March 2009

Attack of the Breast Cancer Stylistas

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve been lapping up Dana Jennings’ weekly essays in New York Times. An editor at the paper, Jennings is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and his wry essays brim with the kind of dark humor and honesty I crave in an otherwise saccharin world of cancer prose. But his essay in today’s NYT made me want to punch him.

Jennings riffs about how much power he draws from his cancer hairdo–a buzz cut. “I needed the primal ferocity that a buzz cut proclaims,” he writes. “I needed to look like a soccer thug or an extra from ‘Prison Break’ to help get me through surgery.” He refers to his do as a “visible bulwark against the tide of emasculating side effects caused by the treatment for prostate cancer.” Then, to widen his lens, he quotes Anatole Broyard, who, in his memoir Intoxicated by My Illness, wrote, “It seems to me that every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness.”

Okay. Call me sensitive but the combination of Jennings crowing about his hyper-masculine hair while backing the idea that seriously ill folks should “get a sense of style” rubbed me the wrong way. I have no beef with Jennings or his hair. I’m thrilled that his GI Joe look boosts his masculinity. But, while he is reveling in his inner caveman and basking in the glow of societal acceptance of “tough guy hair,” my fledgling attempts at “cancer style” have been shot down by the women I call “breast cancer stylistas.”

I have many examples but here’s my fave:

The morning after my double mastectomy a gray-haired nurse steered her long, shiny metal cart into my hospital room. A veritable mastectomy patient’s ice cream truck, the cart bulged with magic camisoles. In less than ten minutes, she had me out of my hospital gown and into my new, white cotton shell. My first feeling was one of relief because the clever cami had two secret pockets designed specifically to hold the two feet of tubing and hand-grenade-sized drains sprouting from either side of my chest. (Up until that point, I really had no idea what to do with these unwelcome appendages.) But my sense of ease was usurped by a feeling of horror and confusion when she held up what appeared to be two Nerf footballs and aimed them at my chest. Awkward glances bounced between me, my Mom, and  Mary, as the no-nonsense nurse showed me how to insert the foam ham hocks into the upper half of the camisole–so I would feel “more comfortable in my clothes.”

Wha? Fake bazookas? Already? And five times bigger than my dearly departed? Sheesh, my chest wasn’t even cold yet. The girls had been gone less than a day. I felt like the schmuck who takes a date to his wife’s funeral. Needless-to-say, I took a pass. (No pun intended.) Let me be clear, I’m not dissing women who choose breast reconstruction or wear prostheses. I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose her own chest. But I think these choices—whether to go flatchested or opt for brand new double Ds–need to be made with eyes wide open and a full understanding of risks and rewards. The fact that the nurse didn’t bother to ask me my preference was only half of the insult. The kicker was that those Hasbro rejects were decidedly not about helping me find my style. They were more about helping me find my denial. And denial is not stylish.

Jennings almost redeems himself when, toward the end of his essay, he says he’s “not interested in keeping stoic secrets in which cancer becomes the fetus of shame buried in the root cellar.” Great image, but I wish he’d step on the clue train. There is a huge industry devoted to keeping us breast cancer chicks in the root cellar, and it has an army of well intentioned breast cancer stylistas doing its bidding (god love’em).

To top off my ire, Jennings quotes Broyard again: “only by insisting on your style can you keep from falling out of love with yourself as illness attempts to diminish or disfigure you.”  

Am I disfigured? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Am I diminished? Hell no. 

Or, at least, not yet…check back in a month or two. With the possibility of chemo on the horizon, I’m sure the breast cancer stylistas have big plans for my bald head and I’m certain my new look won’t include a buzz cut. 



Tax Relief

For a few blessed hours this week, I nearly forgot about my cancer. After seven weeks of thinking/breathing/eating breast cancer, I got a reprieve and, oddly enough, I have Uncle Sam to thank.

Since the day the C-bomb dropped (January 29th), I’ve been upset about the fact that the IRS really expects me to pay taxes on April 15th. I’ve never heard such crazy-talk. Everyone with cancer should automatically get an extension on their taxes because, when you have cancer, doing your taxes–much less on time–is the absolute last thing you can (and should) worry about. But I’m a worrier. Therefore, I’ve been worried about both my stoopid cancer and how in the hell I’m going to do my taxes. And by “do” I mean paying someone else to do them because I’m too worried I’ll screw them up.

I usually do my taxes in late January or early February. I close the door to my office, crank up the space heater, and let the receipts pile up like snowdrifts. I like the routine. I like the predictability. But, most of all, I like the office supplies. I adore office supplies. Last December, my Christmas stocking bulged with a box of my favorite pens, a collection of fashion binder clips, and six different styles of Post-it Notes. Normally, I stash these treasures in my desk and dole them out carefully throughout the year, but at tax time, I indulge my every office-supply fantasy. Everything from flower-shaped Post-it Notes to neon highlighters, even my fancy binder clips come into play. But this year, not even the sight of pretty office supplies could coax me out from under my cancer rock.

