Tag Archives: cancer

Cancer? I laughed so hard I cried.

I’ve been reading a lot about cancer lately. As in, a lot more than usual. More on this later. For now, I just want to take a moment here to publicly profess my love for Tania Katan. I’ll admit, I was a little put off by the cupcake on the cover of her memoir, My One Night Stand With Cancer, when I picked it up alongside Geralyn Lucas’ Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy (which I’ll feign to reserve judgement on, as I’ve not yet read it).

But Tania. Katan. Kicks. Ass. Jewish, queer, BRCA-positive, comic, writer, two time breast cancer survivor (at 21 and 31). And she’s turned it into a one-woman show: Saving Tania’s Privates. Trailer:

I love women with cancer. I love funny women. Funny women with cancer…amazing.

Which is why I’m sort of enamored with this girl–author of the blog Cancer is Hilarious and the forthcoming “world’s awesomest comic book,” Terminally Illin’.


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Overdue update, & encountering cancer

This is largely what I saw the first time I encountered cancer:

I was wearing this absurdly cheerful polka-dot skirt the day I went for my biopsy results and was informed I had a Stage 2, Grade 2 breast cancer.  I was looking at my lap, my feet, the sterile linoleum floor, trying not to throw up–shocked and strangely interested in the intense sickness I felt, the visceral nature of my response.

Contrary to appearances–as well as what I said here–I am not, after all, planning on discontinuing the writing of this blog.

Firstly, I’ve been waylaid in my attentiveness to the project of posting the journal entries from my treatment, having reached no satisfying conclusion to this narrative.

But secondly, and more to the point, there is no satisfying conclusion to this narrative. In April I said, “I am anxiously awaiting the day when I stop writing about cancer entirely” — that “I do not want write this blog any longer. Or, not until the next time I encounter cancer, which I can only hope will be never.”

Yet I am constantly encountering cancer. It would be hopelessly naive of me to believe I could rid this from my life entirely, and move swiftly on to considering only 19th century American literature, as if returning from some awful Oz.

I’ve moved to Michigan now, and am in the dreadful process of trying to transfer my treatment to the University of Michigan Cancer Center. I say “process,” but in actuality I have reached a seeming impossible impasse with them, as I cannot get in touch with the hospital in London to locate slides and films which may longer exist in the first place. They will not admit me as a patient without them. So, right now, I am nobody’s patient. In a way I like the feeling of that–no hospitals on the horizon–except that constant patient-status for the rest of my life is absolutely essential.

Further to the persistent problem of pelvic pain, I had an ultrasound awhile ago (I didn’t realize until I got into the examining room that this was a transvaginal ultrasound, all in all a rather absurd procedure wherein they put a lubricated condom on a big fat wand and basically, well, fuck you with it). Last week I got a call from the physician’s assistant reporting no major abnormalities, but the gynecologist advised a uterine biopsy to rule out the possibility of the uterine cancer which could be a side effect of Tamoxifen.

I declined the invitation, as attractive as it sounded. I absolutely cannot deal with the thought of a biopsy right now. Moreover, the whole idea is rendered completely hypothetical, as I DON”T HAVE ANY DOCTORS HERE.

Back on the subject of the polka-dot skirt: I’ve had a kind of superstition about that skirt since; I can’t look at it without hearing “cancer,” hearing it applied to me. But I wore it today to the orientation meeting for my Ph.D. I’m terrified of this undertaking now, in the wake of the way the chemo ravaged my brain–the terrible problems with memory and concentration and articulation it’s left me with, which don’t lend at all well to a doctoral degree in literature. But this is what I mean–I encounter cancer & its consequences constantly.

We’re stuck with one another here, it seems.

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2 August 2009: 31,000 feet

Taking off from Cleveland as the red sun dips in the sky. From the air the network of streets and trees, ponds and houses seems delicate and deliberate. So many blue swimming pools.

My hair is falling out again. To distract myself I try to count the number of round trips I’ve made across the Atlantic–Oxford, Munich. Christmases, P’s funeral.

The route from Cleveland crosses Lakes Erie and Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland. And ‘home.’

Sentinel node biopsy on the 6th, Thursday. Mastectomy 8 days later, the 14th, a Friday. None of this is right, to write these words. To feel the lump, to say, to think, ‘cancer.’ I hate the sight of myself in that bathroom mirror, in front of which I’d pinch myself, a decade ago, wanting to be as thin as the models in Seventeen. Now sickened again by my soft white flesh, my patchy fuzzy head, my small and temporary breast.

We’re following the shoreline. The altitude and sunset render everything out of focus. It’s a wash of colour like a Rothko canvas and the moon looms clearly but for one fuzzed edge, mysterious, out of place.

I look down and see the unmistakable shape of Presque Isle, realize we are flying right over Erie, right over my home. Remember looking longingly at jet trails from the backyard as a child and wishing I were on ‘that plane,’ wherever it was going. And now, how much I’d give to feel safe, not to have to be doing this. A mix of dread and denial.

31,000 feet. Turbulence expected. The lake beneath. Near Buffalo, where I was born a quarter century ago.

This feeling like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Terrible fear and no way to prepare. R. says whatever is in your mind is worse than the actual experience will be. What does she know? She had a small lump removed, and it was benign.

I am sick in so many ways. The cancer, and the sickness of the chemotherapy. Of ineffectual treatment. Most recently of a virus, a sore throat and runny nose and nausea. And the terror, and the terrible malaise.

K. on the other side of the ocean. A comfort, but not to keep. A terrible loneliness is mine instead.

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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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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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the blog

I’ve been neglectful of the project of this blog lately, something I feel is right and timely. I am anxiously awaiting the day when I stop writing about cancer entirely.

My MRI was, a nurse said as I stood clutching my cell phone in the parking lot of my place of employment, “a good MRI.” Ie, no signs of malignancy in the left breast.

And the MRI was “a good MRI” overall, really; going to the hospital at 9 AM on a Saturday morning was surreal and quiet, near-peaceful. The nurse who put in my IV was kind; she gave me a warm blanket and said I looked scared. But I wasn’t scared of the experience; it is so familiar–the sharp stab of the needle into the inner fold of my elbow, the tug of blood in the tube, the clicks and whirs of the awful machinery (the tubular monstrosity always reminds me of a photograph of myself with my brother, five years old, sitting in front of a shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center ) in which I lie facedown and half-naked, trying to keep still for twenty-five minutes. I am not afraid of your tools, your accoutrements, surroundings. I am only afraid of my own uncontrollable body.

Dear Readers: I shall continue writing here until the end of August, share my journal entries from the treatment, chronicle a complete year. And then I do not want write this blog any longer. Or, not until the next time I encounter cancer, which I can only hope will be never.

Post MRI state of my life: I am not satisfied, but I am quietened. In this moment, I am not overly desperate for escape. I do not want for anything but to read books, and to be here, and watch in awe as my shattered heart continues to develop its capacity for love.


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