Today is World Cancer Day, and rather than rehashing my own cancer “journey” I’m thinking about Stuart Scott.
A longtime ESPN anchor, Scott was a familiar presence in my house. His wordsmithing appealed to me, as did his irreverancy. In a world populated by former jocks and professional windbags, Scott contributed a cool combination of intellectual breadth and liveliness. Scott’s colleague Dan Patrick once said about Scott that “he didn’t just push the envelope, he bulldozed the envelope.” I’m a fan of bulldozers.
Scott was diagnosed with appendix cancer in 2007. Yes, you read that right: appendix cancer. Weird and rare, there are an estimated 1,000 cases of appendix cancer in the United States annually, compared to nearly 300,000 cases of breast cancer every year in this country. Perhaps this is another reason I relate to Stuart Scott: between his appendix cancer and my post-mastectomy mycobacterium infection, we both faced the question of “who in the world contracts that??”
Stuart Scott wrote a book about his cancer “journey,” which explains his gladiator approach to confronting his disease. The cancer community is divided on the “battle” aspect of the cancer fight — some people love the idea of a cancer warrior while others are uncomfortable with the war metaphors — but one thing I know for sure: the cancer experience is a fiercely personal one, and no one has the right to tell another how to do it or which analogies to use.
I read an excerpt of Scott’s book and am hungry for more. He was a gym rat, like me, and he leaned heavily upon his workouts during treatment, both for physical strength and for mental health:
“I can’t tell you how important it felt to go from the chemo infusion center to the gym. There were patients at the infusion center who were gaunt and too weak to walk. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to work out for them. It took about fifteen minutes to get to the gym from the infusion center, but I felt like I was traveling a great distance: from the land of the sick to the land of the recovering. I’d work out three or four times a week, but the most important workout was the one right after chemo. It was like I was proving a point: While you kick my butt, cancer, I’m gonna kick yours.”
In thinking about the name of one of the drugs in his chemo cocktail, Scott realized “The medical name of the medicine is fluorouracil, but they call it 5-FU. That’s what it said, right there: 5-FU. All right, I thought. A sign. FU, cancer.”
FU cancer. Indeed.
Scott continues: “My return to the gym felt kind of spiritual. I wasn’t really supposed to run since I was still connected to the port that was giving me my medicine. I looked down, and my eye caught the logo of the manufacturer of the machine I was on: LifeStyle. That word jumped out at me: Life. I thought back to the first thought I had when [diagnosed]: I’m going to die. But I was still here. And here I was, not forty-five minutes out of chemo, and I was in the gym, doing what I do. I started to run. What could be the harm? The disease wasn’t in control. I was.”
That sense of control is of epic importance in the cancer “journey.”
Scott explains it like this: “Mentally, I needed to be in that gym. I’d talk smack to cancer like Ali talked to his opponents. A third set of push-ups? Take that, cancer. Twenty full-out sprint pass patterns? Cancer, you ever run up against this? Some kicks and punches into the middle of the heavy bag after the elliptical? I got yer cancer right here! I needed to do that, not just to show my girls I was fighting for them, but also to show myself I had some control over the situation. ‘Cause cancer wants to take control from you. You’ve got to very purposefully stand your ground. That’s what going to the gym is to me. I decide, cancer.”
A few weeks ago I came across the late ESPN sportscaster’s speech about his cancer “journey” at the ESPY awards last summer. That speech is powerful. Here’s the link so you can check it out.
Scott was awarded the Jimmy V Award at last year’s ESPYs and joins an acclaimed list of courageous and inspirational people from various corners of the sports world. Perhaps his career as an on-camera personality gave him the extra flair that made him such an engaging speaker. Maybe that was just his personality. Either way, his speech is compelling.
