I should begin by saying that tonight, my Facebook status is: there’s something magical about spending an evening with others who just totally get it. thanks for the cancer giggles Kristina, Kara and Rethink Breast Cancer
Right after I was diagnosed, I scoured the internet for people, groups, organizations, information, anything about women in the 35 and under- or better yet, 30 and under- crowd and breast cancer. Of course I came across Young Survival Coalition, but I eventually found it’s Canadian equivalent, Rethink. Only about three weeks post-diagnosis, I went to a Rethink Breast Cancer event for young folks like me who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was already unnerved because I had a totally weird exchange with one of the Rethink people, where I felt incredible chaffed at because I had reached out for support in the only way I know how- with multiple emails, eager for a response, hopeful that someone would read my many exclamation filled emails and respond. They did respond, but there was some uncool commentary about the eagerness for response, about the two emails I’d sent, about how I so badly needed connections to other young women that it seemed desperate. At least, that’s how I felt. I was hyper sensitive and so the abrupt and slightly critical discussion about how I reached out felt like skinned elbows and stubbed toes. But, I needed people and I needed them badly, horribly, critically, and even though I wasn’t quite ready to be “people,” at least, not “people with breast cancer” I cycled to this event and I showed up, and I didn’t even look like I had cancer yet.
So I went. I had long, red, curly hair. I didn’t want anyone to ask me anything. I wanted to be invisible and also I just wanted to be there, silently. It seemed there were a hundred facilitators and no attendees except me- the facilitators were young women who had had breast cancer in the past- and I felt like I had nothing in common with them, that I was the only one who didn’t know the cancer stuff. Probably, it was more balanced. But the feeling was real- I felt alone. I wanted to know what they knew and turned my nose up at their knowledge at the same time. I felt like I’d walked into the wrong room. At the same time that I wanted so badly to be a part of this community, I wanted nothing to do with these cancer girls. I wanted nothing to do with cancer. I couldn’t totally accept anything, let alone that I was part of a group of young folks who had all had breast cancer. It was though, comforting to know they were there, in a weird kind of way, comforting to know they’d be there every month, comforting to know if I decided I wanted to be a part, they’d probably still be there. The group that met for educational sessions and informal snacks was tantalizing and hopeful, horrifying and anxiety-producing all at the same time. I left as soon as the nutritionist was done talking, and I didn’t even eat any of the snacks. I rode my bike home so fast I couldn’t remember the ride, and my cheeks were bright pink from the cold.
Since, I’ve been back twice. Tonight was amazing. I walked into the room and into the warm embraces of two other young people- K and K- who I’ve come to love dearly. It was small, and we talked about sex and sexuality and intimacy. And I was definitely a part. Each time someone spoke, I nodded as I heard their stories echoing mine. And then the speaker left, and we gathered around the snacks, and it turned magical.
We laughed hysterically about how ports and prosthetic boobs look in wedding dresses, connected over experiences trying to convince hairdressers our hair was indeed long enough for a haircut, and commiserated over the way chemo makes long fine hairs grow on the side of the cheek. It was so healing to eat carrot sticks with five young people who totally got it, five people who could belly-laugh about ports and weird mastectomy infections and tamoxifen and period and the superstitions surrounding getting rid of wigs. Five people who I knew would unconditionally understand why I had to bring the pony-tail of hair I cut off before chemo to the hairdresser as soon as my hair grew back in, so she could dye my hair exactly the colour it was before chemo, because, you see, it grew in light blonde where before it was red. Five people who could understand the relative creepiness of taking a pony-tail of hair to a hairdresser and asking them to match the colour, and also the total necessity- five people who could just totally laugh at the ridiculousness. Five people who could witness the pain of trying on wedding dresses with one breast, and who could both viscerally feel that and also laugh about it. Five people who could surmise about chemo-pause and menopause-like symptoms and laugh at the embodied mix-ups and total body confusion caused by cancer treatment. Five people who got it, five people who could tell cancer jokes, five people who fit. Five people who’s stories I fit into. Five people who’s cancer jokes were hilarious. That’s all you need. Five.
You know what the difference between tonight, and a year ago was? I’ve settled. I don’t like it, but I realize I’m living life in a body that has cancer. I have stories and experiences and thoughts (and songs!) that attest to that life. It’s not to say I like it anymore than I did a year ago, but it is to say that I’ve grown a little more comfortable sitting in discomfort here in cancerland, and it is to say that I can acknowledge I’m here long enough to know I need others and to invest in time spent with those others, who’s experience is like mine. Never an identity I wanted, but one I can wear long enough now to spend an evening cracking cancer jokes with other young people once in a while. Intersectional identity is a funny thing. Certainly, I am a white woman, a queerish feminist, an academic– and I can understand and theorize those identities in relation to each other and political movements and pedagogies for pages and pages on end. I never thought I’d add cancer to the mix though, and for the first time I find myself thinking about able-body-ness, about how healthy bodies are privileged about how female bodies are pathologized again and again, and about how that female-body-pathology is exasperated by cancer in the breast, by ill health, by surgeries and plastic surgeons and medical charts. And yet, here I am. And in getting to know my post-cancer-body, I am so grateful to find five other young, women-identified people who’ve had breast cancer, who can witness cancer horror and crack cancer jokes in the same breath. Tonight was so comforting, so funny and so real. Comfort, funny, and real— it may be the recipe for healing.
Wishing you all comfort, funny, and real.