Tag Archives: fear

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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18 June 2009: the worst possible outcome

I had prepared myself for the worst possible news but still not quite expected it–mastectomy, or a waiting list for one at least. A terrible uncertainty, weeks or months of waiting for worse news. For the moment, waititing to see the Oz-like Dr. S. on Monday, who cancelled last week’s chemo without a word to the surgeon, then upom speaking with her apparently agreed to sanction one or two more sessions of Taxotere while I wait for the mastectomy. I over overloaded with information from the surgeon that I’d expected I should have known before choosing to begin chemo–for instance, that a lumpectomy was never actually a viable option, with a 50% chance of local recurrence in a lifetime. Also, that they cannot know whether the cancer has spread to my lymph nodes until surgery. So I must wait for an appointment for a sentinel node biopsy–which isn’t even necessarily accurate–and an additional week for its results. And I cannot even begin to allow myself to imagine the worst possible outcome for that, even at the disastrous course I’ve already set.

Alternating disbelief and bitterness. I cannot concentrate on anything–anger and self-pity and ugliness. Unable to plan for, focus on, commit to anything–not with all this doubt and fear and ignorance and uncertainty surrounding me. If I felt I were recovering–but will I ever feel I am recovering, or constantly fear its ugly, dreadful presence in me?

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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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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Jade Goody & the mythology of redemption: the spectre of cancer in the media

Jade Goody–the Big Brother reality television “star”-cum-cancer martyr–died the day before I started my own chemotherapy. I remember standing on the platform at the Royal Oak train station, waiting to go to the hospital for my first chemo treatment, looking at everybody’s greedily-grabbed copies of the Metro and the London Lite; even in the “real” papers, Jade Goody was the front-page news (alongside findings of a recently-published study, coincidence or no, about the non-improvement of cancer survival rates in the UK).

 I don’t know how large the storm surrounding this woman was in the American media, but in England she was as ubiquitous as Big Brother himself: first for the car-crash entertainment value of her all-around ignorance and repugnance, with the cherry-on-top of racist allegations–and then for the car-crash entertainment value of her stage 4 cervical cancer, and society’s ensuing Schadenfreude at observing her decline, glued to the television with eyes wide.

She made a mint out of that damn cancer, and, maybe even more sickeningly, seemingly won everybody’s sympathy from the media exploitation of her sickness –from her showstoppin’ Cancer Special, to her eight-weeks-to-live “fairy-tale” white(trash) wedding, to which she sold the rights to Ok! magazine for £700,000. (A  few months after Goody’s death, her previously-incarcerated Prince Charming was arrested yet again for an alleged sexual assault on a teenager. This may want to be excluded from the Disney version of the Jade Goody Story).

The debate raged as to whether Jade, being dumb as pig shit, was the victim of the media’s agressive manipulation of her, or whether Jade, being an unscrupulous media whore, was in fact the one doing the manipulating of her audiences. But whoever was pulling the strings, the result was the same–as her Guardian obituary put it:

The pig who deserved burning had become our sacrificial lamb, garnished with sentiment. Britain had turned 180 degrees to embrace a woman it had earlier scorned. Symbolically, at least, it was the right time for Goody to die.

–what someone on the BBC referred to, as I listened to Radio 4 while waiting for my chemo, as “the mythology of redemption.” Continue reading

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