The take-away message, for me, lie in these words from that speech:
“When you die, that does not mean that you lost to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”
Stuart Scott taught me a huge and valuable lesson. He did die, but he did not lose. How he lived proves that. Today, on World Cancer Day, I honor Stuart Scott. While at the gym, I will think of his no-mercy approach. I will remember all the days in which I was that patient too weak to walk, and I will silently thank him for all the times he worked out in my stead. For all the times he went straight from chemo to the gym and said FU, cancer.
Today is World Cancer Day. This year’s theme is debunking myths and erasing stigmas attached to cancer. While I’m all for the debunking and erasing, I’m not at all sure how to feel about cancer having its own day. At first blush, I thought: Woohoo! A day to celebrate! I’m always up for that. But then I thought, Wait: what exactly am I celebrating? The fact that I survived? No; too much emphasis on survival makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m tempting fate. The fact that there’s so much awareness and dialogue about cancer nowadays? No; I’m sick of talking about it and even more sick of thinking about it. The fact that I persevered despite a devastating illness and an even more dangerous nosocomial infection? No; I would have rather skipped the whole experience. Especially the infection part.
There’s a poster at my gym with this quote from Sir Edmund Hillary. I’m assuming it’s in reference to Mt Everest. I look at the poster when I’m on the VersaClimber — a cardio machine that at first seemed like an instrument of torture but now is part of my routine. Most times I have to close my eyes to get through my VersaClimber intervals (it’s pretty bad!). But when I’m not closing my eyes, I look at the poster and read Hillary’s words, and realize that indeed, we do conquer ourselves. Including the cancer.
It’s a quiet Sunday morning, and I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m up earlier than I might have chosen, thanks to one hungry little piggy. After a Friday night of interrupted sleep and a Saturday full of tennis, errands, swimming laps and a late dinner with a favorite cousin, I may well have stayed in bed a while. However, savoring a slumbering house amidst hte sunlight pouring in through the trees and hearing the sweet sound of birdsong while sipping a cup of strong coffee is better than sleeping in.
Plus it gives me time to read my book, Shantaram, which I’ve been dying to dive into but haven’t found the time. It’s been likened to Cutting for Stone, one of my all-time most favorite books ever. If it’s half as good as CFS, I’ll be one happy reader.
Quick synopsis of Shantaram: Mr Lindsay, our protagonist, has escaped from an Australian prison and fled to Bombay. There he meets Prabaker, a native of the slums who renames Lindsay “Lin” and becomes his always-smiling, eternally joyful guide to the big city. Lin falls for Karla, a mysterious woman with sea-green eyes, and pursues her amidst the backdrop of a lively bar called Leopold’s. Lin is “a magnet for trouble, a soldier of fortune, and a picaresque hero” who delves into the black-market world of false documents. I’m not very far into the 944 pages of adventure, but am intrigued.
As I settled in to read this fine morning, I came across an especially well-written passage, which brought me up short. Lin is talking to his new friend Didier in the bar about some of the more unsavory patrons among them. In an effort to avoid being overheard by the bad guys, Didier was “speaking out of the corner of his mouth, like a prisoner under the eyes of the wardens.”
A nice metaphor, for sure, but it gets better:
“In Australian prisons, that whispering technique is known as side-valving. The expression spoke itself clearly in my mind and, together with Didier’s mannerism, the words put me back in a prison cell. I could smell the cheap disinfectant, hear the metal hiss of the keys, and feel the sweating stone under my fingertips. Flashbacks are common to ex-prisoners, cops, soldiers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and others who see and experience trauma. Sometimes the flashback is so sudden, and so inappropriate to the surrounding circumstance, that the only sane reaction is foolish, uncontrollable laughter.”
I had a flashback myself last week, and while it didn’t lead me to foolish, uncontrollable laughter, it almost set off a full-blown PTSD attack. I was rushing out the door to get one kid to school and head to the gym, my usual weekday routine. I’m a stickler for taking my own cup to the gym instead of using the styrofoam ones provided. As if our bulging landfills need another cup tossed on the heap. In my haste to get out the door, I grabbed a straw for my cup and scooted out into the garage and into the car. It wasn’t until I was into my workout and gulping water like a crazy person that I realized the new batch of straws I’d bought were bendy straws.
