The Fighter Still Remains

Holly Burns
Jan 25, 2018 · 6 min read
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The absurd part of all of it is how long it takes me to take it seriously. The doctor, the ultrasound tech, the woman who gives me a mammogram, the second woman who gives me a second mammogram, the fact that there is a second woman giving me a second mammogram — all of these people are light years ahead of me in understanding how deftly my world is about to change, while I sit dumbly in the waiting room in a paper gown, playing around on my phone.

They want to do a biopsy that afternoon and still that doesn’t ring any alarm bells. Let’s make an appointment for you to come back on Thursday for the results, says a nurse, and I say — I actually say these words — “oh, I can’t on Thursday, I’m going wine-tasting in Sonoma with my friend.” The nurse suggests that I may want to cancel Sonoma, and so I cancel, but that’s Monday, and as it turns out, I don’t have to come back in on Thursday after all. They call me on the phone on Wednesday instead and tell me it’s cancer.


It starts with a lump, as all stories like this do. It starts with a lump, because of course it starts with a lump, because finding a lump that turns out to be cancer is one of those rare things, like seeing New York for the first time, that turns out to be exactly the same in real life as it is on TV.

The lump is almond-shaped and hard like a marble. It seems to appear instantly, although apparently it’s been there for a little while, growing and festering, settling in. I find it while breastfeeding my baby, who is five months old. Was it there while I was pregnant? I ask one of the doctors. It seems important to know whether it was in my body at the same time as she was. It’s possible, the doctor says. Although pregnancy is actually a great protector. She may have kept you safe.

I scroll back at photographs of myself from a few months ago, a few weeks ago, looking for evidence. There we are at Disneyland, our first vacation as a family of four. There we are at the school fair, at a pumpkin patch, in a gondola in Venice. There we are trick-or-treating on Halloween, the day before I was diagnosed. I’m holding the baby while my 4-year-old leans against me, his hand resting on my shoulder in that casual way children touch you before the world turns them self-conscious. I had cancer then, I think. I had cancer for all of that. I can hardly look.


Things move fast after my diagnosis. I leave doctor’s appointments to find voicemails from receptionists scheduling other doctor’s appointments. Flowers arrive. The wagons circle. One of my brothers drives up from San Diego and the other flies in from New York. You don’t have to, I say, but they come anyway, and I understand that it’s as much for them as it is for me; they need to see that I’m alright. I’m alright! I say, as I open the door to them, because the truly peculiar part of all of this is that I feel just fine.

One brother babysits, the other, a medical student, responds to even my most alarmist text messages—look at this, could this be a skin metastasis? Nope, that’s a mosquito bite—with unending calm. My sister toasts me muffins, buys pretty folders to keep track of all the paper I keep bringing home. The four of us walk down the foggy block to my son’s preschool, a parade of siblings, and watch as his face lights up at this unexpected bounty of aunts and uncles at his classroom door.

The day before my brothers go home, we sit outside at a park on the Embarcadero. The baby is strapped to my chest and my husband is throwing a football with our son in the November dusk. Above us, there’s a sudden flurry and the sky is split with squawks. It’s the parrots! I say, to anyone who’ll listen. Look, the famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill! Almost eleven years I’ve lived in San Francisco and it’s the first time I’ve seen them. I try to remember the collective noun for a group of parrots. A bunch? A flock? A pandemonium, I find out later. They scatter above us, swooping in formation, landing in the wind-stripped trees.


My friend Ted sends me a note. You will beat this, it says. And then he writes it eight or nine more times, one on top of the other. You will beat this, you will beat this, you will beat this. I read it like a promise. I read it like an order. I read it like a prayer.


I google things to prepare for chemotherapy. I google “what is chemotherapy like?” and I read through message board after message board of people talking about how awful chemotherapy is. It’s like walking into a punch, writes one woman, and later I will repeat this to everyone who asks me what chemotherapy is like because she is exactly right.

First, the anticipation. Then the snap of impact. The long, dull recovery, when your body is not your own and nothing feels right. But you rise, you rise, and then you’re on your feet again, shaky at first, until suddenly one day you realize you feel well enough to give the baby a bath.

A reprieve, and then the next round, and this time you know what it’s going to be like. You walk into the punch. Round after round, you walk into the punch.


I order a t-shirt that says FIGHTER across the front because it seems important, somehow, to acknowledge that shots have been fired. I buy extraordinary things, like turmeric capsules and frankincense oil. At one of my doctor’s appointments, a social worker comes into the room and offers me, in quick succession, a disabled parking permit and a prescription for medical marijuana. I immediately photograph them next to each other and text the photograph to everyone I know.

I visit an acupuncturist, who tells me that my chi is blocked. I visit a therapist, who encourages me to feel my feelings. I make smoothies with chia seeds and açai, and one evening I realize that two separate people that day have led me in a breathing exercise. I download a meditation app and I give up dairy and I throw out all my makeup and replace it with new makeup whose list of ingredients doesn’t read like a particularly stressful chemistry exam. How did I get this? I wonder. Tupperware, deodorant, curse placed upon me by a person I wronged? At the suggestion of the therapist, I start a gratitude journal. Did not die today, I write.


Impossible to measure, the way the body can betray you. Mine carried me capably for more than 35 years, through adolescence and college and pregnancy, through punishing spin classes, through a couple of hungry, sleepless babies, and a six-hour hike on the Great Wall of China wearing too-small shoes I’d purchased the night before. Your body does what you want it to do until it doesn’t.

Admit, in the deepest, most secret part of yourself that you didn’t think this would really happen to you. We don’t have cancer in our family, said my grandmother once, and I carried it around with me like armor. And yet here is the radiologist in his dark room, pointing out the splintering supernova of a tumor on the screen in front of him. Here is the ultrasound tech passing you a box of tissues. Things go your way until they don’t go your way anymore. The path diverges. The world splits. The world goes on.

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