I’ve sat down to begin a series of different bog posts this week, only to be distracted or unable to finish. And so this is a series of thoughts and beginnings without endings, a collection of moments gathered haphazardly and carelessly from my life in cancerland, and strung together in no particular order, as is so often the case with… everything in cancerland. So.


The first 72 hours of this week borderlined on disastrous. My academic supervisor made me cry. The receptionist at the surgeons office made me cry. The disgusting raw cat food spilled and made me cry. What went wrong? Cancer. Cancer, and I can’t take off the cancer-glasses. We talk about my dissertation, but it’s all tangled up with cancer. We talk about my BFF visiting, and its all tangled up with cancer. We talk about anything, cancer.


Red lipstick has got some kind of super power built into the tube. I imagine this is the super power that the “Look Good, Feel Better” people were trying to capture, except they fucked it all up and it became, according to me, “Look Fake, Feel Worse.” So anyways, red lipstick. I bought some. I’ve been wearing it. It feels bitchy. I feel bitchy. It fits. I wear it when I go bald. We’re bitchy together, me and bald and a tube of red lipstick.


Did you know that the root of courage is cor-, related to the Latin word for heart. In Spanish, corazon means heart. Apparently Brene Brown has already said something to this end, via a TedTalk, because when I mentioned this revelation to a friend, she asked about Brene Brown, and I quick google search reveals her quote:

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.” -Brene Brown, I thought it was just me: Women reclaiming power and courage in a culture of shame

