Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On a Sweatier Note...

Meanwhile, here in the land of prematurely hot weather, I was out for a little bitty walk today and realized that I couldn't wait until I got home and had a chance to remove my HOT, SWEATY, STICKY AND UNCOMFORTABLE prosthetics. See, my breasts spoiled so completely they had to be removed for my health. There are days when I ponder what a great rack I would have had if I'd chosen to be a middle aged corpse, but then I remember once again that I'm happy being alive even if it means having the figure I had when I was, oh, five years old. Flat chested and a little bit of a belly. (Note to self: Maybe that's why I look so young...)

My co-blogger asks "Why should I be a prisoner of some mass-consumer-driven body image?"
Well, from where I'm standing, it seems kind of difficult to throw off the shackles of a culture that says that girls like to wear high heels and makeup and lots of pink! and they 'should' have long hair and big breasts and teeny waists and round butts or else we won't know they're girls and we won't know how to interact with them if we aren't sure they are girls and if they challenge us by not embracing the trappings of girl/womanhood oh the confusion, never mind the ickiness of dealing with someone who obviously has (had) something wrong with them that left them visibly scarred and/or deformed in some way.
If we don't do all the girl drag, we consign ourselves to some kind of cultural ghetto where we become a poor representative of womanhood (no longer conventionally attractive) and face stares and questions and whispers. Or profiling, as in my case, travelling post 9/11 when I didn't have the strap on girls yet and I was still bald and wearing my lovely Afghan skullcap with the bunnies on it to keep me warm, I was pulled out of every line on every leg of every plane flight I took for months. See, as soon as I felt good enough to travel I went visiting all the people who I couldn't see when I was sick with the chemo. But because I didn't dress like a girl (I wore baggy pants and baggy long shirts because when your breasts are taken away you tend to develop a few self image issues) I believe I was flagged as being a potential something or other. The brown skin didn't help, I suppose. I guess I looked like a vaguely Middle Eastern/African/Not From Around These Parts guy, so of course I must be searched.
The capper for me was standing in the line at the gate waiting for the last leg of my flight home, standing there reading 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again' by David Foster Wallace. Freaking David Foster Wallace! My nose was buried so deep in that book I couldn't see anything but the pages hanging before my eyes and didn't hear anything because I was reading. You know how that is when a book sucks you in so deeply you go deaf? So I didn't hear when the TSA drone was calling me by name and asking me to step out of the line for another bag check. I responded to my name being hollered out for the third time. I looked up from the book and saw the overworked and under trained TSA 'bots waving me over to the table next to the gate. By this time people were boarding the aircraft. So I put my bag down on the table, got yelled at for trying to open it for them, stood back and spiritually bent over. When they were done with me, one of them looked at me with what I thought was an apologetic gaze but who knows? Don't they know terrorists don't have time to read such long-winded writers as Mr. Wallace?
I know, lots of types of people were getting searched over and over again in those days, but I would have thought the no hair on head, no eyebrows, no breasts look might have been a stronger visual cue for 'cancer patient' than for 'potential terrorist.'

Oh, but I digress. We were thinking about body image and breasts. Breasts? Love 'em. Wish I still had 'em, glad I can go buy 'em when I need 'em. Body image? Working on that. Last week I wore false eyelashes for the first time ever and ooh la la, I have found my inner diva, and she likes to dress up. Ah, the circle is complete. I love the makeup but I hate that I love the makeup but I love the makeup...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I always believe what the doctor tells me

I was in the locker room at the pool this afternoon -- first time since Cancer -- and just started whipping my suit off without thinking about it. Then I had this moment of going back and forth: "Ack! People will stare! Fine, let them. Oh, but I don't want to deal with questions. On the other hand, I'm setting a good example if I just let it all hang out. Why should I be a prisoner of some mass-consumer-driven body image?"

What finally settled me was that I had visited my oncologist this morning, and she told me my boobs looked great. So, if the doctor validates me....

Friday, June 8, 2007

But on a lighter note...

There is a zen parable that goes something like this: A man being chased by a tiger falls off a cliff. By chance, he is able to grab a vine and he clings to it for dear life. Below him is a raging river. Above him, he sees two mice start to gnaw at the vine. But then, growing next to him on the cliff, he finds a strawberry. How sweet it tastes!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Stronger than dirt

Another day, another platitude. I haven't had any aimed at me for a while, but I've been thinking about them this week, probably because last Sunday I woke up, turned on CNN to see what new slice of the world hated our red white and blue guts, and I was greeted with a softly delivered yet upbeat narration telling me (in a commercial spot) that today (first Sunday in June) is National Cancer Survivor's Day.

