Battling Mutant Pumpkins
Next Saturday, on July 24th, it will have been two years since I was told I had breast cancer. It’s a strange sort of anniversary. At its most fundamental, it marks the triumph of life over death, and I’m delighted to be here representing us lifers. On the other hand, it marks a day of reckoning, the day that transformed the somewhat abstract notion of mortality into a tangible personal reality. Starting on that day in 2008, I lost the ability to take my body or my health for granted, and I could no longer regard medical care as just so much preventative maintenance. And with that realization, an awful dualism arose between my body and my psyche. However irrational I knew it was, I couldn’t help feeling like my body had betrayed me somehow, that my breast had treacherously allowed my body to be invaded by an alien life force.
The problem with feeling that way is that, however apt the metaphor, neither Ellen Ripley nor Princess Leia showed up with laser blasters to battle the alien for me. And despite all those radiation treatments, I didn’t turn into Ginormica, imbued with special powers that enabled me to battle it myself. The only part of me that swelled up to several times its normal size was my beleaguered right breast, which looked more like a mutant pumpkin by the time treatment was done. Despite these deficiencies, I did win the fight — so far anyway. And on balance, any day you beat cancer is a day worth celebrating. Yet the thrill of it is more the sobering delirium of relief, of having dodged a bullet which might not miss next time. The effort feels more like hand-to-hand combat than accomplishment, with all of the post-traumatic weariness to go with it. You’ve been through a war, and like the soldier you are, you share a bond with your sister and brother warriors unlike anything you share with anyone else. By all means, we cancer survivors deserve a parade, but we just might be marching with crutches and compression sleeves instead of special ops monsters or Han Solo.
There’s an acute sort of emotional memory associated with a life-changing event that seems to reprogram your DNA. Even when you are not consciously thinking about it, your body remembers it, your cells remember it, and you feel yourself reacting to it before you know why you’re reacting. For years after my father’s death, which occurred two days after Thanksgiving when he had a fatal heart attack, I’d notice an amorphous sense of dread creep up on me by about Halloween. The feeling would spiral and intensify until I ‘remembered’ what it was that had happened a few years earlier. The first year or two after his death, I would be devastated all over again in November, and it would take all my willpower not to succumb to inertia. Gradually, over succeeding years, the intensity diminished, until finally I learned to remember my dad with a poignancy that still hurt, but sweetly.
The difference between that kind of loss and surviving cancer is that the dread never really lets up. Plus, there are legitimate reasons for that dread. It may recede to a large degree, and eventually you may actually be able to get through whole swaths of time forgetting that you ever had one of the more notoriously recurrent forms of cancer. But your next oncology check-up will bring it all back. For the rest of my life, there will be a part of me with an irrational hatred for certain addresses in Providence, addresses occupied by doctors’ offices, hospitals and cancer treatment centers. I’ve even come to hate a certain highway exit off of I-95. And picking up the phone to make an appointment for my next mammogram can make me feel faint. Once upon a time, mammograms were innocuous, if annoying, annual events that were simply part of the ritual of my annual physical, evidence of my being a conscientious steward of my own health. Of course, the reason I was getting them in the first place was to rule out cancer. But I certainly wasn’t worried about actually having it. Breast cancer? Me? Nah.
Better Get This Party Started
In the wake of all this ambivalence, I thought I’d start the celebration a little early, because I honestly don’t know how I’m going to feel by next week. I might feel like driving up to Boston and dancing in the streets, where I can hug a sistah and friend who will be wearing out some new shoes walking in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Fundraiser. But I might also feel like laying low with a nice IV of Versed, taking a long dreamless nap, and skipping the whole damn thing. That way, I won’t have to relive that moment after I was told I had cancer, when I wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and never come out.
Who knew that even at age 54, a person can experience a loss of innocence? Just when I thought I’d pretty much been there, done that, life threw me the cancer curve ball. And you don’t ‘catch’ the cancer ball. You endure it. And with a little luck, you outlast it. Discussions of heroism in the face of cancer always make me squirm now. It’s not like any of us has a choice. I didn’t sit down, open my metaphorical hope chest and sprinkle the contents around like some pink fairy. I just put one red high-heeled foot in front of the other.
I will admit that perhaps my approach to fashioning the ‘right’ attitude was unorthodox. Simply put, I decided to act bratty. Cancer, I figured, is a big fat bully. And there’s nothing that forces a bully to step back like yawning in its face. Think you’re gonna make me feel bad by making me sacrifice a boob? Well, guess what, Jack? I’ll just show off my legs instead. Make me get tattooed for radiation? Then I’m getting myself a tattoo for my birthday and I’m gonna show it off and it ain’t gonna be no pink damn ribbon neither. Whoop my butt with poison and make me feel like a dishrag? Then I’m gonna lose the dishrag, wear a short dress and paint on my game face. Yo, cancer! I started a blaw-awg! And, oh yeah, I got on the radio and talked about YOU, turkey. Your cover is BLOWN, baby. Nyah, nyah!!
So, here I am two years later. And that bully ain’t showed its ugly face again. Don’t mean it ain’t gonna try to come back on me. But I’m ready. Got my gladiator shoes on, and I’m standing squarely in the light, ready to kick butt. Or, as my little-rock-sister-in-attitude says, “I’ll be burning rubber, you’ll be kissing my @ss.” Take that, mutant pumpkin!
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