Tag Archives: anxiety

10 August 2009: Choice

Terrible foreboding and loneliness. The two of us in this house together and nothing but discomfort between us. I wish I could feel warmth, comfort, closeness. All outward signs are there: he takes me to the hospital, makes my meals, says he wants to “be there” for me. The essential difference, it seems to me–being “there for” me versus being “there with” me. Wanting to be with me–not as a fulfillment of some duty, some cause of martyrdom.

And I’m anxious and defensive, bitter and easily upset. Recovering from the biopsy, the awful pain and ache and itch of the stitches and bandages. I don’t know how I can possibly cope with the “real” surgery when this small thing unnerves me so.

Spent yesterday restless–alternately working my way through Shakespeare’s comedies and nodding off to sleep. I sleep so easily these days, so often, so suddenly and so long, a series of deaths.

I spent more time trawling the internet for cancer-related websites, watched a woman’s hair regrow in time lapse from chemo–still no idea what is happening with my own. The search term “mastectomy support” yielded mostly information related to lingerie and swimsuits. “You may feel an essential part of your femininity is missing”–why femininity, merely, specifically? Why always the emphasis on gender or sexuality when it is an organ too, and aesthetically, functionally, a part of oneself, and not only one’s sexual self? The comfort is meant to be that, externally, socially, “no one will know.” That you can cover up your cancer, your surgery scars, like the most shameful parts of yourself. As Audre Lorde claims, a near-conspiracy to hide these women, make us indistinguishable to one another. And the emphasis placed not on prevention or recovery or cure but on reconstruction–to be attractive to men.

I’m ashamed by my inability to cope, sickened by my own appearance. How do you make a change in your essential attitude to and response to adversity? Is a change of such magnitude even possible? I don’t know how you start but by pretending, and hoping that your invented persona takes over. It’s the only way to execute a choice over your attitude. My response to most things in the hospital has been utter despair, bursting into tears. To not do that would be to actively deny my natural response–and hope that enough instances of ‘acting’ calm would eventually translate into ‘being’ calm.

But still I am on this course I have not chartered, and over which I have no choice. Or else, the only choice is to allow myself to die, which is no choice.

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I thought I was in the all-clear for the moment as far as tests go, but April 30th’s pap smear–I’d assumed hearing nothing for so long was a good thing–apparently turned up abnormalities. This is not the first time this has happened, but it is the first time I have reason to be worried. They ask for a retest in six months. The waiting will never be over, or the worry.

Pelvic pains too, and waiting for my period, perhaps? Having had more or less regular periods since their return six months ago, last month was marked by a light period as predicted, then a hard sudden hemmorhage two weeks later. I don’t know what to expect now. Handy that the possible side effects of Tamoxifen include both irregular periods and uterine cancer, the hallmarks of both being vaginal bleeding.

Holding the gynecologist’s letter in my hand–Your pap results showed signs of cellular abnormalities–I could not escape the sickness and anger and the why me, why now. “I hate my life right now,” I texted–though predictive text first suggested the phrase, “I have my life right now,” which seemed somehow significant. 

I have my life right now.  

I’d like to ride that out awhile.

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26 June 2009: absence

Sleepless nights and strange morning-dreams. This free-floating anxiety shot into overdrive with the nurse’s call last night: yet another meeting with the surgeon on 7 July, and nothing to be planned until after. There is always this great sickness in the pit of my stomach; there is always this oppressive fog I can’t think through. Tomorrow I’m going to Paris, yes–and all I can feel is worry and discomfort. Guilt and bitterness. What is this compulsion for Paris?

This morning I rubbed some shampoo in the coarse fuzz that’s grown over my head–what unprecedented pleasure! The smell of the shampoo and comforting enclosure of soap suds. For an instant anyway.

A part of my body is to be cut off: the meaning, at last, of “absence.”

I dreamt of Vassar. In my dreams it is always so removed from me. Inglorious disarrray, columned like the Pantheon. And always this set of stairs I cannot seem to climb.

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a small thing. just keep swimming.

Sign outside the Regional Cancer Center today says:


I thought–oh, indeed? As small a thing as 2.5 cm of cellular abnormality, couched in your breast and poised to kill you?

I hate this slogan-bearing kind of cancer. The hand-in-handness of cancer and the “inspirational” undoes me. This depiction of cancer patients–and particularly women–as headscarved, trite & doe-eyed, clutching daffodils and counting blessings…

This, following an appointment with the counselor, who reckons I am experiencing PTSD–the trauma of the whole thing breaking in once a week at least in panic attacks and nightmares.

She suggests breathing.

I didn’t want to get out of the car to go into the appointment this morning. As often, I felt numb and frozen by the thought of any break to stasis. When I did move, I moved dumbly, automatic as a fish. And thought. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.  

