Okay – here goes the ubiquitous cancer blog I said I wouldn’t write. I suppose it was inevitable.
Last November I had a breast tumor removed which turned out to be a rare kind of cancer that doesn’t respond to chemo or radiation. At least I could skip that routine. Though the margins were clean, the surgeon wanted to go in again and get more of the peripheral tissue, a somewhat complicated task as the tumor was close to both the chest wall and to the skin. With a second opinion in hand — thanks to the kindness of strangers whom my brother and nephew and his wife (all awesome doctors) got me in touch with, I opted not to do the second surgery and wait six months to check on the breast with ultra-sound.
At that point six months seemed long away. I had beloved and annoying students to attend to with creative excuses for not handing in research papers; I had remarkable friends to play with and talk to; I had the troubles of others that needed help, including a dog that had to be put down.; I had the support of my family, the reliable ground I go to; and I got to go on a trip to Greece with my significant other.
Unfortunately, the gods at Delphi had split, the oracle having predicted tour buses and plastic water bottles.
Always, after everything else had dissolved into the past tense, I had my zen practice. But still, many of my meditations were what I call “focusing on the breast,” especially when the nerve damage from the lumpectomy was causing some pain. Looming always, the thought of the follow-up for a while wasn’t as loud as appreciation for having six months to continue my life with some normalcy and a greater appreciation for whatever health I had and for the people that make me laugh and let me cry.
Many good things resulted. I found a deeper commitment to my meditation practice and an old icon from the past whom I hadn’t yet dipped into, Krishnamurti, whose devotion to freedom from bullshit is as pure as it gets. The gifts others gave me were many; I’ll list a few with the names though many of you won’t know who these people are: Dianne and her hilarious and reliable affection who inspired me to watch Bullwinkle and Rocky re-runs and Marx Brothers films; the call from Ian which opened with his question, “So how are we going to deal with this?” – no avoidance,no pity, no platitudes; the birthday spent with Ian and Vanessa at the pool hall where I dared to have a shot of Bushmills; playing music with the “We Suck” motley band of aging comrades; and Carson, an ex-student, present knight in shining armor always willing to put an arm around my shoulder. (I just watched him play in the “Hoop it Up” fest, where I found myself yelling various helpful words such as “Focus!” having promised not to say any other “f” words.)
The “This happens to other people” cliche manifested as me having thought I was the one who took care of other people who had cancer. I think a lot of caregivers go into their work in part to define themselves as the non-sick. Despite my insistence that hospice caregivers stand before the people they’re helping with the clear knowledge of their own mortality, I sat before my doctor when she told me the tumor was malignant, staring dumbstruck into her eyes waiting for her to say, “Just kidding.”
Cancer is scary. It’s most scary to me not because it’s potentially fatal, but because it implies a need to surrender to a healthcare system that seems to me to be often heartless and even inept. It implies a period of dependence on others, some of whom say they will be there for you and then judge your behavior and critique your moods; there’s also the possibility of debilitating pain and a loss of one’s healthy and whole body; and worst of all is the pity of others. Unlike compassion, pity is a patronizing insult added to injury.
So now the thing I thought was way in the distance, the follow-up “look see” is days away. I cannot know the outcome. Even after the ultra-sound there’s a good chance that there will be no definitive insight without further tests, further waiting.
I am not alone. There’s plenty of cancer and other scary shit going on for people. I know all the zen approaches, and they are important to me: acceptance, freedom from focusing on the self, living now – not in some illusory future. I am very grateful for all that wisdom. But I’m still scared. Not enlightened yet except for in rare nano-seconds. Writing the next novel seems irrelevant and impossible right now. I’m wandering lost; I have wander-lost.
And pathetically, I’m glad that at least I’m losing weight. Some stupidity never ends. But I have a new appreciation for my breasts.
(Recently Virginia tried to change the state seal, covering up the exposed breast. Intelligence prevailed.)
P.S. The test results were very comforting — now to be used as a baseline to track future changes. I am relieved, grateful and unable to get annoyed about anything!