Over the weekend, my favorite girl asked me to help her with a project for her biology class. She’s a freshman in high school now. This is what she looked like at age 8 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I took this photo the day before my bilateral mastectomy. This is my favorite girl today.
I know, right??? How does that happen???
Anyhoo, back to the story: my favorite girl is doing a project for her biology class on a disease or disorder that has a chromosomal component. She chose breast cancer.
She needed the basic info of my cancer: stage, treatment, etc., as well as ancillary materials (photos and such) that tell “the story” of her subject’s experience with said disease or disorder. I pulled out my bulging “cancer catch-all” — my binder that holds all my paperwork, like pathology reports. That was easy because it’s all facts: this scan was conducted on this date and found this. Then she asked for the not-so-easy part: details on how my cancer affected me. While there are indeed facts involved with that part too, something else is involved as well, which is what makes it, for me, the not-so-easy part.
Feelings. The dreaded feels.
I don’t like feeling the feels associated with my cancer experience. (I refuse to refer to it as my cancer “journey” because to me that word implies an end point. With cancer, there doesn’t seem to be an end point. I don’t like it, so I’m not gonna use that word.)
Six years out, I don’t think about my cancer experience nearly as much as I used to (hence the loooooooong periods of radio silence from this blog). As with most calamities, time does smooth out the rough edges. But with my favorite girl asking me for all the gory details, that dark period of my life surrounded me, again.
When, exactly, do we “get over” this? At what point does the calamity of cancer lose its potent punch? I’d like an ETA on the return of peace and tranquility. Can someone please tell me when to expect an easing from the powers of the cancer calamity? Because I need to know that at some point, cancer will no longer upend my day like a sucker punch and leave me reeling, wondering why I feel as I’ve been run over by a truck.
That will happen, right?
Even though my cancer experience is no longer the petulant toddler whining for a pack of Skittles in the grocery-store checkout area, apparently that cancer still packs quite a punch. The simple act of flipping through my medical binder to locate information for my girl’s project sent me on a one-way trip through bad memories and scary places. I see myself from a distance, as if I’m watching myself on a screen. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a survivor whose scars are a badge of courage. Instead, I’m instantly transported back to that time. Those days. That period.
I hate that cancer has the ability to do this. I hate that cancer still controls me. Like a bad habit or a selfish lover, my cancer has a hold on me. Other people’s cancers have that power over me, too. Like my sweet mama’s cancer. That rat bastard smiles and licks its lips, knowing it is the puppet master and I am the puppet.
I should know better than to expect to be “done” with cancer. After all, I’ve been thinking about it and blogging about it for years. As I wrote early in 2011:
Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.
I should know damn good and well that there is no end. So why do I keep looking for it?
Hi Pink Underbellyers,
This is Kayte VanScoy posting under Trevor’s PU log in. I wonder if Nancy’s ever given a thought to the fact that her blog is peee-yewwwwwww. For sure, the “Cancer Journey” (cue the violins) has been, so why not.
I’m in town imposing on the unending hospitality of the Hickses. I’ve known Trevor, Nancy, and Ed, because, let’s face it, Ed is part of this constellation too, since 1997 or so when we were all friends through the Austin Chronicle–Holt, Rinehart axis in Austin’s writing and editorial community. Eventually, Ed moved in and became my roommate, and that’s how I get so lucky to be able to pretend that I’m family around here. The truth is, we lost touch when I moved to New York to become rich and famous (I’m still waiting). But enough about me. Seriously. Enough about me already this week. (At first I wrote “weekend,” but then I realized that other people are working as I type this; it just always seems like the weekend around here.)
Hanging out with Nancy and Trevor and their kids and Ed and the dogs and Amy Hoover, too, who is a force of nature, makes it seem like life, no matter what comes, is just one pool party away from working out for the best. Look, PU-ers, I’m not going to lie. This has been a really rough couple of days for me. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but I brought some heartbreak to Houston with me. Because, you know, it’s always all about me. Right? Does someone have a surgery to recover from around here? Is someone dealing with their wife and mother being not at 100%, when she’s usually at 150%? Apparently, I don’t care. Me me me. Sob sob sob.
