Top menu navigation

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More Required Reading

Randomly picked off the shelf In the room I'm renting, and it's making me laugh and breaking my heart.

"They'd told me that only time would clear me up, and I believed them."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Notes on fragility

I paid a woman to beat the shit out of me today.

I'm exaggerating. Sort of. 

I went to my local body rub joint. It's less than a dollar a minute, and through necessity, they've added signs discouraging removal of underwear and solicitation of prostitution. I feel sorry for the very sweet ladies who run the place. But in defense of the indefensible, the place is open really late and looks sketchy as hell.


Over the weekend, I signed up for a special yoga class. In addition to the usual restorative practice, there would be reiki, thai massage, and acupressure. Fantastic, I thought. A positive way to end my borderline unsuccessful month of body image improvement.

The class was full, so I waited for my transformative massage experience (overly high expectations? That's my middle name). Patiently. As the class progressed, I realized that all of the touch I received was no heavier than what's done in reiki, which is very light and gentle. 

I didn't want light and gentle. I wanted to be stretched out and reassembled. I wanted to buzz with bloodflow to long ignored muscles.

And then I realized: they were afraid to touch me. Afraid to hurt me, because I was fragile.

I was thinking about this as the masseuse climbed on the table and dug into my back with her elbow.

Fragility only exists as relative to other things. Nothing is fragile in an airless room. It's the introduction of other bodies, other forces.

When she plows over my left thigh with her forearm, I tense, bite my lip, breathe deep. I am about to tell her to stop when a voice in my head shouts, "You can take it!" When she goes over my leg with a soft touch later, I can feel where all the bruises will be.

If I wore everything on the outside, I would be all sick green and yellow, with mottles of purple. But not fragile, not today.

I can hold up to touch. I've held up to worse, crumpling mainly from cuts and the dark places of my mind. 

The forces that can make something fragile can be passive, like the air. Orchids are hardy as fuck in the rainforest, but in my dry air they die slow, moody deaths. 

The forces can be light. Or dark.

I have never been the tough one. I'm the one who plays it close to the chest, but that's not the same.

But on the table, I try on tough, and see why people think it's a synonym for strong. They think that, but it's not true.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Early morning ultrasound.

They said because of my age I needed a mammogram. I was like, good luck with that.

Monday, April 21, 2014

More Required Reading

Stunning, stunning thing that I've been meaning to read for months.

"a young doctor inside asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10 -- I was flommoxed, I felt as though I shouldn't be there at all -- I said "6" -- he said to the nurse, Write down "8," since women always underestimate their pain. Men always say "11," he said. I didn't believe him, but I supposed he might know."

Friday, April 18, 2014

I sing the body defective

April is National Poetry Month. And, perhaps because of that but probably not, I was recently looking for answers in poetry. (I'm a firm believer in text-as-medicine.) I mumbled Prufrock to myself on the train. But mostly I turned to Whitman, that celebrator of the body, that open modern mind, whose words I have found nourishing so many times. (Like, want to feel kind of okay about death? Here you go.)

But where I thought I'd find comfort, I found more alienation.


I SING the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;         5
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

He writes about the fool who corrupts her body, and I feel that fool is me. Not by choice, obviously -- or maybe, obviously yes by choice, by choosing to live here among the plastics and the chromium and the fumes, all of which corrupted my cells, and with the help of faulty genes and errant mouse-carried viruses, made a place for wrong to grow. 

And then by necessity, I corrupted my body further with medication, a careful dose of killing stuff.

He writes of the body's connection to the soul -- but what happens when part of the body is gone? Is there a piece of the soul gone too? Does it occupy the air around my tissues in a freezer somewhere? Am I less eternal without these parts?

Whitman was no stranger to amputation. A medic in the Civil War, he wrote about the gruesome sight of cut off limbs, piled up near a tree. In "The Wound Dresser" he writes of a young soldier, "His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,/And has not yet look’d on it."

But I have. I have not lost a limb, but that doesn't mean I haven't lost a part. A piece. I am looking now. I think. It's hard to know, impossible to see precisely. It's always a reflection, or through the eye of a camera, that I see the entirety of the field. But it has always been this way with the body, I guess. What did we do before there were mirrors?

I'm angry at Walt Whitman.

He writes of existing beyond death, of defying time through the pages of his book. I feel like reaching in through the spaces between the lines and grabbing him by his open collar and pulling him close to my face and saying,  

Why have you left me here alone?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The new girl

The other day, I was in therapy, discussing this issue of the body. (Side note, every time I say the term "the body" I think of this art history professor I had in college, who in discussions would always say it like this: the bauuuuddddeee. At least five syllables.)

I was talking about the different things I was planning to do (almost none of which have I actually done yet, btw). And then just expressed my frustration at the fact that at 28, I had finally worked out a lot of the adolescent body issues.

"It was the best I felt about my body since I was like 11," I said.

"What happened when you were 11?" she asked.

And I smiled, and said, "I got boobs."

Perhaps this was obvious to everyone except me, but I had issues with this, let's call it a region, for a while. I developed early, and noticeably, and I wasn't really into it. In 5th grade I was still collecting proofs of purchase from my horse figurines to send in for a limited edition Grand Champion.