Big deal, right? Bendy straws can be useful, especially if one is reclining while drinking. Or if, say, one is hospitalized for countless days after a post-mastectomy infection. Yessiree, folks, a simple, innocent bendy straw sent me straight from my normal routine of a morning workout directly to the days of being captive in a hospital bed, held hostage by a nasty mycobacterium. Just as Lin was instantly transported from a bar in Bombay to the hated Australian prison cell, I was back in the hospital bed, raging with fever and sick, sick, sick while a nasty bug set up shop under my newly implanted tissue expander. A one-way ticket to Crazy Town in hand, I took the express train down (bad) memory lane.
I wasn’t even thinking about infections, hospitals, antibiotics, or breast cancer when the flashback struck, but I suppose that’s the nature of flashbacks. Triggered by sights, smells, or sounds or, in my case, straws, flashbacks take over and not only interrupt our present business but also disrupt the rest of the day with their nasty after-effects. Interesting how bad memories are just as powerful as good ones. Unlike the good memories, which fill us with warmth and comfort, bad memories suffuse our souls with fear, anxiety, and panic.
The bendy straw that triggered this particular flashback went straight into the trash, and I tried my best to go about my day like a normal person. Finish the workout, chit-chat with my fellow gym rats, reserve a tennis court on the way out, get in the car, drive to the grocery store, fill my cart, unload the loot, take a shower, pick up kids, supervise homework, prepare dinner, clean the kitchen. From the outside, I looked like a normal person doing everyday tasks, but inside I was anything but normal and was once again a cancer patient, fighting my way through uncertainty, confusion, and balls-out fear. In that moment, cancer made me its bitch, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. The only thing keeping me from a total meltdown was knowing that this flashback would pass, that the terror brought on by a simple bendy straw was fleeting.
But as I talked myself off the ledge with soothing reminders that this too shall pass, I know just as certainly that while the terror will pass, it will also return. Again and again, this flashback will haunt me. Perhaps each time it becomes less rapacious, less capable of felling me in one swift motion, but it will return.
“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.” ~Uncle Remus
Saw Surgeon #2 last week about the next step in revising The Big Dig. Didn’t want to talk about it or blog about it at the time. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with Surgeon #2’s comment about me having “been to hell and back.”
Part of me thinks it should be very gratifying to hear Surgeon #2 say that. After all, I respect her immensely, and it’s quite validating to hear someone I think highly of say that I made it through a seriously trying time, and that I made it with flying colors. If there were a report card for cancer/infection/surgery progress, I think I’d have straight A’s.
No such report card exists, however, and a 4.0 in this particular course-load is meaningless. There is no honor roll in the ranks of survivors. Instead of a gold star, I have some big-time scars across my chest and belly. I’ve gained a few hard-won wrinkles etched in my furrowed brow, too, from the worry that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, a post-mastectomy infection, 267 days of oral antibiotics, and major surgery followed by not one, not two, but multiple revisions. There’s no end in sight to this circus. The fairgrounds are quiet, but the circus tent remains. The bearded lady has gone home, and the trapeze artists have ambled along, too. The wild animals are safely ensconced in their cages, and the carnival rides are dormant. The circus, however, lives on. It seems there is no end to the drama and three-ring craziness that is life after breast cancer. I hold out hope that at some point the circus will vanish in the night, and I will awake to find sawdust, peanut shells, and the faint smell of adrenaline and cotton candy. But alas, the big top remains.
I saw Surgeon #2 last week to get her opinion on the next step on this cancer “journey.” Like a traveling circus steaming toward the next town, the cancer “journey” chugs along. I sought Surgeon #2’s expert opinion on the next phase of this “journey.” After The Big Dig and subsequent revisions to perfect what is essentially an imperfect canvas, I needed to hear her say “do this” or “don’t do that.” I needed to know whether there’s any point to pursuing yet another tweak to my restored chest.
