The pictures on our walls are crooked. November was a tidal wave that crashed through our lives, its slow pull outward at the beginning ending in a rapid surge that moved everything in its path in December. Now it’s January, and we are grateful to be alive and together, sorting through the silt and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. I am still tilting things back to center.
The day after the test was stormy, and the car was packed full of snacks, warm clothes, and rain gear for an all-day escape. It was election day, and I’d committed to disconnecting from anything that would pull my attention from the pound of waves and my endless search for agates and beach glass. But I’d made that promise to myself before the test. Before I knew with certainty that I was walking out of the time in my life where I wondered, when, and into the one that that echoed with, now.
Eleven years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t know I had it, had no signs or symptoms, but a visit to the doctor after a work injury resulted in a mammogram. My right breast was riddled with DCIS, the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer. Except I had in its most rare form – it was everywhere. When I saw the mammogram, I saw galaxies living in me, hundreds of constellations, bright and sparkling just like those on a clear night when I’d crack open the tent fly to pee. I was lucky. But my surgery and ensuing treatment were fraught with complications, and I was left diminished with a pain disorder that would keep me from trails and slopes for years.
I’ve written a lot about having cancer at 39 and about the experience of survivorship. While what I wrote was true, I was putting lipstick on a pig, as my grandma would have said. Living with one boob was its own complicated reckoning. Few people knew that they were seeing a woman with one breast and one prosthesis, and – bless them – those few had mostly forgotten. But I never did. Even after my scars were covered with a glorious dragon tattoo, looking in the mirror was painful on many levels. I never really came to grips with what I looked like now; the pride in what I’d been through drowned out by the loss of what was. Even though it was statistically unlikely, the mirror reflected a constant reminder of what could happen again. It was like having the bones of your ancestors in your backyard. A daily honoring of their lives and what it took for them to get through the years. And yet, a reminder – it is coming for you.
This summer, my mental health was particularly awful. I thought I was being dramatic. Maybe the stress of living through a pandemic had unlocked a genetic predisposition to hypochondria. Regardless, anxiety over my health had become unmanageable. I seemed healthy. This worry was unreasonable. And yet, nearly daily, even when I was relaxed and happy, a panic attack or gut churning anxiety would shake me.. Something is going to happen. Something is wrong. I sought counseling. I took all the right pandemic precautions without going overboard. I made sure I was up to date on my shots. And on my mammogram. And then there it was.
I started crying before I even got to the door. I knew when the nurse stopped being quite so irritatingly friendly. When I went home, I knew the phone would ring sooner, not later. And sure enough, the next workday, as rain-soaked leaves spun down from maples above a deserted, narrow road twisting away from the sea, a voice message on my phone – we need to do more tests, please call to schedule.
There is a place in my house, quite literally at its center, where presents are wrapped, where my parents pause for hugs, coats on, as they leave or enter. Where I’ve stood with arms crossed and shouted, where the wall bears the marks of a patch applied after a burst of frustration. Where the dog always lies, where the luggage waits to be loaded for adventures. And where I stood, hands over my face and sobbed, “I don’t want to do this again. I can’t do this again. I can’t stand losing more years of my life to pain. It’s not fair – I shouldn’t have to do this twice. I just can’t…” And where, tears streaming down my face, I looked into my partner’s eyes as he sat on the couch and saw his own grief and love and not wanting any of it in exactly the same way.
The next two weeks spun away far faster than those wet leaves fell on that day that seemed lifetimes ago. More tests, more phone calls. The surreal intimacy of a biopsy where, for the first time in this near-year of social distancing, someone other than my family touched me and offered comfort. Then, one day as darkness set in for the night and we were bent over a puzzle, the phone rang. The final diagnosis – ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), again. Tiny this time. In fact, likely to have been removed by the biopsy. But to be sure, what would I like to do? I hung up, and we went back to the puzzle, focused on working through finding the right pieces together.
The decision for a second mastectomy was made with the certainty of the Queen of Hearts shouting “Off with their heads!”. And so, a month after the first test, a week after being told I had cancer, and two days after I consulted with a surgeon, I found myself alone in pre-op listening to an audiobook, waiting to change my life again.
This time wasn’t fancy. Covid restrictions refuse to accommodate collective rituals or grieving, and my cancer and out-patient surgery seemed pretty underwhelming considering stuffed hospitals, overworked staff, and people dying by the thousands every day. There was no big fundraiser, no repeating the story over and over to new people, trying to put a positive spin on things. No time to pretend to “process” or to dwell, whatever those things mean when you have cancer. No ceremony before-hand, no family waiting to see me when I woke up. Just a call to my partner and dog to finish their walk and come get me. The next weeks were filled with regular calls to loved ones assuring them I was fine. Gifts of food and flowers left on my doorstep by friends who waved through the window. Pain. And welcome, though unexpected, relief from anxiety.
I skied my first day this year exactly one month from surgery on a perfectly PNW ski day. A crowded parking lot belied well-scattered groups of people, all wearing masks, all of us seeking relief from our lock-down lives. Snow flakes made soggy homogeneous clumps on my GoreTex pants and threatened to soak through my gloves and coat. Iron grey clouds flattened the light so you couldn’t see the ground in front of you, every turn feeling risky and brave. Jedi skiing, we call it. Just use the force – believe in the outcome you want. Listen. Trust. Tap into that thing you know.
Just like life.