14 chemo doses to a better you

Last week, I had another cancer scare.

I’ve been in remission from breast cancer for about two years now. Every six months, I get a scan to make sure there aren’t any new shenanigans going on at my cellular level. Of course, “sure” is a relative term; I have what’s medically referred to as dense breast tissue, which is a technical way of saying my boobs are fibrous as fuck.

After this most recent scan, my oncologist called. The images showed a suspicious area the size of a grain of rice. I needed to go back in for an MRI-guided biopsy. She reassured me that sometimes these tiny spots don’t even appear on the follow-up scan – they can be just imaging blips, or regular hormonal changes.

This is the general reality of being a cancer survivor: everything could be fine, or some minute part of you could be decidedly not fine, and you just won’t know until you know.

For two days, I practiced the art of acknowledging fear without actually freaking out. Chances were decent it was all nothing, but I was also looking ahead to how another round of cancer might feel. What would be the same, and what would be new? What decisions would I have to make? What would it be like to exist in the liminal space of illness for a second time?

When you get diagnosed with cancer, you find yourself the potential protagonist of a whole slew of pop culture narratives, from Livestrong hashtags to Christian religious awakenings. Most of these stories have been easy for me to shrug off; I don’t own any rubber bracelets, and I haven’t been to church in years.

There’s one story, though, that did worm its way firmly into my brain, so seamlessly I didn’t realize it was just as artificial as all the others.

That first night after I got the news, I lay in bed looking at the ceiling, as one does when one’s hypothetical mortality suddenly becomes a calendar full of real chemotherapy appointments. Most of my thoughts were cloudy and distant, but one was completely clear. Whatever happened next, I was going to become a different person than I’d been before.

Continue reading “14 chemo doses to a better you”

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My boobs, myself, and I

I have an essay up this week at The Underbelly, a new magazine sharing honest stories from breast cancer patients. It’s about boobs, body image, and why cancer doesn’t always have to be a fight.

Suddenly, I was being told I was in a battle, and the enemy was literally parts of myself. The combat would start with my traitorous boobs, and possibly other pieces would defect. I was now a pink-ribbon fighter, valiantly vanquishing my own flesh on the frontline of war.

Women are very rarely encouraged to see and know our bodies as complete, worthy units, as living creatures to unambiguously love… We learn to relate to ourselves in parts, as a collection of stubborn flaws and precarious assets. Training myself to relate differently to my body had been a battle in its own right. It’s one most women know extremely well.

I didn’t want cancer to change the way I felt about my body, to make me a divided and invaded thing.

The full piece lives here.

On surviving

This post has also appeared at The Mighty.

This time last year I was, potentially, dying. (Spoiler: I didn’t!)

All of us who are alive are always potentially dying, of course, which is why hypochondria and seatbelts exist. But when you’re really sick, your narrative shifts. You’re either in a story about how you lived, or you’re in one about how you died, and for the majority of the pages you won’t know which kind of story it is.

This is a story about how I did not die, yet.

There’s an accepted communal narrative about how one should behave when one is potentially dying, especially if you’re young for it. You should be strong and cheerful, and the people around you will be appropriately inspired. You should still be sad and vulnerable sometimes, though, because you aren’t a sociopath, or if you are you should try to keep hiding it. You should talk about how you’re fighting, how you’re not going to give up, how you will be a survivor.

One of the things I learned about cancer, in that first week after I knew I had it, was that nowadays you get to be a cancer survivor whether you actually end up dying or not. The social programs you can participate in are called survivor services; your clinic and treatment information is packaged as a survivor care plan; the tips you get for handling your life during chemo are survivorship skills.

I’m the kind of smartass who generally distrusts anything with a slogan, but I actually liked being indoctrinated as a survivor. It made me feel less like I was embarking on some hellish competition with my fellow patients, in which we would either claim the title or get labelled as runners up if we, y’know, kicked it.

But let me admit something I didn’t really say while I was sick: I’m not a fighter. I didn’t fight my cancer. I didn’t always think I was going to survive. The thing I was actually always thinking was that odds were decent I wouldn’t.

Continue reading “On surviving”