Cancer is a sneak-attack. It gets your schedule first and your body second. It wreaks havoc on your relationships and your fingernails and your ability to enjoy ginger as anything but a nausea-calming remedy. But that’s not all. There are still sneak-attacks waiting in the wings. You see, when you’re overcome with appointments and the necessity of getting from fertility treatments to chemo to appointments to surgeries to biopsies there’s not a whole lot of mental space to pause and think, holy fuck, I have cancer. There’s no extra mental space to do much beyond organize appointment buddies, make sure there’s enough bland food in the fridge, and wash the sheets before you spend another week sleeping off the poison or another ten days unable to open a water bottle because exerting any power through your arm makes your fake boob throb. How is it even possible for a fake boob to throb? It has no feeling. Except for throbbing.
And then treatment ends. There are no more appointments to rush between. Your incisions heal. Your appetite expands to include more than toast and frozen grapes. Your friends look relieved that your cancer “ended.” You continue to monitor the research regarding hormone treatment. Your fake boobs stop throbbing. That’s why it’s a sneak-attack. Just as things start to shift back to a semblance of normal, there’s a seriously delayed reaction. Because it isn’t over at all, is it? All of the sudden, there’s a whole lot of mental space to pause and think, holy fuck, I had cancer. It comes at an odd time, too, a time where everyone else writes you into their story as better without checking to see which page you’re on.
Does better mean always wondering if that ache in my sternum is cancer in my bones? Does better mean wondering if my new nose piercing will distract from my lopsided breasts? Does better mean watching my nails, still stained and fragile from chemo, slowly rip away from my fingers? Does better mean popping a pill every twenty four hours that will stop my ovaries from producing estrogen? Does better mean hair almost long enough to pass as a buzz cut? What on earth does better mean?
It’s a sneak attack, and I think it must be invisible too, though not uncommon. Post-treatment blues, if you will, have been well-documented in people who finish cancer treatment, and it’s clear that young women face particular challenges coping because we are a small and disparate cohort, a cohort that is seriously underrepresented in mainstream understanding of and interaction with breast cancer. And then there’s a sneak-attack. There’s the sudden realization that the heavy, blurry, clunky cancer-glasses are still on your face, even though you’re trying to reinvest in your body without cancer.
But is your body really without cancer? That is the question, and it’s hard to reinvest without a really solid answer. And what kind of answer is actually, solid? I have a lump in the healthy breast that was biopsied and diagnosed as a benign fibroadenoma. But why on earth would I trust them its benign? I want it out. My surgeon looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want to take this out? It’s a surgery, it’s an anaesthetic, and it’s not absolutely necessary.”
What a disconnect.
So she thinks it’s not medically necessary. You know what also wasn’t absolutely necessary, the lumpectomy of the cancer-lump that they thought was a atypical papillary lesion. When pressed, the surgeon admits that maybe, there’s a tiny chance this lump could be a phyllodes tumour. But it’s different, she said. “It’s different because that first lump was atypical. It was highly unusual for a woman your age. They took six cores of this firboadenoma, it’s highly unlikely that its cancer. It’s very normal. It’s not the same as the atypical papillary lesion.” Certainly. I’m a little bit placated but still wildly uncomfortable walking around this earth with a lump in my breast that they think is benign just like they thought my cancer-lump was benign. This same surgeon assured me, in the recovery room, way back in October, as I woke up, groggy, and asked her if it was fine. Her words were “I suspect it is fine, yes.” So she was wrong. I get it. Doctors make mistakes. In fact it wasn’t even really a mistake- she recommended I have the tumour out so that she could gather more information, and this was an unusual case. She did gather more information, it just yielded the result no one wanted. There are unknowns in medicine. She probably wanted it to be fine for me. I mean what doctor wants their patient to have cancer? This surgeon has of course been very kind and competent, making fine, thin, scars that run across my breasts and tell this story of uncontrollable cells hiding out in my tissue.
But still. Not medically necessary? Why would anyone ever trust the medical establishment to diagnose a second lump as cancerous or benign based on tests that failed to diagnose? Why doesn’t peace of mind and quality of life figure into “medically necessary?” I suspect it’s because the doctors and the researchers don’t have cancer in their bodies. I suspect it’s because they have to play numbers, they think in percent chances, they know they are right most of the time. I suspect it’s because the doctors can’t see the sneak-attack, they can’t feel it’s hot breath on their necks, they don’t know how heavy the sneak-attack shackles feel. I wonder what would be medically necessary if the recommendations were written from bodies that has been scarred with cancer.
I want to shed the sneak-attack shackles. I want to shake them off, but they make so much noise. I sit next to the fan, and I hope the cancer-sneak-attack hot breath on my neck blows away in the cool air coming in from the window. But it’s hardly over. There are pieces to be picked up and glued back together, and maybe some pieces are so shattered that they’ll have to be replaced. The cracks will be there even if they’re filled with glue and smoothed over.But it’s time to take the purple tag identifying my port type off my key chain, where it sits between my yoga tag and my building key. It’s almost time to start exercising again. It’s time to switch tenses: it’s no longer, I have cancer. Now its I had cancer, and tense matters. It’s time to start shaving my armpits again because the hair is actually growing there now. It’s time to breathe deeply into my chest and appreciate that it no longer hurts to fill my lungs with air. It’s time to bask in the sun and wear mascara because I have eyelashes. It’s time to finish this dissertation and get on with the rest of my life. It’s time to reinvest in a body without cancer. It’s time to stare the sneak-attack in the face and roll my eyes. It’s time to start gluing the pieces back together.
Someone told me love makes the best kind of glue. It’s hard work, trying to put this puzzle together. I need help figuring out which pieces go where, and how they fit together, or if they don’t fit together anymore at all. Maybe they need to be cut anew, smashed into smaller pieces, glued together in a new constellation. It’s hard to imagine anything but what it looked like before, and there’s no way I can assemble that before cancer, smooth glass story around me from the shards and jagged edges at my feet. I’ll have to build something new. So friends, keep the love coming. I need the glue, and badly, regardless of your assessment of “better.” I need good, strong glue. Bring your love. It’s the best kind of glue.