Nancy makes it seem like my troubles are as big as anyone’s, including hers. And then…. I go to her appointment with Dr. S today.
Now, I’ll just stop here and say that when Nancy and Trevor and I reconnected on Facebook, we had been out of touch for many years. They had moved to NC and back, had another baby, and moved away and back to the Houston area. We had only been blissfully (for me, anyway) back in touch for a few weeks when Nancy got her diagnosis.
You never know how you’re going to react to something, but for me Nancy’s illness has made me realize how much I value my friends, how life is short, how old we really all are now… really, lots of really profound stuff. Maybe it’s been like that for you, too. It makes you think and try to see if you can pull something better up out of the middle of yourself. Those are always good challenges to have… right? I guess so. Whatever. Life.
Anyway, I offered to “help” Nancy and basically invited myself to town. So far, my “help” has looked like me staying out till 5am with other people, waking the whole house up, napping, hungover, through the day, then drinking champagne in her hot tub. You’re welcome! No, really, it’s nothing. I’ll try to do the dishes tonight… ? I guess I’m just not one of those “helping” people.
Now. Amy Hoover. That’s another story. Let me tell you… that’s a whoooole other story. Talk about Wonder Woman. I would give anything to have a heart big enough to contain other people’s needs. I’m happy to meet someone so competent, focused, giving, and living in love. Reminds me what is possible when we ask more of ourselves.
All right. I’ll get to it now. Here’s the story part of the blog: so, here we go… me, Nancy, and Amy, off to Dr. S’s for Nancy’s seeming daily appointment.
Okay… hi again. I saved this yesterday evening so that we could all sit by the pool and talk and eat and visit. This scene is pretty good, you guys. Pooltastic.
Now. Getting back to Nancy, her appointment(s), and Dr. S: Listen, if you have not been so privileged as to be invited into the presence of Dr. S, please endeavor to procure an audience with His High Holiness, the Plastic Surgeon’s Plastic Surgeon. And, you know, no joke, the man is more than skilled. He is more than artful. He is OBSESSED. He is the Picasso of the female form. Which is also another way of saying: Nancy looks amazing. She is in very good—and very specific—hands.
Now that’s just the intro. That’s the nice way of easing you into the jarring reality of Nancy’s daily life. When I was here last summer, Nancy was still battling her infection and still coping with an unreconstructed, post-surgical mastectomy site. I can’t really describe what it was like to see the Amazing and Beautiful Nancy in so much pain. It wasn’t comfortable to see. And then she invited me into her bedroom—with Amy Hoover—to observe the changing out of her wound dressing and, I don’t know what you call it but for lack of a better term, wound stuffing. The generosity of this invitation… I cannot overstate it. It was deeply moving, as much as it was unsettling. She even, and seemingly without thinking about it, invited in my friend Sarah, whom she had never even met, to watch the procedure. I don’t know why she did, but of course I was curious. I didn’t know that Sarah would want to but (and her dad is also a plastic surgeon, so perhaps it’s just a natural, genetic inclination) of course she was curious too. I realized, then, that Nancy was so much more than my old, smart, sweet, sassy, challenging, gorgeous friend from Austin. She is someone who does not see her body as only her own. She is so generous that she understands that to share her journey with me and with Sarah (and with all of you through this blog) is to expand and extend the boundaries of those who are ready to cope with their own cancers or the cancers of their friends, to grow the pool of people who will have a driving need to see research and fundraising get pushed to their limits as fast as possible. Although this journey, and her body, are certainly her own, Nancy is strong enough inside of herself to not feel stingy about her experience. I know that I could never offer as much to the world and she simply floors me. I am in awe of her and forever in her debt for inviting me in. My world is permanently changed.