Gee willikers, we get a whole day to survive in public now! If post-chemo memory serves, the featured survivor was an older man who battled prostate cancer, and was now going on a walk. Not a regular old perambulation around his neighborhood, but rather, one of those meaningful "Walks" with sponsors and little bottles of water with logos on them, and crowds of cheering humans who are all probably sharing the same thought; "Jesus H. Christ, I'm glad it's not me.'

Because when you come right down to it, we are glad it isn't us, aren't we? Right up until it is us. Then we are not at all happy. Then we are very sad. Then, when the news gets out to those who know us, the deluge begins.

"Be grateful it wasn't worse." O.k., I guess I could sit around imagining all manner of diseases that would be truly catastrophic, but I don't much care for quantifying the unquantifyable. And anyway, thinking about all those awful maladies would be such a downer.

"You are so brave for dealing with this." No. Let's get this straight. Bravery is leaping onto the train tracks to save someone's life. Or falling on a hand grenade to save your comrade's life. Fighting cancer? Not so much bravery as pure human selfishness. I wasn't interested in dying right now, so I did everything I could to make the bad cancer go the hell away.
This was a no brainer; either I fight the cancer and probably live (a long time) or I don't fight the cancer and surely die (in relatively quick time, and painfully, too!).

"God doesn't give us more than we can bear." This is my personal fave. This is the one that makes the teensy veins in my head pop. This God entity that is spoken of, why does this God seem to be o.k. with throwing this crap into my life in the first place? Wasn't being born a Negro enough? Personally, I think that toting the burden of Negro-ness is more than enough for a person to deal with, esp. in this great land of ours.

Honorary mention: "I/We will be praying for you." Um, could you please not do that? Because, this God you're praying to, isn't this the same God who afflicted me with this malady? If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer this God entity not hear my name too often, lest I end up the focus of the all seeing, all knowing, all smiting cosmic gaze. I can do without the added attention. I'm kind of shy that way.

And now, a thought for the day: You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.

You said it, Al.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me

So, let's talk about gratitude.

One of the recurring themes people return to in dealing with death or illness is that, if nothing else, this experience will make you appreciate the blessings that remain in your life. This is part of the old "cancer made me a better person" mantra. (For a brilliant and hilarious rebuttal to this, see miriam engelberg's book.)

Gratitude is the emotion we feel when someone gives us a gift. It implies a sense of indebtedness, and an understanding that the gift cost something.

Am I grateful to be alive? I think that question, somehow, assumes that I deserve to be dead.

Am I grateful that my cancer was discovered before it metastasized? More times than I like to admit, I wish like hell it had been discovered while it was stage I.

Am I grateful that I got to keep my breast? Frankly, I have mixed feelings.

Am I grateful that there's a better than 50 percent chance I'll get to see my daughter through her adolescence? Hmmmm.....

In other words, when you get right down to it, I'm not that gratful. If this post-cancer life were a Christmas sweater, I'd say it was the wrong color and a few sizes too small.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The breast as boyfriend

I suppose I should be grateful* I got to keep my breast, but I have to tell you that, since cancer, we've had a complicated relationship. First there was all the bruising and healing post-surgery -- no sleeping on my stomach or left side for months. The purple scar and the dimple where the tumor came out -- another adjustment. Then radiation, which gave that whole quadrant of my body a lightly cooked appearance.

Then, post-radiation, the shooting pains that eventually seem to have resolved themselves into a case of lymphedema. ("You can get lymphedema of the breast?" I asked the nurse in disbelief. "Oh, yes," she answered. "Of course, we don't refer you out for treatment for it.")

So now, I'm starting to look at my breast with the sort of mingled emotions one used to feel toward that boyfriend who was hot, but sort of a project. Oh, if only he would show up on time for dates or get a job or stop looking down the waitress's shirt, he would be so perfect! But my breast, unlike those boyfriends, isn't giving me much of a return on my investment, and frankly, I think we're either headed for counseling or a nasty breakup.

When I talked it over with my co-blogger, she summed it up succinctly: "I love you! I hate you! I love you! I hate you! Why can't you be a good breast?"

I'm trying to recapture some of the tenderness I felt when I was first diagnosed: "You poor thing!" I thought toward my breast. "You've worked so hard all my life, and now this!" I felt protective, nurturing -- we'd get through this thing together, I promised my breast.

Now, exhaustion and disillusionment has started to set in. The idea that I'll ever have a left breast that looks and functions roughly like its twin seems laughable. Still, we're stuck in this together. I have to ask myself the old Ann Landers question: "Are you better off with or without...?"


*The issue of whether "gratitude" accurately defines what I'm feeling could be fodder for a whole separate blog post.