NONFICTION July 2, 2021

Hold Still

Don’t swallow, don’t breathe. It’s what the doctor says each time she stabs your neck with a fine needle, aiming for a nodule that’s grown on your thyroid for no reason. The nodule requires exploration. 

Her orders inject fear. The desire to swallow. The need to breathe. A sense of looming failure. 

Maintain immobility. Manage to follow instructions three successive times—enough time for her to get what she’s after: cells that might show cancer. 

Yours don’t. Until you’re advised to repeat the procedure, later.

Let a surgeon remove your thyroid. 

Move on with a new vacancy. 

Take pills to do what a complex human organ used to do. 


Swallow. It’s not much bigger than a vitamin—gripped in tongs by a gloved nurse and dropped into your open mouth. The radioactive iodine will find any leftover thyroid cells and light up the follow-up scan. 

Follow the guidelines from Nuclear Medicine. Sleep alone for three days. Flush the toilet twice after use. (You won’t be radioactive for long. And your scan won’t show any clearly threatening leftovers.)


Take a deep breath. A deep inhale. Fill your lungs with air. Let it out slowly. Imagine exhaling to the base of your diaphragm. (A speech coach once told you to do this before a presentation, if you were nervous.) 

The process relaxes. Many people have said so. 

Maybe try it before bed, when you try to meditate. 



Feeling relaxed now?


Breathe in. Hold it. The x-ray technician wants pictures of your lungs, to make sure there’s no cancer lurking beneath the cancer in your right breast. Don’t worry, this cancer is another easy one: ductal carcinoma in situ. You won’t need chemotherapy, only surgery and radiation—fingers crossed. Pending results of the x-rays. The MRI. The surgery.


Lie face down, arms overhead. Try not to breathe too deeply or you’ll blur the images. If you move during this last one, with the IV contrast, you’ll have to come back and do the whole thing over. 


Breathe in. Breathe more deeply into the mask. (Say goodbye to a small piece of breast. You’re lucky that’s all. And it’s only same-day surgery.) 

Inhale . . .

. . . Out. Chest compressed. A dark parking lot.


We keep it cold in here. Would you like a warm blanket?

Lie on your back, arms overhead. Grip those pegs behind you. That’s right. Turn your face to the left. Does this feel comfortable? Can you hold this pose for ten or fifteen minutes? (Every weekday, for four weeks?)

Yes? We’ll take a few more pictures to get set for your first treatment. We’ll be right outside the room. Don’t move. Don’t look up if one of us returns for some reason. If you move, we’ll have to do the whole thing over. 


It’s energy. They’re sterilizing the territory. The radiation won’t hurt. You might start to feel something like a sunburn on your skin. A bad sunburn. Maybe the worst sunburn you’ve ever had. (Oh yes.) An x-ray once you’re done might show a light impact on the lung. (An opaque area? A shadow? What did the doctor say, exactly?)

It doesn’t matter. The treatments will lower your risk of recurrence. Breathe. Breathe in. Take a deep inhale. Fill your lungs with air; feel how much they hold in this moment.


Lie on your back, arms overhead. Grip those pegs behind you. Turn your face to the left. Hold still. 

. . . still. 

. . . still. 

. . . still.

. . . still.

Finish counting to twenty, over the course of a month. 

Try to perfect your patience. Your motionlessness.

Don’t forget to breathe. To anoint your tenderizing skin with the recommended lotion. To recognize the privilege of sufficient health insurance. To appreciate the permit that parks you so close to the entrance, and the elevator that drops you straight to the basement. 

Beam gratitude at the professionals who labor in this bunker. Picture yourself—and the other patients awaiting orders, bodies altered and missing pieces—healed and free to act on more joyful directives. Self-directives. 

You’ll need to work on elevating yours. 

Think about it. All those distant, unconstrained days and years, were you taking full advantage of your own agency?


OK. We’re all set. You can move now. 

Take your time getting up. I understand. It’s a lot. 

You did good. You did everything. (For now.)

Ring the bell to mark your finish. You earned this! As the sound dies down: breathe in with all you have and use that air to emerge. To write your own verbs. 

(Don’t forget to leave your parking pass for someone else on your way out.) 

. . . And when the whole world slows and stills with a new illness? 

Let your skin weep and peel. 

Listen again. 

Tend to what you can with your imperfect patience, your restless motionlessness, your limited touch that may one day reveal a surprising softness.

Linda Downing Miller has led creative writing classes in Chicago since 2015. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and other publications, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Water~Stone Review, The Florida Review, and the Chicago Tribune. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.