Breast Cancer: Loss & Recovery
Breast Cancer can hit a woman really hard in her looks. It creeps up on you, an invisible tumor growing inside your body and all of a sudden a surgeon is sitting right there in front of you and things begin to change really drastically. I had a high-grade tumor. We have to act quickly.
The tumor will have to be removed surgically. Fine. I can live with that. It didn’t take too long for her to say the C word. I don’t mean cancer. I mean chemotherapy. That’s when the break down really begins and you watch pieces of your body falling off piece by piece. The invisible would soon alter the visible and disrupt any notion I had of being an attractive sexual being.
It begins with the hair. After the second cycle of chemo clumps of hair begin to fall out. You wake up in the morning and one half of your head is scattered on the pillow like fallen autumn leaves. It wasn’t working for me. The gradual loss was making me feel powerless. I went to a hairdresser who helps cancer victims and provides them with custom made wigs. We chopped it all off. Once and for all. What a relief. It restored a modicum of control at a time when clumps of hair could accidentally fall into my morning coffee or cereal bowl.
The whole process was surrounded by intimate rituals that marked intimacy. Who could see what when? Who could never see me without hair? It all depended on how close a person was. There had to be a lot of trust for me to bare my bare head. It isn’t easy to be vulnerable with people whom you don’t trust, people who might secretly or even unconsciously be rejoicing because they finally got a glimpse of your vulnerability and had the chance to penetrate your stoic armor.
Perhaps the hardest part was being bald to my youngest son. He was only eight years at the time. I didn’t want him to see me falling apart because I wanted him to trust that the person taking care of him was holding up. I had to be stoic and assure him that I was fighting the good fight and that we would all get through this together. But on some level he understood that we were all confronting mortality, the possibility of dying. I remember telling my oldest son that he had to help his brother Naseem with his college application and essay if I died. Yep I actually said that. It was a real and visceral fear.
That was a possibility I wasn’t allowed to articulate too often or too freely. The tumor was represented by the self-help industry as a lethal opponent that had to be defeated with feisty optimism. You need to build up your immune system and stay positive. There is a whole optimism ethos strysurrounding cancer and it costs money, lots of money, to reconstruct your looks so that you continue to feel good about yourself. The wigs are expensive. But you don’t just lose your hair. You lose your eyebrows and they are crucial for giving your face its shape. You lose your eyelashes. Your skin dries up. My nails grow brittle and some just fell off. Every morning death seemed to be staring me in the face as I began to redraw those missing eyebrows.
This constant remaking wasn’t simply a matter of vanity. At the time it felt like I was struggling to maintain my dignity. Nothing frightened me more than appearing pathetic or needy. I had to convince myself and show others that the cancer had wreaked havoc with my body but that it had failed to break my spirit. I also wanted to show my kids how to deal with adversity by putting myself together and getting pleasure out of it. Of course there were horrible wig choices as the picture below demonstrates, amply. Now I shudder but hey I was trying my best….and it did seem preferable to the first photo. Everything is relative I suppose…… Gradually my hair began to grow back. I had no idea if it would be thick or thin curly or straight. It didn’t matter. It was heavenly just to have it back, to be rid of those hats and wigs once and for all. That was the hope. The budding hair looked like budding hope to me and I grasped at the residual strength. I was collecting the fragments that seemed essential to my sanity and recovery……
Things turned out pretty well for me. I think that was largely a function of my privileged position. After all, I had very good health insurance, my husband is a physician so I got good personalized care and attention, I could afford to buy creams to moisturize my skin during radiation and I had a supportive network of family and friends who embraced my vulnerability. But it doesn’t always work out that way. It is not a heroic battle or anything. There were a lot of structures in place that helped me survive. I am not sure there are any definitive studies proving that a positive attitude can help cure cancer. This experience has taught me to live more fully in my vulnerable body and to acknowledge that vulnerability in others. Ideally, that vulnerability should entitle everybody who has a body to adequate health care and a loving community…. That is the politics of cancer for me. So in some ways my recovery has been humbling and empowering at the same time. Much of my strength was derived from others.BTW that is my real hair!