The Phantom Tollbooth

Remember that book from back in the day? It was also made into an animated movie by Chuck Jones, the genius of cartooning. It was written before I was born, by Norton Juster and was illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Not sure what either of them has gone on to do, but perhaps the Tollbooth was enough.

thenewyorker.com

It’s the story of a boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth, which he explores in a toy car. Along the way he becomes lost in the Doldrums, where thinking and laughing are strictly prohibited, and is rescued by Tock, a lovely giant watchdog with an alarm clock attached to his belly. The parallels between this story and the cancer “journey” are many.

I was thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth yesterday as I noticed a phantom pain deep in the area formerly known as my right breast, where the evil post-mastectomy infection set up camp and decided to stay awhile. The pain itself wasn’t strong enough to take my breath away, but the implications were, and my mind immediately began racing: what if the infection is back? what if it never fully went away? There were signs of that damned infection, after all, during The Big Dig, which was 9 months after the infection first made itself known.

It’s been a year since The Big Dig, which was my best option for defense against the infection after 267 days of oral antibiotics didn’t fully slay that beast. Nearly a year later, a random pain in the area of my body that was my Ground Zero still has the power to bring me to my knees. Not because it hurts so badly, but because of what it represents.

The idea of the infection once again rearing its ugly head scares me. A lot. I don’t think about it often because I’m busy living my life, but once in a while, as in the case with the phantom pain, the thought does cross my mind. If it did come back, or if it reasserted itself after lying dormant, I would freak out. And yes, that is the correct medical term for becoming reacquainted with the mycobacterium that made a cancer diagnosis at age 40 seem like a walk in the park. The cancer part was easy (relatively speaking) but the myco damn near destroyed me.

Looking back on that dark period of my life is like watching a movie. I see this girl who’s going about her charmed life. Sure there are things that could be better but for the most part it was indeed a charmed life. She lives this charmed life rather out loud, and does “all the right things” to ensure that the charmed life has plenty of staying power. Baseline mammograms at age 36 because of her sweet mama’s premature death; a meat-free, plant-based diet free from preservatives and other nasty; daily exercise; a premium placed on a good night’s sleep; plentiful fresh air and clean water; an all-out avoidance of hormone-filled dairy products for her and meat products for her kids; a plan to deal with the stresses that sometimes darkened her door.

This girl was the last person you might expect to be felled by cancer. And yet, she was.

It’s hard for me to recall those dark days. Of course I know it happened and I was there, but my brain seems to protect me from all the gritty details. After taking in the diagnosis, deciding on the bilateral mastectomy, enduring the surgery and thinking I was on the road to recovery, the infection hit and knocked the wind right out of me.

There’s a vivid PTSD associated with the whole infection thing. I’d bet there’s a whole separate PTSD associated with the cancer thing, too, and it comes out in strange ways, such as a phantom pain sending me straight from normalcy to crazy town without stopping to collect my $200. Could be that the phantom pain in my chest was from 4 sets of tennis on Sunday after a tough upper-body workout on Friday. Or it could be from the wear & tear of multiple tissue excisions and general gutting of the infected skin during the infection’s salad days. When I was a kid, I had pneumonia, and some part of the illness settled in my left lung. For years after that illness, I’d often feel a pain/fatigue in that same spot. Perhaps the phantom pain in my chest is similar.

Very likely it’s nothing to worry about, but once you’ve  danced with the devil that is cancer, any twinge or spot or pain sets you on high alert. Some of us head straight for the catastrophic death spiral my sweet friend Lauren writes about. As she so knowingly puts it “The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer. The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.” My recent phantom pain sent me spiraling before I had a chance to reel myself back in to the land of rational thought. It’s worrisome enough to have already dealt with the havoc that cancer brings, but to also feel the aftershocks of that disaster just stinks.

I expect that the constant looking over my shoulder is common in cancerland. But I don’t like it. I’m rather known for my heightened sense of justice and the idea that if you do the hard work/right thing, you’ll get the payout. But bad things happen to good people every day, and life isn’t fair. People who take good care of themselves get cancer, and people who treat their bodies to a buffet of Animal House-style debauchery outlive them. I know this, yet I’m still brought up short by the phantom pain’s effect on me and how quickly and effortlessly I returned to the catastrophic death spiral.

I was probably foolish to think that there would be an end to the cancer “journey” and that the incidences that trigger PTSD would gradually disappear. I should have known that even after logging many miles and paying the requisite tolls in this “journey,” I would forever be circling, just shy of my destination, and always consulting the map. Once Milo returns home from his trip on the tollbooth, he sees a note, which reads, “FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY.” I’m looking for my note and wishing I knew the way.

Phantom Tollbooth's Map of Lands Beyond