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?
I ran into my OB-GYN yesterday. That’s always kind of weird. Remember when you were a kid, and you would see one of your teachers outside of school? Not in a Mary Kay Letourneau kind of way–that’s creepy–but maybe bump into them at a restaurant or the grocery store. It always struck me as strange to see them out & about in the real world, because they were so confined in my mind to the classroom.
It’s sort of the same thing running into one’s doctor out & about in the real world.
So there we were, playing tennis on a Sunday morning, and through the fence of the court I saw my OB-GYN walking toward the gym. I’ve seen her at the club before, sweating away on the step mill or the recumbent bike. We’ve exchanged pleasantries and then I’ve gone my way and left her to her workout.
But I haven’t seen her since she found the lump in my right breast in March that turned out to be malignant and led to me having a mastectomy and getting an infection and going through some crazy stuff on this “cancer journey” and changing my status from regular person to survivor. It was kind of important to me to say something to her.
But what to say?
What’s the right thing to say to the person who essentially introduces you to your cancer? Is there a Hallmark card for that? I’m guessing not.
After she wrote my orders for the mammogram in March, the scenario could have had 2 different outcomes: either the mammo comes back clear and she sees me at next year’s well-woman exam; or the mammo comes back scary and she refers me to a specialist.
I’ve had a mammo every year for the last 5 years, a bit ahead of the recommended guidelines. Not because I like tests or crave extra attention, but because my mom died of a reproductive cancer, so my OB-GYN, who is married to an MD Anderson oncologist, has always been especially pro-active with me. To me, that’s a sign of a competent person: I didn’t have to say, hey since my mom died of uterine cancer, what extra steps do I need to take to ensure my health? I never had to ask because she was on top of it.
Thank goodness she was.
From there, Dr Dempsey referred me to Dr S for plastics and Dr Darcourt for oncology, and my OB-GYN was out of the loop. She called me a couple of times after she got the pathology report from the biopsy to check on me and see if there was anything I needed, but I was knee-deep in researching this beast, having tests run, scheduling all my appointments and keeping my regular life going that I never called her back. Then the infection took hold, post-surgery, and my life was topsy-turvy, to say the least.
I did sit down after all the brouhaha to write her a note to say thank you for finding the lump and saving my life. That’s just the way my mama raised me, to write a thank you note to someone who had extended you a kindness or given you a gift. I especially like the gift part, but the kindness part is good too.
This one was a strange note to write, though, and I found myself at a loss for words. That doesn’t happen to me very often. I don’t remember what I wrote but probably scratched out something along the lines of “thank you for finding the lump that saved my life.” Whatever the words were, they were a feeble attempt to convey a mountain of gratitude and I sure wish I had had just the right words to let her know that she really and truly has made a difference in my life.
So when I saw her from the tennis court yesterday, I didn’t even think about it, I just hollered her name and ran toward her. We were right in the middle of a game and not at a good stopping point, but this was important, so I didn’t care, and neither did my tennis friends.
She asked how I was and I told her the truth: I’m good.
I was flipping through a magazine at my Aunt Sophia’s house last night and an ad for Crystal Light caught my eye. I like Crystal Light, especially the orange and the pink lemonade. I don’t drink a lot of it, though, because I’ve always assumed that it’s full of chemicals, and someone in my shoes needs to avoid all those multi-syllabic chemical compounds found on ingredients lists.
What first caught my eye was the communicated bliss of the woman drinking from the lemonade fountain, and my first thought was how much I’d love to have a champagne fountain like that. Mmmmm.
My bliss would be endless. Limitless. Bottomless, as all good champagne fountains should be.
I also noticed the woman’s dress. I never really liked yellow, but it was my mom’s favorite color, and now that she’s gone, yellow reminds me of her. Very fitting, as she was a sunny, warm kind of person.
So this ad is pleasing to me for several reasons, but the most important one is something you may not have even noticed. Or maybe you did. It took me a sec, but once I noticed it I had to look closer to see if what I thought I was seeing was really there.
Notice anything about her chest? Like the fact that it’s flat? Really flat.
I like this gal, a lot.
And I really like a company that is bold enough to feature an ad showing a woman with a flat chest. A really flat chest. Like mine.
I’m guessing the woman in the ad didn’t come by her flat chest in the same manner I did, i.e., I bet she didn’t have a double mastectomy. Mainly because mastectomied women aren’t in real high demand for ad campaigns. But maybe Crystal Light is changing that. Slowly but surely chipping away at societal ideals of what a model looks like.
Real-life women come in all shapes & sizes. It sure was nice to see a woman in an ad who does, too. I think I’ll go whip up a big pitcher of Crystal Light.