“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor. “Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
By the time I reached my last day of treatment for leukemia, in the autumn of 2015, I’d spent nearly four years—the majority of my adult life—in that other realm: the kingdom of the sick that no one cares to inhabit. Initially, I’d clung to the hope of a short sojourn, one where I wouldn’t have to unpack my bags. I resisted the label of “cancer patient,” believing I could remain the person I’d been. But as I grew sicker, I watched my old self vanish. In place of my name, I had been issued a patient-ID number. I’d learned to speak fluent medicalese. Even my molecular identity had morphed: After my bone-marrow transplant, my brother’s stem cells engrafted in my marrow and my DNA had irreversibly mutated. With my bald head, pallor, and the medical port lodged below my collarbone, illness became the first thing people noticed about me.
As months bled into years, I adapted to the mores of this new land as best I could, befriended its inhabitants, even carved out a career within its confines. In its terrain, I built a home, accepting not only that I might stay there for a while, but that likely I would never leave. It was the outside world, the kingdom of the well, that had grown alien and frightening.
But for me, for all patients, the end goal is eventually to leave the kingdom of the sick. In many cancer wards, there’s a bell that patients ring on their last day of treatment, a ceremonial tolling that signals a transition. It’s time to say goodbye to the eerie and changeless fluorescence of hospital rooms. It’s time to step back into sunlight.