all of the selves we Have ever been
After a year of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment,
I now think of my right breast like one of those tiny dogs that can be carried in a purse. Of course, my breast goes everywhere with me. I am not sure if this part of me has legs or if it is just a cute bobbing head with a cold nose, but like any privileged, spoiled pet, my breast eats up a lot of my time, and I’m always whipping it out to show someone. Together, my breast and I have had more views than Lassie, and we’re not even on TikTok.
I’ve named my pet Lymphedema. I am certain that must be the name of a Roman Goddess, one that comes alphabetically after Febris, the Goddess of Fever, and before Minerva, the goddess of pretty much everything else including wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, poetry, the arts and war, a woman for all seasons and all reasons. Lymphedema is in good company.
I am afraid my Lymphedema became full of herself not because of her namesake but due to the frequent picture taking. There was the mammogram, the ultrasound the ultrasound-guided biopsy, the ultrasound to insert the clips prior to surgery, the MRI, another MRI, a CAT scan, imaging during radiation treatments, another mammogram, another ultrasound, and then still photos when she developed redness, thickening skin and a spreading rash. And during various photo ops, attentive techs always asked what music I would like them to play. While I would have preferred a relaxing James Taylor song list, for Lymphedema’s sake, I always requested How Much is that Doggy in the Window.
A lot of poking and petting went along with the many photo opportunities. There were the doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, mammogram techs, ultrasound techs, radiation techs, oncologists, students, and even a visiting scholar! The scholar pretty much stared into his cell phone the entire visit. I am not sure if in his role as scholar he was taking notes, photographing my breast, or watching TikTok videos. Lymphedema is convinced he was texting his Albanian colleagues about the rare and beautiful Lymphedema. Whatever he was doing, his presence seemed to unsettle the usually confident and friendly young, male radiologist. Rather than touch Lymphedema during the exam, he asked, “Can you just hold it up?” I think the awkwardness of the situation may have offended Lymphedema.
But in prouder moments, Lymphedema and I mastered important poses including the classic shoulders-back, elbows-bent, arms at side and hold it while the judges look for bumps, puckers, rashes, and burns. While that was easily mastered, I recently learned that I now have to exercise Lymphedema. Turns out that just carrying her around and popping her out for show-and-tell was not enough. She now demands a daily walk! And then I have to grab her in a football hold and spin her in circles both clockwise and counterclockwise.
Through this long year, Lymphedema has become socialized and obedient learning the commands for each important event. Her appearance is improving along with her attitude. We are getting up to date on our vaccines for the coming year, and I am becoming a better handler so that I can highlight Lymphedema’s best structure—this is known as the stack, and we are stacked! Although I am not sure if Lymphedema will ever enjoy the hands-on examination or being looked over by the judges, this year of obedience training has deepened our bond and improved our communication. Lymphedema is now much better behaved and has not barked at me or anyone else all year.
I think we may be off to Westminster for the annual Dog Show. As a team, Lymphedema and I may not be much in class but we are best in show. Together, we have come through like champions.
Now, beam me up, Scotty. I need a new sport.
I arrive for my appointment to get measured and marked for the start of 16 sessions of radiation therapy. The busy scheduler apologizes for the crazy schedule as she tries to find a consistent time of day for my appointments, appointments that will span four weeks from start to finish if all goes well.
“Do you have far to travel,” she asks me.
I am aware that people drive hours each way every day to get their treatments in this world class treatment facility. “I live three miles from here; schedule me at your convenience and the convenience of those who have to travel.”
In the treatment changing room, I don a lavender gown and take a seat in the waiting area where I sit with other women in matching lavender gowns. We each wait for our name to be called. Some days, things go smoothly. Other days, things happen like the air conditioner breaking down in a treatment room. The schedule backs up. The staff is so apologetic, kind, and hardworking that no one would consider complaining.
Some of the women wait in silence. Others stare into their phones or up at the television screen, a few feel compelled to share their stories; they are containers about to burst. Their trauma needs to be revisited. The re-telling helps to break through the shock and disbelief, and it helps to make it manageable. The only similarity among us is the matching gowns. Each cancer story is different. Each story re-defines bravery: the misdiagnoses, the years of treatment and recovery, crossing the finish line at the ten year mark only to have the cancer return in the bones seven weeks later, women holding down demanding jobs, mothers trying not to frighten their children, expectant women trying to keep their hopes up as they navigate breast cancer and pregnancy at the same time.
