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.

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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”

Principles of uncertainty

At the time of my third chemo dose, I still had an easily identifiable lump: two conjoined lobes, fitting neatly under my index and middle fingers. Two peas in a little mutant pod. Since I started treatment, they’d gotten shallower, maybe. I didn’t feel the lump every day, because that way lies Panic, and the thing permanently at the top of my to-do list is ‘don’t feed the Panic.’ But I’d check my lump, and worry a little that it hadn’t shrunk more, and then I’d do my best to think of something else.

In the two weeks after my third dose, the lump has melted. That’s what it felt like. It seemed a little soft, and then one morning most of it was gone. Now it’s hard for me to find the exact spot at all.

This is an excellent thing, I’m assuming. But I actually felt worse the week the lump went away. Before, I could touch the cancer. I could say to myself, ‘here it is.’ An enclosed thing, a specific point of danger. Now I can’t point to where it is anymore. It could be anywhere. I keep touching the spot where it used to certainly be, but there’s no information to detect there.

All I know is that things are still changing. This is always the only hard truth, no matter what is happening to us and how we’re dealing with it. To be alive is to live with uncertainty, with the prospect of nebulous yet inevitable change.

That constant unknown is the closet under the stairs where anxiety grows itself, munching on spiders and old shoelaces and all the unwanted crap we shove down there into the black. When you live with a brain that’s trained itself for fear, it can feel like that’s all darkness is – a bottomless space of night terrors, of monsters cobbled out of our weaknesses and mistakes, the junk we want to throw away.

But darkness, that which is there but has no shape, is also the hideaway of hope. It’s where our dreams come from, our imagination. Certainty is a temporary comfort, but in the long run, it’s stagnation. Darkness gives us the freedom to create, to invent what we wish for. It gives us the freedom to keep moving. In darkness, we know that things can and do and will change.

It won’t be like this forever, we think, and we feel afraid because we know it’s true.

It won’t be like this forever, we say, and we know it means we’re alive, and that we’re not finished yet.