A figure loomed in the corner of my bedroom, a shadowy specter the size and shape of a man. It was faceless, yet I could feel its burning gaze on me. As soon as I registered it, the specter was upon me, embracing me with its shadow arms, enveloping me in darkness. I was pinned, paralyzed and helpless.
I woke up to the sound of my own screams, my heart pounding until I realized I was awake. I was safe. Even though the event had felt acute and urgent, it wasn’t real. Just a terrible nightmare. I wasn’t used to having them and usually slept soundly through the night, especially after putting in long days as a nurse.
Eventually, I settled down, telling myself it was an odd, one time occurrence. I went back to sleep.
But the next night, it happened again. I’d drifted off to sleep, only to find myself in my bedroom. Everything looked the same but felt different. There was an inescapable menacing feeling in the air. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I turned my head to the left, toward the window. The shadow figure had returned. It was on the outside of the glass, staring in. It reached its dark, misty hand toward me. The glass didn’t shatter. Instead, it bent around the smoky fingers in a grotesque, bubbling shape as I squirmed out of its reach. I woke up in a cold sweat, the morning sun lighting the room.
The nightmares continued. They all started with the figure in my bedroom. It would overtake me in darkness and lead me into one terrifying scene or another. Most often, it chased me through my home. No matter which way I turned, I couldn’t escape it.
I dreaded going to sleep at night, struggling to stay awake as long as possible. I knew that as soon as I closed my eyes, the shadow man would be there, waiting.
Then, one night, months into the nightmares, something changed. My dream self reacted differently. When the shadowy specter appeared, my body relaxed into it instead of resisting. Suddenly, I was somewhere else, a place very familiar to me. I was in a hospital ward. Specifically, the cancer ward. And I wasn’t alone. I was in a room with a patient. A woman.
She was small and frail, propped up on pillows, hooked up to machines and an IV. When we locked eyes, I could tell that she was sad. Somehow I knew that this was the end for her. I didn’t know what to do, how to help. I’d never worked in oncology, and I was out of my depth. She stared at me until her eyes closed and she flatlined. I tried calling for help, but I couldn’t. I had no voice. The patient was dead.
I stumbled into the hall, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Out of nowhere, a nurse appeared at my side, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“There’s another patient who needs you,” she said. “Go help her.” I protested, but the nurse insisted. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” she said, guiding me back toward the same room.
When I re-entered, the dead woman was gone. In her place was the new patient. I recognized her instantly. It was me.
I woke up, tears streaming down my face. It was still dark out, and I was petrified. I couldn’t shake the sense that these were no ordinary nightmares. The scene I’d just witnessed in my dream—actually seeing myself, knowing the fate of the first patient—made all the other dreams seem like a warning that I could no longer ignore. Was my health at risk? Was I headed for the oncology ward?
I was 42 years old. Cancer didn’t run in my family. And what could I do until morning? There was only one thing I could think of. I got up and went into the bathroom to do a self-exam. I flicked on the light, faced the mirror, raised my right arm. My fingers grazed something in my breast. Chills ran down my spine. Was that a lump? Or was I imagining things? Regular mammograms weren’t recommended until age 50 in the UK, but first thing the next morning, I made an appointment to get one.
Thankfully, the nightmares stopped while I waited for my appointment.
The mammogram results appeared to be clear, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I insisted on following up with an ultrasound, though I was told it was unnecessary. The ultrasound and a subsequent biopsy revealed that I had Stage II breast cancer, on the verge of becoming Stage III. I’d need immediate surgery, followed by chemo. The results surprised everyone but me. I’d been forewarned.
Now, 10 years later, my cancer is in remission. I haven’t had a dream about the shadowy figure since I acted on those mysterious messages and pursued a diagnosis. Even though the dreams were terrifying, I believe they were sent to me with love. Because they got my attention. And ultimately, they would save my life.
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