Excerpt from "Cancer Gift"
Two years ago my annual mammogram turned into a story. You don’t want your mammogram to be a story. You want it to be what it is, an excruciating twenty-seconds spread out over an hour of your life—an hour and ten if you include the time you spend doing jello shots in the parking lot, before you go in to have your second most sensitive area compressed into shapes resembling Europe as seen from space. That drinks are not served routinely in the waiting room is yet another fault of corporate medicine. I bet a small town doc would offer up a flask, and not simply the request to “hold your breath,” as if there is anything else one would do. Actually enlarging one’s chest with air is as remote a thought as foreplay while held in a device that rivals the thumbscrew for that inquisition-era flat-world experience.
I was at the radiologist for five hours that day. First the normal torture, then down the hall for some ultrasound investigation, after which a doctor I’d never seen before met me in a darkened room where images of what turned out to be my breasts, not looking their perky best, were displayed. It was the pencil that made time slow down, its sharp tip arrowed at a black spot the doctor was pointing out. This wasn’t there last year; it’s probably nothing; I think we should check it out. My skin felt as if it was breathing. I called my office. I wouldn’t be in at all today.
The biopsy was done right there, a marvel of electronic medicine. I watched on the screen as a probe went inside my breast, its mission to capture and return with a bit of the black in its claw. It made a sound just like a staple gun as they tried repeatedly to grab it. Apparently, my breasts were uncooperative. I’d heard that one before, also while lying down—though this time I wasn’t fighting my way out of the back seat of a Subaru. I was busy trying to stuff emotional cotton around my brain which wanted to go off and wonder about things I didn’t want to wonder about. I wanted to hear the one again about the over-cautious doctor and how I got to go home to bed and read my Vogue.
I bled an abnormal amount during the night, the biopsy bandage soaked through when I awoke. The doctor had asked me to call if there was anything more than a small bit of blood. I knew I had cancer when I told him about the bleeding. I knew because his voice became soft and focused at the same time, and he called me by my first name. Only later did I learn that cancer tumors bleed a lot. This is something he knew, and while he didn’t say anything to me then—he told me he would call the lab and call me right back—I got dressed for work automatically. This was the day that would change my life, so I put on my Prada shoes. I went to the office.
I took his call only moments after I arrived. When my mobile rang and I saw it was him, I did not answer it in my office, but walked out the door into the sunlight and air. He was surprised. It was the smallest cancer tumor he’d ever seen. He asked where I was. He told me I would be alright. I cried with the effortlessness of a child, all physical and loose. I brushed back my hair. I will lose my hair. This was my first cancer thought. I didn’t, as it turned out. I kept my hair and my breast. Among the unlucky, I was the lucky one. It takes time to believe that, or one trip to the chemo ward.
Talking about your cancer is like talking about your lover, no one gets it quite the way you do. Intimacy will do that, making you gag on clichés even as you nod—reluctant to even try to explain the difference in your world. There was the sheer logistical change of not working but getting paid—a fantasy that usually involved Brad Pitt and copious amounts of Hawaiian Tropic. Instead, while I waited for the date of surgery to approach, I did ballet and made pastries using phyllo dough and hand-crushed almond paste. Feeling fine, now that the biopsy wound was healing, I got busy trying for something between routine and moving to France. I sensed an opportunity here. Pretty much anything I did now could be filed under the temporary insanity clause. Like a kid after a tonsillectomy, but without the downer of a sore throat, I could color outside the lines. Shit, I could color my ex-boyfriend’s Toyota and the judge would wag his finger, gimme a hug, and let me go.
This, it turned out, was not exactly true. But it was close enough. And the thing that surprised me most of all was that I never needed to get cancer to do it, though cancer was the emotional equivalent of a rocket that shot me into an orbit where a certain weightlessness applied, even as I was fed oxygen and tethered to an amazing group of people who saved my life. What is possible to do in one’s life changes remarkably when one fears death more than embarrassment. And yet I was only just beginning then to understand that. It would take these two years to bear-hug that life, to get the blessing of the thing, along with the parting gifts of radiation ink tattoos and paper slippers.
A lot of having cancer is waiting. Waiting to be seen by doctors. Waiting for the visiting nurse. Waiting for a surgeon to look through your chart and say casually, oh, that’s good, no cancer in the lymph nodes—which when translated into the language of human organisms means that they caught the cancer early enough, and you are not going to lose your breast or your life. This news is delivered to you in a tone of voice you would use to tell your daughter you found a parking space right outside her building, so it takes a few seconds before you lean your forehead against the office wall and sink to your knees. Even nurses, it turns out, don’t know quite what to do with a woman in a pink smock weeping and laughing on the floor, palming the wall just to feel the concreteness of the thing.