I think everyone can agree that 2020 has gone into history as one of the shittiest years ever. I surely can tell. Christmas 2020. When you’d think the awful would finally be over and you’re free to start again, fresh, in a brand new year…
I only got into a worse pickle and it made me realize that life is short.

It all started with a cough

It all started with weird raspy breathing whenever I would lie down. Do you know that candy that pops in your mouth? It sounded exactly like that. Only it was in the chest.
Every time I lay down. There came this weird breathing. I had to cough. And it would keep me out of my sleep. Every night. It was awful.
And for some weird reason, I started to notice that things were starting to get a bit harder for me. Bike rides that I first could easily ride, nope. My legs felt like they were burning, and I couldn’t breathe.
At first, I was scared I had gotten the covid virus. I tested myself at least 5 times. But every test came out negative. So what was wrong with me?
I went to my doctor, who told me I had slime in my lungs and I just had to cough it out. Okay, that sounds plausible.
But I never coughed “it” out. Whatever it was, it stayed. And it became worse.

One day at work, I felt so awful. I felt I needed to go home. I was about to puke. So halfway I left work, I called in sick, and as soon as I got home, I puked. I stayed at home for the next few days and in total puked at least 11 times. And not food. No, I hardly ate during those days. Slimy, yellow bile came out of me.
My mother had also noticed that my legs were swelling up. I couldn’t bend my legs anymore.

A big heart

I went back to the doctor because something was clearly wrong. He sent me to the hospital for an x-ray of my lungs. And what a coincidence that your heart is right at that same place as your lungs, cause what the doctors saw was that my heart was too big.
I immediately had to stay. They gave me medicine and got hooked on devices. I apparently was filled with fluids. The raspy breathing I kept hearing was fluid! I had to pee that all out. 5 liters total. And my god, I felt so good afterward.
I stayed at the hospital for a week.

After that, I was told I had heart failure. My heart had suddenly become very weak and had trouble pumping the blood around. Why? To this day that’s still a mystery. I’ve done so many tests and scans, but nothing came out. No virus, no weird genetic thing, and everything looked clean. It just suddenly was there.
My only option to get a possible answer is to wait. Wait till the world of medicine has evolved more and maybe then they could discover what was wrong with me.
I had to go on several medicines and was advised that I should get an ICD, a pacemaker. I was hoping I wasn’t that bad that I needed one, but alas.
See it as a guardian angel, the hospital told me. It’s nice to have one just in case. Of course, I’m hoping the day will never come when I might need it. But still… That thought helped me get through the surgery.

So that’s it. Surgery, pills, and physical therapy. All is good now right? I can go back to work, and start my life again!

Yeah, no. Life was going to kick me harder in the metaphorical balls.

Soon after my surgery, I noticed a weird lump in my right breast.
I wasn’t scared at first, cause… no way it could be… the c-word… right? Not after the entire ordeal with my heart.
Again, back to the doctor, who sent me to the hospital for better tests.

Yeah, it’s the c-word. Breast cancer.

The C-word

Man… This time I really broke down. As if I was in my very own cliche soap opera. First my heart, and now this? The timing couldn’t be any crueler.

So, back to the hospital for tests. I had to see several specialists because it was proven to be a difficult case. Because of my heart failure, chemotherapy was out of the question. Chemotherapy would hurt my heart even more. So no chemo for me.
No, I had to go straight into surgery. Again.
And… I would lose my breast. There sadly was no other choice. But it was surprisingly something I had already accepted. I’d rather lose my breasts than my heart. That was the thought that would bring me through this surgery.

The doctors were very surprised to hear this, because… Well, breasts are one of the biggest, or for some THE symbol of womanhood. What are you when you lose your breasts? Or both? Are you still a woman?
In my opinion, yes, you still are a woman. Even without. In the end, breasts are just lumps of flesh, meant to feed babies. And I certainly had no plans to have babies. I’m no mother material. I’m still a woman. Even if I have one breast.

When I woke up from surgery and had my first moment to look down… I didn’t really feel anything. Just more… Oh, okay… This is it then. That wasn’t so bad.

Self portrait of the artist Siti Pol as an anthropomorphic Komodo dragon showing the surgical scars of the ICD and breast cancer surgery

Self-portrait of me, Siti Pol, as an anthropomorphic Komodo dragon, showing my surgical scars of my ICD and breast cancer surgery

What now?

So here I am. With an ICD in my chest and one breast less. And remarkably still alive.

I now have to watch what I eat. Be careful with salt and fluids. I have to take many pills to keep my heart pumping and the cancer away. And I have to be more active, so I’m now also going to the gym twice a week.

Yep, sorry to burst your bubble, but they were right. If you want to live long, you need to exercise and watch what you eat.

I myself don’t mind. I am loving my time at the gym. And I’ve found my way to eat healthy and also when I can eat some yummy snacks that have a bit more salt. I think I’m doing well. I’ve adapted to my new way of living.

Live the life you want

It does make you think, doesn’t it? When something as big as this hits you hard. You’re thinking more about life.
I had to put my life on hold for almost 2 years. No work, no certain activities. Many times I was stuck at home where I just felt miserable and had zero energy to do anything. And all you can do… is think. Think about life. That life is indeed short. That it could be over any minute. You think about your own life. About your choices. Your happiness.

It sure helped me to make the decision to enjoy life more. To no longer wait. Go for it. I want to be a comic artist? Then go make comics and get in touch with publishers. I want to work for myself? Then go make the first steps to be financially free. And that’s what I’m doing now. After 2 years of doing nothing, I am now going to do something. I’m going to make the life I always wanted, so I can enjoy and relax the rest of the days I still have.

And that’s what you should do too. Don’t wait too long.  Life IS short. Do what makes you happy. I certainly will.

  • Stin – The Dutch organization for ICD-carriers
  • Pink Ribbon – Dutch site about breast cancer
  • Ronduit Plat – Photography project about breast amputation
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