I have tried for a month to find a way to describe the swooping, nauseating, internal tectonic shift I felt both physically and existentially on the night of September 22, the night I felt a random spear of pain in my left breast while changing into my pajamas, and pressed my hand to it. There it was. A lump, a hard spot, a little dollop of death just hanging out, right under my skin.
In my mind, there was never any question what it was. Twenty-three years fell away all at once and stood at the edge of the abyss and looked over…and then I fell in.
I have cancer.
To be specific, I have cancer…again.
In one instant I went from an inspiring, spunky feel-good survivor story (which is a weird pedastal to stand on, as though I actually did something rather than just being one of the lucky ones) to a sobering cautionary tale. I’m the one where the cancer came back, just when I thought it was finally ok to let my guard down just a little bit. Soon I’ll be the portly woman with a concave chest who looks funny but man does she have a great outlook. I’ll be bald and there will be no hiding that I am a figurehead for it can happen to you. People will look at me with pity and the sympathetic head tilt. God dammit, I hate every bit of this soul sucking nightmare. But here we are.
Listen, I’ve played by a lot of rules in my life. I know, right? For someone who’s been kicked out of church twice, I’m actually a more of a rule follower than a rule breaker. Oh, I’ll break a rule if I think it’s a stupid rule or a hurtful rule or just a rule I can’t give a damn about, but I also am not a fan of confrontation. When you follow the rules, you don’t have to worry as much about confrontation. In my mind, it was a fair trade, or it used to be anyway. While I still may follow a well devised rule and heartily appreciate a healthy set of boundaries, I’m pretty much done with conventional expectations. confrontation be hanged.
Every day I look down at my chest, the visible, anatomical proof of my femininity, my breasts, and I wonder if I will feel sexy, or attractive or feminine ever again. I’m grieving a loss that hasn’t happened yet, and wrestling with the decision of just letting that part of my identity go, or bending to the conventional expectation that women need boobs (and hair) to be anything other than a freak show.
What I want to say is “FUCK THAT,” but I gotta tell you, it’s easier to say when it’s not your own breasts (and hair), when it’s not you who loves the beach and wonders what the hell she’ll wear the next time she’s there that won’t make her feel like a spectacle.
Ah see, there’s no rule that says I have to have breasts, which would be easy enough to break because it’s a stupid – ass rule. But convention will never let me forget I’m less than a whole woman again.
The bullshit thing about cancer, or about my cancer experience anyway, is that I know all the ‘right’ responses to everything I’m saying. I do, which is a plea for you to keep your persuasive counter arguments to yourself pleaseandthankyou.. I just don’t feel them.
What I feel is raw and vulnerable and sad and very, very broken.
So you’ll forgive me (or not. I actually don’t care), if I seem a little jaded and cynical right now. My go-to defense is shocking humor and believe you me, it’s on full display lately because if you can’t escape it, you might as well make everyone else uncomfortable right along with you, am I right?
The bitch cancer isn’t just stealing my hair and my breasts and my physical well-being, my nails and my blood cells, my sleep and my appetite, my money along with my ability to plan or travel or work forty hours a week, no she’s burrowing into my very core identity and throwing out some parts I was particularly fond of, ones I’d like to keep. And that, well that is a clawing nightmare I’m still learning to navigate.
The trite response here is, you’re still you, but that’s the very essence of the problem isn’t it? To say I’m still me is to say I haven’t changed, and that’s just a lie. A terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad lie. I am changed. I am changing. I have to, because if I don’t I will shrivel up and die either from cancer or self-pity, and honestly, neither one of those is an option I’m considering.
Perhaps the one bright spot in all of this has been how absent all the religious banalities have been over the last month. No one has told me ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘all things work for good’ or ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (for fuck’s sake – I have CANCER so definitely shame me by telling me if I loved better this wouldn’t be so fucking terrifying.). In fact, most people feel more than welcome to drop an F-bomb with me – loudly and proudly. These are my people, and the Universe has kindly brought an entire brigade of them to share this experience. Lately, I call my life the shit-show and thankfully not one person has felt the need to correct me or clutch their pearls at my foul mouth.
I may not know how I feel about God (that He’s a nationalistic patriarchal construct that barely scratches the surface of the true nature of Divine Love?), in fact, I mostly don’t think of the god of my evangelical experience at all, and there’s a great deal of comfort in that too. I do feel held by Love right now, despite all the ranting and raving I may share in the meantime. I don’t understand anything really, not about the big why’s or how’s that spring to mind when your mortality has you in a strangle hold, but I know kindness and people hold me close and make me laugh and say they want to see my port when I ask them. I think that’s Love. At least, that’s what I’m holding on to right now.