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15 June 2009: what’s waiting

Sitting in the back of a classroom devoid of students. London considerably quiet–exam time for sixth-formers. Our brief holiday in Rome was so strikingly wonderful–the usual tedious-brief arguments always instigated somehow by food; the urgency of expectation–but otherwise so beautiful, so full. Mass with the Pope, outside San Giovanni in Laterano: hundreds of people kneeling in the dirt while the Last Supper is recounted in Italian. Touring the Forum & Palentine Hill, the Colosseum, Vatican City–the worst of it aching, blistered feet and supreme disappointment in the Sistene Chapel: hatred for humanity, shoving and talking and taking photographs. The most wonderful day the last: the non-Catholic cemetery verdant and calm and unspoiled. An afternoon’s unhurried wandering around the Pantheon, pizza and gelato, fountain water, conversation. It is a place in which I was so surprised, and perhaps more than any other most desperately did not want to leave.

Of course, a good part of that comes from the fear of what’s waiting here. Two appointments scheduled for tomorrow afternoon: 1.30 with Dr. S’ “team” (Dr. S., of course, will not be in clinic; I’ve not seen him in the entire course of my treatment) to discuss the results of last week’s ultrasound, then a foreboding 5.00 appointment with the surgeon. I’m sick with worry that’s been stockpiled in the back of my chest during those unreal few days in Rome. Beset by dreams of death, fear of death: a Keatsian distemper.

Please say “chemo” tomorrow. If I have chemo, I may have Paris. If “surgery,” then I am thrown into a mess of uncertainty and helplessness, depression and desperation.

“Your trouble is you get greedy,” K. said yesterday on my ineptitude at chess, losing my king in pursuit of a pawn. Maybe that’s my most sincere flaw in all things–too hungry for experience, for lovers, for recognition and attention, for perfection. Selfishness and ingratitude magnified by the disease–self-righteous indignation at having it all upon me; contempt for everyone else.

I was somehow charmed by the madwoman in her overcoat who shouted and sang outside our hotel window–bent, aged, wirey gray hair all out at angles–singing like an anachronistic Ophelia who’d misread her stage directions and neglected to drown. Flesh no longer “fair and unpolluted,” but “a document in madness” still.

For awhile the disease felt real. Lately it’s swung back to its removed position. K. touches my hand in the car when people on the radio start talking about “cancer patients.” But I do not feel these words are particularly meaningful to me. Cancer patients are still other people.

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cancer on my desk

When I got to work this morning there was an envelope on my desk. I opened it to find it full of literature on “young adults & living after cancer.” It might as well have been anthrax. I felt betrayed by it, strangely, and angered by the well-meaning email from my boss; a friend of hers had published these pamphlets on behalf of someone who’d died from the disease.

I don’t want my disease, its reality, to appear on a Monday morning as simply as a stack of filing. It’s as if every time I open a door, or an envelope or some part of myself, there is cancer in it.

I went to Michigan this weekend. “See you in the fall,” they said. It is such an easy thing to say. For everyone else, so easy to say that in six months, one year, two three four five six years I will do this and that thing.

And then these English Ph.D. people grinning flippantly: “I’m at the end of my first year, and I’m still alive.”

I thought: You really have no idea what that means to me, do you?

But how could you.

Saturday I have an MRI of the left side. Only after those results can I speak with any confidence about something as far away as fall. And I’m terrified of this awful always betrayal of my body. I feel so awfully encumbered by it.  And I’m trying not to be embittered by all these people who can read and drink and read and read and pursue their various happinesses, who can consider their deaths as abstract and distant, who can stockpile knowledge soundly in brains undestroyed by chemo.

I wonder if I will ever be a Ph.D. student more completely than I am a cancer patient. I don’t know.

Are you ever actually living “after” cancer?

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16 April 2009: Chemo #2

I thought I’d be calmer for the second chemo treatment, which was obviously a gross miscalculation of my character. Upon arrival I was handed a sheet with a mammogram request on it; notes dated 26 March stated: ‘suspicious lesions on L. side.’ None of the nurses or reception staff were able to inform me what this document was and why I’d not been told about it. The first nurse directed me to Radiology rather than Breast Screening. Once at Breast Screening, the reception staff (the school-leaver and the imposing woman with painted eyebrows) tried to tell me I would not be allowed to have the test because I am under 34 — ie, “too young for mammograms.”

I’m too young for cancer. What do you think of that?

New staff every time. More waiting this time, and a new chemo nurse too, who–surpirse!–informed me that from now on, there would be no bed–and no guests. So I sat in the row of old women while she repeatedly failed to find a vein, eventually breaking into tears when the thing slipped began painfully swelling up my whole arm–then the nurse said “Oh shit” and left without explanation. K. was not at all surprised to fine me curtained off in the corner upon his return.

“They had to move me,” I told him groggily, by then under the influence of the anti-anxiety medication. “I made a scene.”

Despite the trauma of the Charing Cross East Bloc Hospital experience, I feel better this time in the aftermath. Not having vomited was even a bit of a disappointment. They gave me anti-emetics this time, and I’m sure my new living environment–green space, a bathtub, a bed I don’t need to climb into with a utility ladder–contributes.

I’m scared more and more. Reading the pamphets and the websites and the statistics terrifies me. “Younger Women and Breast Cancer”: cancer is more aggressive and tends to be less responsive to treatment. There is no “treating” this disease, this wrongness in my body. Even if and while I live, I will always be living with it. Somewhere. This terrifying thing, genetic hatefulness.

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