Courage is in the heart. It is being heartful. It is wearing our hearts on our sleeves. It is knowing, being, walking with heart. Lately, I’ve noticed and been really exasperated by the performance cancer demands of me. When I walk into a room where people know I have cancer, the conversation almost instantly shifts to “you’re doing so well.” It’s as though everyone so desperately needs me to be doing well for their own peace of mind that they declare me as such before I even open my mouth. I’m doing well, sometimes. Other times, I’m not doing well. Other times, I’m pissed off. Other times, I’m exhausted. Other times, mortified. And so I’m trying to live with courage. I’m trying to live from the heart, and to let the heart lead. I’m trying to wiggle my way free from the performances everyone else needs, the reassurances they require, the discursive act they engage each time we meet in order to make me OK for them.
I may not be able to defend my dissertation in June. That is mortifying. Terrifying. Horrifying. Maddening. I want so badly to be done with it. And I am tired. Exhausted. Annoyed. I begin to wonder, do I want this thing, after all? And writing, oh writing. Am I good enough writer? What is, who is, a good enough writer to write a dissertation? Am I? I wonder if this little monster sticker that I stole from the desk of my favorite cheerleading professor will help me get this done. He’s blue and he has a big smile and yellow horns, and he now is stuck to the corner of my laptop.
I am grieving for my left breast. I will miss my left breast. I want to keep my left breast. Having body parts cut off, its like being torn into pieces, it forces me to re-examine who I am, who I want to be, what I am, how I am. There is no way to not think about my gender now, as the tamoxifen obliterates all traces of estrogen and I scheme to rid myself of body fat, because the one thing ovaries and body fat have in common is the production of estrogen.  So if I have one boob, and the parts inside me that make me a “woman” -just hold for a second on the complex gender analysis, people- are essentially shut down, and if when I read the literature I see that my symptoms are actually caused by a lack of testosterone, and if in place of my left breast I get silicone, what does that make me? Yes, yes, I know gender is social. BUT. I am one of the privileged ones who has never had to question her gender, correct a pronoun, or hide my relationship to my gender. My gender matches the gender I was assigned at birth when I was born F. Except now maybe my body no longer matches the F with which my gender was born. The girl chemicals are off, one breast is shortly to be hacked away and the other will soon follow, what most made me woman in the world- breasts- tried to kill me. What? And now I’ll have a new body to dress. One I never imagined living in. One I don’t want. So what am I? A cyborg? An alien? A zombie, like our frozen embryos? Someone who’s gender isn’t quite up to biological snuff?
I can barely recognize myself without hair, without eye lashes, without eye brows. I look in the mirror and see someone else. Someone else who looks like they have cancer. It is surprising to see myself this way, and it makes me wonder who I am.
I saw the cancer agency nutritionist today, which pissed me off. She was supposed to help me think about whether I could manage my tamoxifen-induced-headaches by including or excluding particular foods. She failed. I almost hopped on my bike and came right home, but my cancerfriend was one floor up, getting chemo, and I thought I’d feel better if I saw her before I went home from the stupidest appointment ever. The nutritionist treated me like I didn’t know to eat salad, like I couldn’t cook a quiche, like I hadn’t already discovered the dirty dozen and the estrogenic foods debate that is so prevalent in breast cancer communities. I was even excited to see her, thought I would learn something new. She told me nothing new, and she gave me a copy of Canada’s Food Guide. Because I need that. I can learn more from Google in 90 seconds than from having a woman recite to me the importance of whole grains and plant-based meals. Duh. I already do that. I want to know about hemp hearts and lemon-water and edamame and milk thistle tea and turmeric. Lucky for everyone around me, my cancerfriend was getting chemo above me and we could hang out and have fake mimosas for a little before I came home and commenced banging my head against my dissertation. That did make me feel a lot better.
It seems like most of my friends are in crisis right now. I love them dearly. And yet, my patience is thin. I want to shake them, because they don’t have cancer. I want to jolt them out of complacency and into action. I can’t, and I know that. I even know it’s not fair for me to situate their crisis on a heirarchy, where cancer is at the top and jobs, girlfriends, partners, boyfriends, law suits, children, husbands, supervisors, dissertations, parents, divorce, grad school and cat drama are all staircases and staircases below cancer on the hierarchy. There’s even a cancer hierarchy at the top of this shitty life deals pyramid, and I’m not at the top of it. I have a friend who recently went through a miscarriage late in her pregnancy, and I think that’s pretty close to cancer. But nothing else is. Hierarchies suck ass, but I’m not in a place where I can do away with that yet. That would be such a mature place to be in. My head is there, but my heart is bitter and angry and stuck to the pyramid of shitty life deals, and I am standing at the top with some cancer friends looking down the stairs at everyone else’s less shitty life deals, and I am judging. Maybe I’ll get to a place where I can get my heart the hell out of here, because it’s no fun.
I’ve been going bald almost every day now. People stare. Sometimes- seventeen times today, and it’s only 3pm- they even let their heads turn. I wonder if they know I know. I’ve never turned so many heads in my life. Everyone looks. If I wanted to be noticed, this was obviously the way to do it. The sun feels warm and springfull on my head. I feel like raising my eyebrows and rolling my eyes and challenging every single person who’s eyes turn and follow me as I walk down the street. I am a bald woman with cancer. That is only something that can be understood from the bald woman with cancer embodied perspective. Don’t tell me you understand if you are a bald man. You have no idea. Don’t tell me you understand if you are a bald woman without cancer. You have no idea. Girl cancer buddies, you get me.
I wonder what it was. Was it the non-organic grapes I traded for at lunchtime in elementary school, tiny pieces of delicious fruit I wanted so badly and that my family never bought because of striking grape pickers? Was it the non-stick pans I replaced every six months with a trip to Ikea in my mid-twenties? Was is the angry feminism? Was there too much chlorine? Did I get too close to the men spraying crops during those many AMIGOS summers? Was it the scoliosis X-rays, and Dr. Blackman, the back doctor who failed to warn my mother of the harm x-rays could do? Was it too much coffee and not enough green tea? Was it too much sitting and not enough mountain climbing?
I am bitter. I am bitter about the friends who have not called, or who don’t acknowledge I have cancer when I run into them after months of radio silence. I am bitter about the fact that my surgeon can’t twist someone’s arm to get more OR time sooner. I am bitter about my dissertation feedback. I am bitter about the way the estrogen blocker makes me have low-grade headaches every single day. I am bitter that my nose hair has not grown back and I am bitter that when you don’t have nose hair, there is nothing to catch the constant drizzle of watery snot. I am bitter nose hair has an evolutionary purpose. I am bitter about visas and green cards and the way they put a noose around our travel possibilities. I am bitter that I don’t have an academic job. I am bitter that my hair has not grown back. I am bitter that my bike helmet clasp broke. I am bitter that breast cancer hijacked pink, and now I hate a color I loved before. I am bitter that people tell me not to be bitter. There’s a place for bitter, I guess, and I’m in that place.
During chemo, you are sworn from eating grapefruits. Now, I consume them like they are going extinct. I buy them at Whole Foods every time I go, even though they are heavy and I will have to carry them up the stairs. They remind me of AMIGOS. They remind me of sweet. They remind me chemo is over. They are so good.
Today, I am going to write. I am going to re-organize. I am going to muster all the energy out of the center of me, and I am going to wrestle with my Introduction to my Dissertation. I have prepared myself with smelly pens and poster markers and butcher paper. I am full of fire to accomplish, of weariness of distraction, of the desire to move slowly and carefully so this comes out right.

One thought on “vignettes

  1. I remember a beautiful child who loved animals, loved to swim and loved to paint her nails. I have a picture of this beautiful child sitting with her cousin under the orange trees painting her nails. This child did not have the formed breasts she has now … but the person she was then I know she still is. A beautiful girl now a woman and no breasts can make or take away from her natural beauty!

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