January 27, 2010
Standing on the cusp of my first cancer-versary, I’m surprised (but not) to note how much I’ve changed during the past 12 months. The most obvious and painful souvenirs of my trip to cancerland are also the most permanent—the two neat scars, like dash marks, running across my chest. The psychological shifts are harder to see.
Some days I feel like a completely different person, as if my body was hollowed out and re-stuffed. Other days I feel as though I’ve simply settled more deeply into myself, as if my psyche moved from the second floor to the basement apartment.
As cliche as it sounds, I’m less likely to sweat the small stuff (a parking ticket, a hole in my sweater, cat litter on the furniture–eww) and more likely to do annoyingly upbeat things (like hum in the shower). One of the most notable shifts is both physical and mental: a profound need to stay put.
I’ve always been a homebody. I like routine. I relish the simple stuff like cooking, walking the dog, and practicing yoga. At night I love cuddling on the couch with Mary to watch a movie or laugh at bad reality shows. I love sleeping in my own bed. Since I need a lot of alone time and dislike crowds, confined spaces, and flying, travel has always presented a challenge. But I bite the bullet because I know I’ll be happy once I’m there.
So, last summer, after I’d physically healed, I thought I was ready to hit the road. Nothing crazy, just a few trips to visit friends and family. Oy, big mistake. Somewhere along the way, my travel angst blossomed into a full-blown aversion. Departing for each trip felt like walking off the gangplank into a churning sea of chaos and confusion. Mary deserves a medal of honor for traveling with me because I was a mess. In DC, I burst into tears when we got lost leaving the rental car facility. In San Francisco, my favorite city in the world, I felt physically pummeled by the city’s vibrancy and spent most of the trip in our hotel room, dodging maid service and crying. Fun times.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was mired in a bog of depression and traveling exacerbated my sense of helplessness. (I’m doing much better now, thanks.) Finally, at the end of my last trip, I had a complete and utter meltdown and realized that what I really needed was to stay home, so that’s what I’ve done. For the past four months I’ve stayed home and the world feels right again.
Shortly after my epiphany, Dana Jennings, a writer for The New York Times who blogs about his experience with prostate cancer, posted an entry about his sudden desire to stay home. He writes, “More than ever these days, I want to shrink the world to the couple of rooms in my house where I’m most comfortable…I’m still reinterpreting myself in the face of cancer, and that takes time and quiet.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
January 19, 2010
I’ve never liked January. Between the cold, the gray, and the post-holiday blues, the slog to February feels like an annual chore. But, as the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis draws near, I am in a surprisingly good mood. In fact, I’m positively upbeat. That’s because, compared to last January, this one feels light, airy, and carefree. Who cares about gloomy skies and frigid temperatures? Heck, at least I don’t have cancer! So what if it’s -10 degrees out with the wind chill? At least I don’t have to crawl out of my warm bed at 6am for a doctor’s appointment in Indy. More snow? Bring it on. Last year, the only significant snow accumulation fell on the day of my diagnosis. That was doubly depressing because, typically, Mary and I celebrate snow by breaking out the cross-country skis, putting the dog in the car, and heading for the University’s golf course where I scoot, she skis, and the dog runs cabin-fever-fueled laps around us. We laugh and putter around the snow-covered greens until our cheeks are frozen and the dog runs out of gas. It’s the best thing about winter. Last winter, the skis stayed in the basement. The dog sulked. Not so this year. So far this month, I’ve been skiing three times. The snow is gone now, but I’m hoping for more because, after all, it’s January.
March 8, 2009
I’ve got the post-mastectomy blues, and they’re bumming me out.
Here’s what I want: I want to be relieved the surgery is over. I want to be elated that my “cancer broach” is no more. Basically, I want to be more like my neighbor. (Since my neighbor hasn’t exactly agreed to be in my blog, let’s call her Ruth.)
Ruth is in her 50s. Her family history is sprinkled with breast cancer the way some people’s families are peppered with red hair or blue eyes. She’s one of four generations of women with doomed breasts. I think it’s safe to say that Ruth felt stalked by breast cancer most of her life. Last summer, when the diagnosis finally came, she jumped at the chance for a double mastectomy–no reconstruction, no regrets. Her attitude? Good riddance. On her first day home from the hospital, Ruth bounced over to show us her scars. Beaming, she was all praise for the surgeon, for her decision, for her choice to go without reconstruction.
Flash forward to a couple of days ago. I’m on my first tentative walk. Cradling my stunned chest. My 68-year-old Mother is awkwardly steering our 75-pound dog. Suffice it to say, I’m praying for anonymity. Ruth drives by. Sees us. Slows down. Flashes a huge grin. Tells me I look great (I don’t). Then, unexpectedly, tosses her head back and, with a raucous laugh, says, “you’re one of us now, we flat-chested chicks gotta stick together!” Then she rolls up her window and drives off. Pink-ribbon decal flashing. Here’s what I want–I want to rock my flat chest like Ruth, but I’m not even close.
Here’s where I am: I’ve been crying more than I’d like to admit. I cry mostly for my breasts, for the loss of something uniquely mine, for the violence done to my body in service to “health.” I cry for the lack of words I have to describe how horrifying it is to see dark red gashes carved across my chest where my breasts used to be. For how, in the absence of breasts, my rib cage looks bizarrely shaped and bony. For how, without breasts to balance it out, my stomach looks strange and distended. When I look down I only see what is missing. A voice in my head keeps asking me: why? Like an inconsolable child asking why something dear is no more. The voice isn’t soothed by the grown-up rationale behind the double mastectomy.
I want to be happy-go-lucky. I want to be the “good” breast cancer patient. The chin-up, move-on, get-over-it person. Like Ruth, I want to throw my head back, laugh raucously at my crazy-flat chest, make jokes about having the perfect breasts at home nestled in their drawer, like a favorite outfit, waiting for just the right occasion.
But I know that’s not me. I’ve never been what you’d call a sunny or even an optimistic person. I’m okay with that. I like to set my expectations low and be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t a complete disaster. Deep down, I know this will be okay. Someday. But, in the meantime, I’m glad there are people, like Ruth, to show me what is possible. To forge ahead and send up a flare. Just in case I should ever want to join in the fun.