tell kids, they don’t really care, much less think you’re a freak. They also really understand stories about drowning frogs.

I have made major strides. I’ve accepted the fact that I am currently a cancer patient, but that’s not going to prevent me from going out and enjoying myself. I no longer think that every person who looks at me because I’m wearing a mask and have no hair is judging me. I even took off my hat at the restaurant, something I used to be ashamed to do, even at home! I finally realized that other people weren’t judging me right about the same time that I finally stopped judging myself.

 

Natalie Flechsig, 19, is a freshman in college, majoring in Political Economy of Industrial Societies. She plans to attend law school and become an attorney. Natalie loves to travel, learn languages, challenge people to Scrabble, and laugh. She can be reached at nflechsig@comcast.net.

Excerpted with permission from the authors and publisher of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book,  Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC, March 2009. (ISBN: 978-1935096306). Authors: Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and David Tabatsky. Copyright © Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. For more information visit: www.chickensoup.com.

 

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