Which brings us, finally, to the examination chamber of the ebullient Dr. S. His examination table more throne than bed, a leather club chair for me to lounge in, a rolling stool for Amy, and Nancy perched at the ready for what she calls, not unfittingly, The Dr. S Show. And in he comes, fanfare root-a-tooting, a fit and attractive man with dark skin, of some Middle Eastern or Asian descent. But who has time to ask after such trivialities as background? He blazes in and begins the performance, and Nancy—the Judy to his Punch, the Lucy to his Desi, the cream to his coffee—giving it back every step of the way.
First, down come the clothes and there is Nancy’s body in its glory, stripped to the hips. Now, I’m not a prudish sort, but from the unconcerned way in which she peeled off her kit you’d think her profession involved a pole or the transportation of chicken wings from kitchen to salivating male maws. I guess she’s used to it. She didn’t seem impressed. He, on the other hand, lit up. Not in a yucky way, but in the way of an artist unveiling his greatest work of art—behold, Nancy!
Like the cartoon painter, holding out his thumb to measure his progress, he stood back to take her in, stepped forward to touch, prod, palpate, and even just to elucidate. It was the longest, by far, that I’ve ever been in a room with a half-naked person and three dressed people having a conversation as if, you know, it just happened every single day of our lives like that. Of course, I was the only one there for whom it doesn’t. So, I mostly kept my big mouth shut and tried to take it all in.
First, there was the issue at hand. The Soup du Jour was the “divot,” as Nancy had come to call a thumbprint-sized indentation of her upper-right, newly reconstructed breast that had just drooped into existence in the past 24 hours, along with some new and concerning pain. This was the exact site of the infection that had so bedeviled her and she was worried it was all coming back.
Right off the bat, with the most self-assured manner imaginable (imagine Justin Timberlake meets Arnold Schwarzenegger with just a soupcon of Karl Lagerfeld), Dr S announces that this is nothing to worry about, there is no infection present, and that everything looks amazing. This indentation can be filled with injected fat, or they could go back in and fix it in another surgery.
Is he serious? Another surgery. He’s blasé. She is too. The explanation for it, he says, is simple. One of her ribs had to be carved out to allow a blood vessel to pass through, to supply her new tissue. I shudder at the carving motion he makes in his finger, showing how the rib was sliced into with a crescent moon. Again, this registers almost zero with Nancy & Amy and I keep my yapper zipped.
Now, in a regular doctor’s visit, Nancy would cover up as soon as possible, he would busy himself with scribbling something and mumble his way out of the room. You know how it goes. Right away, however, and Nancy seems to understand his need to do this, he begins to survey “the field,” as it were. Nancy has a hip-to-hip incision with two drains on either end. This is where The Dr. S’es harvested the fat she had so obligingly grown for them to build her new breasts.
He sways over to the paper towel roll on the wall, whips out a square of paper, takes out a Sharpie and begins to diagram the procedure. Nancy is rapt and I figure she knows what he’s talking about. Later, we both confirm that we were lost in all the medical jargon. I’m confident that Dr. S has no idea what’s going on with his audience and is even less interested. He continues on, diagramming, explaining, gesticulating. Finally he announces, “Now I do not even give this lecture to other surgeons!” Nancy, Amy, and I break out in a round of (bewildered) applause.
Unfortunately for Nancy and, one would think, the future of all mankind (given the intensity of his passion around it), two weeks post-surgery Nancy still hasn’t lost every single nubbin of extra fat globules from her hips beyond the incision. This cannot stand!
I can fix this! he quips, gesturing dismissively to the offending blobs. “We call these dog ears.” I put this in quotes so that you will understand that Yes, He Actually Said That. Nancy is NAKED, SCARRED, RECOVERING… but, dog ears. THIS is our priority. My mouth snapped open and didn’t close for several minutes. He wasn’t done. And this, he sweeps his hand up her side a bit–not touching her, but seemingly carving into her–“You have no waist.” Again, Yes. He Said That Too.
I don’t even think I had time to be shocked. Or… you know it was just one of those situations, like walking into a market in Marrakesh, where you just have to let it all wash over you and vow to try to remember all the sights and sounds later.