Surgeon #2 was her usual cheery, to-the-point self. She says I’m “almost there” in the relentless pursuit of normalcy — at least on the physical side — after breast cancer and reconstruction. That’s the tactful way of saying “We can do a little more, but it’s never going to be perfect so we’re getting close to the time in which you start to accept it.”
I don’t want to accept it.
I’m still hanging onto the myth — albeit cruel and deceptive — that one can have nice boobs again after cancer. Public Service Announcement #852 from this little blog: If you hear someone say, “Bummer about the breast cancer, but at least you get new boobs,” be aware: the new boobs may not be something you actually want.
I’m still not ready to accept that ugly truth.
Surgeon #2 concluded my consultation with a little look-see at an 8 1/2 x 11 inch photo of myself pre-reconstruction. I don’t remember posing for that picture, as there have been several photo shoots associated with this cancer “journey,” but there it was, on the inside cover of my file. Surgeon #2 flashed that full-sized photo of me, with one tidy mastectomy scar on the left and one not-so-tidy scar on the right. The right side, a mess of multiple scars and tissue excisions necessitated by the nosocomial infection. I hadn’t seen or thought about that scene in many moons. I recognized the train wreck on what was formerly known as my right breast. I recognized the God-awful blue paper panties required for plastic surgery photos. I recognized my former belly button, so normal and non-Frankenstein-looking. I recognized the flabby belly that I was required to acquire so that the DIEP surgery — my only reconstruction option — could occur. That belly was flabby, but it was unblemished and absent was the 17-inch incision from hip to hip that has mellowed but will forever be a stark reminder of what the king’s horses and the king’s men did in an effort to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
While I hadn’t seen that photo in nearly two years, I recognized every aspect of it. However, when Surgeon #2 said, “You’ve been to hell and back,” I couldn’t conjure up the specifics I expected to feel about that dark period in my cancer history. In fact, hearing her say “You’ve been to hell and back” was startling. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know how to react to it. And days later, I still don’t know how to react to it.
I suppose I should have felt some pride and/or satisfaction at having endured that trip down the “If anything can go wrong, it will” scenario. Perhaps I should have felt a sense of accomplishment at having survived that arduous trip down the rabbit hole. I guess I should have felt happiness at having come out on the other side of such a hellish situation. But I didn’t.
Instead, I felt as if I were watching myself in a movie. I remember being there, of course, and I remember that all that happened to me. But I can’t conjure up the specific feel of the experience. I can’t visualize the ins and outs of that particular “journey.” I see myself, my physical body, in that full-size, color photo (which is not at all flattering, by the way), but it doesn’t seem like me. I see that former body through a myopic lens. The rational side of my brain knows it did indeed happen to me, but the protective side of my brain has shielded me from calling it up, in all its ugliness. Like the flash of lightning in the night sky of a summer storm, or the sharp but fleeting heat of a jalapeno pepper on the tongue, I know it’s there but once it’s gone it’s gone. For that I should be grateful.
But I’m not grateful.
And really mad.
Maybe it’s too soon to feel triumph over the wily infection that wreaked untold havoc on my weary body. Perhaps the time is not right to celebrate how far I’ve come. Maybe I’m simply not one to say, “That was rough, but I got through it.” Apparently it’s a long way from beginning to end, if there ever is an end, and I’m not there yet. While it’s been almost exactly two years since I bid adieu to my cancer-riddled breasts, that’s not enough time to process the enormity of all that’s transpired over the last 728 days. If it were a linear path from diagnosis to mastectomy to psychological recovery, I might be in a position to expect some change, some healing, some progress to have occurred. But I was busy processing that nasty infection instead of dealing with the weight of cancer at age 40, so the change, the healing, the progress remains at a standstill.
The big top remains.
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.
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.