So, last week, in a session with my new cancer shrink,  I fretted about my taxes. We agreed that baby steps were needed. So, Friday afternoon I dug my 16-page tax booklet out from under three months worth of crap and called it a day. On Saturday I gazed at the sad, empty pages of the worksheet and I felt myself getting sucked in. The pull of the familiar. The comfort of routine. Yes, the lure of my taxes.

Sunday, as I started penciling in numbers, rubbing out mistakes with my over-sized pink eraser, and guiltily writing off my zillionth pair of yoga pants,  I noticed something weird happening. The more progress I made on my taxes, the more my mood lifted. To be honest, my taxes weren’t the only thing I did last weekend, but I’d like to think they were instrumental in jolting me back to some sense of normalcy because then at least I’ll know they are good for something.

Tomorrow afternoon is my appointment with my tax lady. And, yes, she is someone you’d describe as a lady. In fact, she resembles the Church Lady in poise, hairstyle, and demeanor. Right down to how she purses her lips when I mention my “partner.” I’m pretty sure, after I leave, she kneels down in her wood-paneled office and prays for my heathen soul. But, hey, I live in the middle of Indiana–a girl can’t afford to be choosy. So, maybe I’ll play the breast-cancer card in hopes that she’ll give me a 10 percent discount or offer to file an extension for me for free. Or, maybe, just maybe, I’ll forget to mention it.

Here We Go (Again)

Mary and I are up before the sun, preparing for another long drive to Indy. Pre-op arrival time is 10:30; surgery is at 12:30; they tell us we’ll be home in time for dinner. I am hopeful. For reasons too lengthy and complicated to explain at this early hour, I am headed back to the same surgeon. I’m giving him the chance to correct his error. I trust his technical ability 100 percent. I believe his error was one of oversight. With his reputation on the line,  I know he’ll bring his A-game (too bad he didn’t bring it the first time).

These past few days have been a blur. I found a new therapist; I call her my “cancer shrink.” She helped me to diffuse my emotions–a good thing. I visited family and friends in Louisville and gained much strength from their love. And I read, re-read, and deeply appreciated every email and blog post. Thank you all for feeling angry, sad, and frustrated for me. While, I am still all of those things, I did find a place of emotional equilibrium to usher me through today–or at least to the doors of the operating room.

Meanwhile, Mary’s got my back. For those of you who don’t know Mary, she is amazing. (So much so that she deserves her own post, which is on its way.) But, for now, just know that even with her crazy-making academic career, Mary has been by my side at every appointment, held my hand through every procedure, and asked the tough questions when I was overwhelmed.

Since today’s questions are tougher than ever, we’ve called in reinforcements. Our generous, smart, fearless  friend, Z, is coming along to support Mary in her quest for answers. The three of us motoring up to Indy to kick ass and take names is quite the picture.

Wish us luck!


He missed the tumor.

I’m headed back to surgery on Monday.

I can’t believe this is happening.

I was thrilled to get the drains out yesterday. Finally, I felt almost-human again. Reflexively, my hand went to where the tumor had been. Of my body’s typography, this is a location I know intimately. Which is why I was disturbed to feel a lump. Albeit, a smaller lump (more of a button than a broach) but still very much a lump. I pointed this out to the surgeon. He said it was probably “fatty tissue.” I made him feel it. “Nothing to worry about,” he assured me. I assured him–I’m a worrier. I need to know what this thing is. He tsk-tsk’ed and sent me downstairs for an ultrasound. His nurse smiled brightly.

Slowly, things began to unravel. The ultrasound confirmed the lump was solid–a huge calcification at its core. But was it a new lump or the same lump? A biopsy was ordered. But before they could plunge a needle into my aching chest, Mary remembered the lump was tagged. During my biopsy in January, the radiologist inserted a tiny metal tag next to the mass. She explained that it acts like a beacon shining brightly on future mammograms to help techs sort new lumps from old. At the time, I felt like an animal tagged and released back into the wild, but yesterday that tag made all the difference.

Alerted to the tag, the radiologist switched course and ordered a mammogram (yup, a mammogram. don’t ask). Afterward she and I stared at the display in disbelief. There was my tumor in black-and-white. Metal tag still firmly in place. Shining brightly. Illuminating the spot where–without a shadow of a doubt–the cancer still lies.  

So many questions.

So much sorrow.

So much disbelief.

So much anger. 

Forgive me if I don’t post for awhile, but I don’t have words to describe how I’m feeling.