This week I wore cowgirl boots to every single medical appointment. Red ones. Because obviously, stomping is more effective in red boots. When you kick off the red boots to be weighed, that’s when the pathologizing starts. A year ago today, the pathologizing began.
Suddenly, you are no longer a private, discreet body. Rather, your body is public, an object to be fraught over and examined and written about. A friend recently saw a picture of me in one of those blue hospital gowns in the doctor’s office, and she asked, “How’d you get this picture of me?” It was not a picture of her. It’s just that bodies in those blue gowns perched on those doctors’ tables become so indiscriminate, so incredibly the same as all the other bodies wrapped in blue gowns perched on those doctors’ tables, so pathologized and so public that she couldn’t even recognize herself.
Suddenly, there is a prognosis. A timeline. A timeline for chemo, for feeling well, for fertility, for survival. There is a timeline for decisions, a timeline for surgeries, and a timeline for survival. A timeline for survival, on which we each should locate ourselves, and on which we are constantly located both by people who know cancer and people who don’t. Cancer, to most, means death. It means dying. It means seriously fucked to the tune of mortality. And so they place you on a survival timeline without knowing anything about you. The doctor talks of cures that are never certain, the public talks to you like you’re already dead. That is living in prognosis. I’m just trying to do it in red cowgirl boots.
A year ago today, I went from traveled from the world of the healthy into the world of the sick, and I was dragged into a world of bald people, old people, people with ports, people who know what AC stands for, people who can recognize chemo-pale. Cancer people. And then of course there are the healthy people in cancerland. A year ago today, they flooded into my life. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, exercise practitioners, nutritionists, naturopaths and on and on and on. A year ago today, and so what?
It’s important to not make it bigger than it is, I think. So 365 days have passed. It’s arbitrary. Someone decided that the Western calendar would be the architecture of our thinking time, and each year time cycles past us again and again. It won’t mean much, the cycling of time past my original diagnosis date until ten years have passed. Another decade.
A year ago today, I saw something flicker on my UBC online health account, and I called the doctor. She called me back. She wanted me to come in, now. I was feeding my kitten Benito and his siblings, then only a week or two old. I wanted her to tell me now. She couldn’t say it. I’m afraid its positive, she mumbled over the phone. Come in now, she urged, and I will clear my schedule to review the pathology report with you. She would go on to try to answer my questions about grade and stage by Googling. She knew nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first person she’d ever told they had cancer.
And since then, what? My life has changed irrevocably. I’d give pretty much anything to hit rewind and not get cancer. It still feels like a dream. It feels impossibly real, like my life is made of up utter impossibility. How could this possibly have happened? It’s true that I wonder, often, about my pathology report. I wonder if they made a massive, horrifying error. It’s certainly happened before. It seems more possible than me getting breast cancer at thirty, it seems more possible than all the screening technologies that exist failing, it seems more possible than the memories of card games during chemo. If the chemo was a mistake, the ongoing hormone therapy unnecessary, the entire year full of appointments that should have never been, then what?
How does one convince them self cancer happened, when it’s so impossible? How does one start to believe the material consequences of cancer treatment map onto breast cells turned murderous? It feels like a dream. It feels like it didn’t happen. It feels like it’s not real. It feels theoretical. I’d rather write about it, explain it, dress it up with discourse, shut it inside a book and pour a glass of wine.
A year ago, the impossible began. It has been 365 days of impossibility. And still, I ask the oncologist, “Are you sure I had cancer? Like, really sure?” She sighs. “Yes, Chelsey, I’m sure.” She goes on about study results and MRIs and mammograms. I want to ask again. But she said she was sure. She gives me a hug, and she whispers, “You had cancer. You don’t have it anymore. Love your boots.”
And so I put on the red cowgirl boots, and toss aside the stupid blue gown, and walk out of there. Living in prognosis, in red cowgirl boots, for 365 days. That is today.