I had crushes and stuff, too, but I was happy to keep them firmly planted outside of reality. When, the next year, the boys in my class ranked all the girls by breast size, assigning each one a corresponding fruit (mine were apples) I felt pretty strange. I was stuck in this weird world, of still trying to be a kid and occasionally wearing the matchy kiddish outfits my mom would buy, and just trying to hide what was happening -- usually by wearing my brother's old tshirts and jeans. (Retreating to the arms of menswear -- sound familiar?)

By 14, I was more ready for things, but still not totally. I was tall and wearing a d cup by then, and I guess I looked a lot older than I was. But even still, far too young for the older men who would chat me up while I was reading Seventeen magazine. I felt scared and ashamed.

But then I guess I learned the other side of it, or I learned that it was what boys liked. (My middle school boyfriend was mostly interested in pawing at my chest in movie theaters.)

So looking good meant showing a bit of tit, though I was never comfortable with very much.

(When I was trying on wedding dresses, I struggled with the several inches of cleavage that seemed unavoidable. When I balked, the saleswoman suggested something called "a modesty panel." Oy.)

So scared and ashamed. But also trying to understand the power of that body part in some what.

Anyway, after about 15 years I sorted most of it out for myself. At least to the point where the comfort outweighed the shame.  I still hated that I couldn't sleep on my stomach, and the multiple sports bras I had to wear when I went jogging, and that I couldn't rely on a button down oxford to keep shit PG. But it was okay.

Then cancer. And damn.

When I posted before about the struggles I was having with body image, I was sad to get several comments from other women, commiserating, and sharing their own feelings. (There's a weird sad/glad feeling, when you meet someone dealing with the same thing as you. Relieved that I'm not alone, but sad that there are others dealing with the bullshit.)

It also made me angry. I am beginning to realize that the problem is incredibly common -- yet very little discussed. "Problems with body image" usually ends of far down on a bulleted list of emotional side effects of breast cancer, with no further explanation or resources offered.

I feel like we're just left to fend for ourselves here. Post-treatment support is fairly scant across the board, I guess, but still.

In a word, blerg.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week

I've been remiss the last few days in pointing out that it's Young Adult Cancer Awareness week. So. Now you know.

I've been thinking about the other young adult in my life. Matt. Some of you know, but perhaps many of you don't, that he also had cancer. He was diagnosed with non Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2008. We were living together, but not married yet. I wrote a weird little essay, Love Letters Written to You in Waiting Rooms, when it was happening.

Yesterday, I gave a talk at a high school about my cancer experiences. At the end, one of the kids asked how Matt reacted when I was diagnosed. It's hard to parse out -- I don't think of us as having had separate reactions. I feel like, in those moments of diagnosis, but especially with mine, we were, I don't know, fused together in some way. I can only remember how we felt.

And our feeling was basically this:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My body, my self

A little update on what's happening underneath my shirt. I have one implant, in the right side. The left side, the cancer side, has nothing. Each side has a horizontal scar. The left side is clamped down in odd places because of gluey scar tissue, all folded over and weird. The burn from radiation is still visible, and my skin is still kind of crepe-y. I'm in a holding pattern for reconstruction.

When I undress for the shower, I don't look much in the mirror.

When I get a glance from someone pretty, or even a catcall from a creep, I think, "if only they knew."

If only they knew what I really looked like.

I'm scarred up, but more than that. Cut off. Not neatly flat where my breast used to be, but folded over, lumpy, fragile, stuck down, discolored. Full of evidence of cuts and burns.

Damaged, deformed. Repulsive. Monstrous even sometimes.

I know this is irrational. When I undress for doctors and residents and therapists, no one recoils. It's nothing they haven't seen. I don't feel the same when I look at post op mastectomy photos of others. Just me.

A friend asked me yesterday how I know where to begin in the business of marching forth. I said I think of what I've lost, and how to get it back or find something new.

My work for this month is this. To get back some kind of acceptance of my body.

Just before diagnosis, we had reached a kind of stalemate. My thighs weren't  weren't getting any thinner. Belly no flatter. We shook hands and agreed to disagree. For the first time in since age 14, I wore shorts with impunity. See, I'd spent a year dieting for our wedding, denying myself cookies and slices of pizza, sweating every morning on the Wii fit, all for a paltry 7 pounds. Which I instantly gained back on my honeymoon diet of gallo pinto and piƱa coladas.

I made a deal with my body, and then the bitch stabbed me in the back. And shot herself in the foot. That cancer feels like a betrayal is something that's been said many times over. But maybe that's the bigger source of my revulsion. Maybe, in addition to how it looks, I hate that part of my body because of what it did.

This month is about understanding why, seeing for what it is, and being okay with it. Maybe even loving it, but that feels like a stretch. I'll be doing various exercises, ranging from solo dance parties to chakra therapy, to try to reconnect, and feel okay. And obviously, I'll be telling you all about all my zany magic spells.

There's something about owning what I look like that feels important. Though I will often waffle back and forth, feeling like this sentiment is shallow and anti-feminist. Feeling like I'm weak for caring at all. For not being able to live like Audre Lord, declaring reconstruction a lie and using my new body as a political tool. Other times, I feel like, these things were important to me before, so why shouldn't they be now? I feel like there's this sense of, you're alive, be grateful and don't complain. But don't I have as much a right as anybody to want to feel okay about this?

In some cosmic irony, I forgot to wear my prosthetic today.