Of course, Nancy is still Nancy, folks. If anything This Cancer Journey (insert Lifetime movie music here) has only hewn her into more of what she always was—a tough cookie, and sweet to boot. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines of, “Hold up there, buddy!” Amy, Nancy’s constant, devoted, caring, and almost superhumanly nurturing medi-buddy, also reacted. They’re used to this type of onslaught of useful (no infection) and uncalled for (dog ears? really, dude?) information spilling forth at a clip.
“I have a waist! What are you talking about?”
“Because I gave you one, you see. You didn’t have one before.”
Now look. Women argue with men. Wives argue with husbands. Friends argue with friends. But until you’ve witnessed the debate of a beautiful and self-possessed naked woman and the plastic surgeon who feels more of a right to claim her beauty for himself than her husband, herself, and, as far as I could tell, even God Almighty could take credit for, then you have been spared the edges of a couple of very sharp dueling scalpels, let me assure you.
Give and get, back and forth, round and round they go. He asserting, she parrying, she wryly pointing out his clear social deficits, he roundly ignoring these helpful hints by turning, again and again, to the centrality of his craft. Indeed, isn’t that why we’re all here? Because Nancy is the canvas and he its master?
But. No. No, indeed. Because Nancy is no kind of plastic surgery bunny. She is a survivor. A WARRIOR, really. I’m not really a pink ribbon type. I’m one of those people who says things like, “Where’s my Fun Run?” and other such obnoxious, self-centered garbage. I enjoy provoking and being contrary and I do not enjoy, any more than Nancy does, coddling and cooing over every emotional need. But Nancy? She is something else. She has kicked cancer, infection, and reconstruction in its big fat fanny.
Before you know it (and not before I’ve snapped a series of pretty hilarious and totally covert photos of Dr. S on my iPhone), we’re wrapping up the burlesque portion of the program and transitioning into the grotesque. We troop into his office–he seems completely informal and unconcerned about this invasion of his personal space, basically totally unlike every other fancy pants specialist I’ve ever been around–to behold his treasure trove of photos of Nancy’s progress over time. At first I think there is some point to this, that it is part of a regular office visit and part of Nancy’s treatment. As he clicks through the photos and he points and she points and he asserts and she parries I realize, oh, no, I see. This is all just part of the performance art piece known as Nancy Visits Dr. S Again that they both, clearly, enjoy and thrive upon. They bring out the best in each other, and this is the best of the best, folks. Gladiator Wars.
Does she have a waist? There it is! she points. Uch, he scoffs. Me, mouth agape, hanging back. This goes on a really long time. Her breasts used to be “boxy” and now they are so much better. Eventually he will build her a nipple, its color to be added by tattoo. He goes out onto the Internet to show us how natural this result can look on other finished reconstructed patients of other doctors who, I guess, probably similarly after their Cancer Journeys, found themselves more interested in opening minds and hearts than covering up. Bless them and their candor. My heart peels open. My mind rewires.
The body is not the vessel; it is less, even, than that. It is just the sack of skin we carry around our hearts in, the perch for our big juicy brains, the tentacles we reach out to each other with. We can do with it what we will, as it will try to do back to us. It is a battle of the wills between the spirit and the cell, between love and pain, between courage and flesh.
Nancy is winning this battle and now that I have seen just how gracefully, and forcefully, and what the anatomy of her support system is like, I know how. I have limitations in life, I think. Somehow I would like to be part of this world that Nancy supports and that supports her back, but so far I’m not sure I’m equal to it. I’m a writer, a feeler, and kind of a weirdo. I don’t know how much I have to add. I don’t really do dishes or make beds—-I will, but you have to remind me every time. I don’t “take care of things,” so how can I “take care” of Nancy? Maybe you feel similarly confused about how to play a role in Nancy’s recovery process.
What I learned this weekend, though, is that Nancy takes care of her own dang self and thank you very much. But, she doesn’t mind a little company along the way.