I sit across from a young woman. I see her bald head and tired eyes, and my heart fills with grief for her. I think of my own daughter about the same age. And I think this woman is someone else’s daughter. And I think that she is too young for this. I want to open some tap in my own body and fill a cup with the good health I have enjoyed. I want to give it to her and say, “Drink.”
The women come and go from the waiting room. In quick exchanges they share their fears of losing jobs, and not just their livelihoods, but their precious health insurance. They continue to mask up while the rest of the world breathes freely. COVID will never be over for them.
There is a loneliness in the experience of illness that cannot be understood except by a fellow traveler. It does not matter how many people love you. It does not matter how much support you have. There are stops on the road where others can wait, but they cannot go into the dark and frightening spaces they don’t know exist. They can only carry the load and stay with the pain for so long.
Family and friends remain optimistic. Often they don’t want to hear about that which is hard. Treatment professionals are quick to diagnose “depression,” when, in fact, it is coping. Others cannot stay awake to the pain and fear for as long as the patient must. And, to be fair, they cannot. That is what makes these moments in the waiting room so precious. Perhaps someone receives a gift on the day the air conditioner breaks down.
And yet, with all of this said, it is a cheerful group of women with more to share than their woes. There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren, travel and restaurants, birthdays and anniversaries. We all come here for the hope--the hope offered by treatment, and the hope in each story. In this place we can relax with the truth without judgment or self-consciousness. In this group I am grateful for the health I have, for my strength, for the optimistic outlook for my own disease, and for the people and resources in this remarkable treatment center.
I reflect on the beams of light that will penetrate each of us who come to this waiting room. I think of the human genius that harnessed the power of the sun to cure cancer. And I think of The One who said, “Let there be light,” and made order out of the chaos. It is the same One who made man, and seeing that man was lonely, He made the rest of us.
We are the cure. We were made for each other. If only we could remember this in both sickness and in health, that would be paradise.
“Keep looking where the light pours in.”
Morgan Harper Nichols
Well, I passed the wellness exam--
and failed the mammogram.
Things really got rolling a few days later during the ultrasound. The radiologist stood at my bedside as I asked some questions. While she was careful NOT to say what it was, she was very firm about what it was NOT. I left with an intuitive understanding that it was something. This would be confirmed soon enough by a pathologist.
In the interim, I was referred to a surgeon, a brilliant and energetic young woman who loves science and trendy shoes. At our brief visit, she remained optimistic that it could still be nothing. Nonetheless, surgery was scheduled, even as I prepared for a biopsy the next morning.
I left the surgeon’s office with a busy mind and a tight schedule. I was due at work shortly, not really enough time to settle in at home, and maybe not a good idea even if I had had the time. It seemed to me that an asiago cheese bagel was in order. I took the advice attributed to the early Greek physician Hippocrates, and I headed to my local Panera to fill his prescription: Let thy food be thy medicine…
As it turned out on that day, my local Panera was not so much a dispensary as it was a most unusual monastery. In what would become a reversal of my misfortune, I found myself standing at a counter with the bread of life stacked on metal racks behind it. A holy man graciously took my order. Just as I was about to insert my debit card into the card reader, the monk said, “There will be no charge for you today.”
“Why is that?”
“It is Halloween.” And as he said this, he looked so deeply into my eyes that he seemed to take hold of me. So moved was I by his gaze that his eyes could have been the eyes of The One. And then he said, “God bless you," and the light poured in. While doctors had looked inside my body and proclaimed me ill, he looked inside my soul and proclaimed me blessed.
I moved to a table where I enjoyed my bagel and counted my blessings, among them excellent health and good medical insurance, wonderful friends who infuse me with laughter, the company of countless women who have gone before me and those who travel travel with me now, the remarkable emerging science and technology that makes the treatments our mothers received seem barbaric and my own treatment seem like science fiction, a specialty breast cancer treatment center practically at my doorstep, and a lifetime grounded by a faith tradition promising that there is something greater than me, and that when this life is over, I will be gathered to my people. How lucky am I to live with so many resources and so much hope?
Yes, the Paneran monk was a messenger: I am blessed.
More to come.
Of this I am sure.