Watching and Waiting

"Better question is, why do I need an excuse for my fear? Why can’t I accept that I’m terrified and that’s a normal feeling? Cancer is scary."

It was eight o’clock at night, one week into my first North American tour, when I got the call. I was drifting asleep in the back of a sprinter van, somewhere in Florida. I’d been waiting for this call, all day, so when my phone rang I answered in a hurry and quickly put on my yes-I’m-awake voice. My doctor didn’t hesitate to deliver the test results. It went something like:

“Hi, I have the results back, and it is in fact lymphoma, which is a type of cancer. Do you have any questions?”

“Ummm no, no questions, sounds good…?”

The phone call ended, and for a moment I wasn’t sure if I had dreamt the entire thing. I had absolutely no idea what to do with this information, as I sat frozen in the back of the van, hiding my face in my sweater.

I had no idea I was sick. At least, not that kind of sick. I’d been self diagnosing my fatigue, my ever-growing list of food allergies, my stomach pain—all as “stress related.” I wrote it off as “in my head,” and therefore “not real.” I pushed through every day with a smile and said, “next week I’ll feel better.” I self medicated by adjusting my diet, going to bed earlier, and moving the deadline for my next album back until after the tour. It didn’t help, and as tour got closer, I started to question if I really was OK. So while I was getting a flu shot, I started asking some questions; one thing led to the next and I was sitting with an oncologist, the day before tour.

Looking back, it’s crazy how much pain I ignored when I thought it was mental or emotional. As if that somehow meant it wasn’t valid, or wasn’t worth being treated. The moment I was told there were “multiple masses” in my abdomen, everything changed. I began to take my health seriously. What is it about a name or a physical image that we think we need in order to be validated for the way we feel?

Even with a name for my illness, I’ve found it really hard to cut myself a break. I often get upset that it’s taken me all year to get my EP done and released. I’m terrified of being left behind, forgotten about, that I’ll have to start all over. Starting over is my biggest fear, because I’m not that young and I have a toddler—I imagine it’ll be harder now, or that I wouldn’t be as relatable. I tried to remind myself that I wrote my first album just as I’d become a new mom, while going through Postpartum depression, and that its success has allowed me to be an independent artist, which is a huge feat. There’s a lot I have accomplished despite difficult circumstances, so why am I so terrified?

Better question is, why do I need an excuse for my fear? Why can’t I accept that I’m terrified and that’s a normal feeling? Cancer is scary. We can prevent all we can, but ultimately, illness does not care who are you or what you’ve done. It’s an enormous lie to believe that I’d be less terrified if I were younger, older, unattached, more successful, or more established. It really wouldn’t matter. Our mortality is real, and that fear isn’t something commonly shared in conversation, or in relationships, or even within ourselves. It’s been hard to imagine for myself that I could be afraid, or I could fall apart and that would be OK. There’s such a desire to be superhuman, but I’ve learned that isn’t a state to be in when you really need to heal.

The EP is called Watch and Wait, a loose reference to a cancer term—we are watching and waiting to see what happens next. I felt the need to write these songs not just because it was what I was experiencing, but because they felt so human. Because everyone has dealt with illness, loss, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and anxiety of what the future may hold. Yes, at times it felt like maybe I was distracting myself from reality, but mostly it felt like a unique period of time that I could never recreate. Everything about writing and recording was different during this experience—I even sang differently because I was often sick with various colds and infections.

In my song “Cast Away,” I wrote about exhaustion and loneliness. Often, the loneliness was more painful than the illness itself. In “Temporary,” I wrote about losing and finding my way again, as I yearn to accept that all of this is a season. In “Ocean,” I dream about the fearless girl I used to be, and wonder if I could accept myself, and ultimately become fearless again. I think if there was one word to wrap up what I’ve gained (or, more accurately, what I am just beginning to gain) from all of this, it would be self-acceptance.

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to wrap this story up nicely. I wish I could articulate and share more of what I’ve learned, but I’m still in the midst of it. I’m learning how to be present where I am, as well as to remember where I came from and how I got here. What I truly desire is to have more empathy for others, and also for myself.

(Photo Credit: Danielle Ernst)

Ella Vos has quickly become one of the most exciting new acts in pop music. Beginning with her viral hit “White Noise,” Vos has hit number 1 on both Spotify and Hype Machine’s Viral Charts. Acclaimed for her dreamy soundscape and praised by the likes of Rolling Stone and Neon Gold, her debut album Words I Never Said has received over 200 million streams independently. Her new EP Watch and Wait is due January 25