dear breast cancer
I do not remember the first time I feel it but I remember how it feels. Firm to the touch with hard edges, immovable, anchored into my body. When I go in for my mammogram, I look at the doors of the cancer center and know this place will become familiar, like an old friend, another home, one I will know intimately. The names of all the nurses who work in the sixth floor infusion room, what the café serves for lunch, how long it takes to get an X-ray, where to find the second set of elevators and the bathrooms down a labyrinth of hallways.
But before all of that, I run away from home.
To a sleepy coastal town in Georgia where the heat clings to our skin and our hair, and we drink cocktails on the sidewalk and go on ghost hunts in old houses. We take a cab to the beach and rent umbrellas and chairs and my cousin and I swim out into the ocean so far that the people on the shore look like stick figures and even the boys swimming next to us will not follow. I feel nothing below my feet and nothing beside me and the sky is vast over our heads and there isn’t a cloud to be seen. I want to live in that moment forever. My flight is delayed so while my family goes home, I stay a few extra days in a bed and breakfast next to the park. There is a pool and I take rambling walks in the humidity to the art museum and eat by myself at nice restaurants. One of them is in an old Greyhound station and that’s my favorite. Every night I go back to my room and run my fingers through my hair and stare in the mirror at my boobs and try not to imagine them away. But in those moments I find out it is possible to miss things before they are gone. I soak up every minute of personal space and quiet and play because I know that as soon as I get home the storm will start and it will not end for a while.
Mammograms are easy. When I get home, I visit the women’s center at the hospital, put on a soft, white spa robe and let them squeeze my girls between glass. I look down and say sorry as if I have personally offended them. They have been my friends for such a long time. This is when it is not easy: when they look at the results and say they are not right. When they tell me I need a biopsy that day. I am stronger now than I was then — needles are not as scary — but that wasn’t the case then and as a giant needle pierces my skin, spring loaded to quickly capture a piece of the offending tissue, I feel a stream of warm blood slide down my body and I faint. Not once but twice. Fits of bodily contortions turn my face purple and make my back arch. They bring in a crash cart because my blood pressure drops so low and I spend the rest of the day in the emergency room. This is not the hardest day but it is close. A man calls with my results on a Friday and tells me I have cancer in two places in my left breast. When I ask him questions, he says a doctor will call on Monday and hangs up. That is the longest weekend. Phone calls are usually easy. Unless they involve calling your mother and your grandmother and your best friend who is in Vietnam for the summer and telling them the thing you do not want to. My best friend cries over Facetime and my grandmother (who has had breast cancer twice) says how sorry she is and my mother immediately delves into problem-solving mode because that’s what she does best and it generally stresses me out but I understand why she does it. I go to work and then I go for a run. I feel every part of my body and it feels young and strong.
My oncologist is only a little older than me. He is softer spoken and intense and a highly skilled cancer researcher. In our first appointment, he tells me the specifics of my disease, that it is fast growing and aggressive. That they don’t know if the second tumor is cancer or not but they need to treat it like it is which puts me firmly in stage two. The treatment is intense but out of all of the types I could have, mine has the best options and outcomes. I do not know it then, sitting in his office, trying to come to grips with why I am even there in the first place, but the next twelve months will be some of the worst of my life. I will undergo 16 rounds of chemo, fertility treatment, a year of immunotherapies, my hair and eyebrows and eyelashes falling out, four surgeries including a double mastectomy, a breakup, and the loss of a job. I will do it with what others call strength and with grace and will not ask for a lot of help but will learn to accept it.
People show me their best sides and their worst. Friends minimize the seriousness of it in order to not feel devastated by the news. I keep my wig on every time I spend the night with my new boyfriend because I am embarrassed by my bald head and I only feel beautiful when I wear it. That’s not his fault, though. Who really knows how to deal with their new girlfriend having breast cancer? There is not a manual for that kind of thing. I meet him at a bar where I watch the presidential debates and after three debates he finally asks for my phone number. I remember that moment because I am wearing a pink hat to hide the fact that my hair is already disappearing. It fills my bathroom sink every morning and clogs my shower drain. He tries to take the hat off on our first date so I tell him the truth and he says he is sorry and kisses me again and that is really the best reaction you can hope for. In that same year, a lot of good things happen too. I climb mountains, take a trip to Bend, visit a friend in Palm Springs, see the Christmas windows in New York, fall in love, go camping, get so many get well cards that they fill an entire drawer in my house, publish a poetry zine that sells out at one of my favorite shops in Portland, get featured in a one-minute documentary, and walk in the Women’s March. These things are worth remembering and celebrating.
Going into chemo for the first time is a strange experience. There is no one in the infusion room that looks like me. I am by far the youngest one there, healthy and active, with hardly any other health complications or diagnoses to my name. The chair is big and comfortable, and they give me a warm blanket. The first four chemo treatments are the worst. This is when they administer the “red devil,” a drug called adriamycin that shows up in large syringes that the nurse pushes into the line attached to my port. I watch the fruit punch-colored liquid wind its way up the clear tube until it disappears into my body. It turns my pee red so that I have to flush twice every time I use the bathroom. I wonder about the side effects after that first time. They monitor me for allergic reactions in the clinic, but the greatest unknown is how I will feel after. We go to the grocery store to pick up my drugs and I can barely stand as wave after wave of nausea hits. Eating is hard and I shave pounds off my body with every strand of hair that detaches strand by strand off my head. I avoid message boards and reading too much about breast cancer and chemo and side effects. I take as many anti-nausea pills as I am allowed and my mother comes to stay with me for a little bit and friends take me to treatment and there is always someone asking to help. My work is supportive and I barely take a day off even though I need the rest. I want things to exist as normally as possible so even on treatment days, when I am regularly seeing the guy who works at the bar, I visit him after his shift and we have drinks and usually go out for dinner and stay up late talking or playing music and falling in love and those are the best days even though I am anemic and often tired. It helps to feel like life is not just about having cancer or people asking about cancer. That is why I still try to run and hike and stay active even though I have to stop often to catch my breath. It is worth the effort.
My life up to that point has prepared me to put my head down and push through. A year before I am diagnosed, I quit my corporate job and leave a struggling relationship to move to the middle of Indiana to help my grandmother manage her hardware stores. It feels good to make a decision that is entirely my own and so different from any path I have been on, to choose to live near my family when I have been away from them most of my life. For six months, I disappear and leave my friends to wonder what happened but in that time I build my own consultancy and work remotely for a company in Portland; I start to make art and teach myself how to paint sitting on the floor of my grandma’s living room. I rediscover my value and remember the things that are the most important. By the time I move back to Portland, I feel different, more grown up, more aware of who I am and what I want in my life. It is easy to float and let the tide of life take you but that is not my reality.
Breast cancer makes you a better version of yourself but it can be a lonely process getting there. It tears down every ounce of who you are, exposing your most intimate parts to strangers and forces you to dig deep to tap into every ounce of resilience and fight inside you. It asks you to look at your good and your bad, to come to terms with what you are and are not willing to accept. I look in the mirror and hardly recognize myself because my physical appearance changes so much in such a short period of time. After they cut off my breasts, I look in the mirror at the expanders that have replaced the tissue, bladders they fill with liquid to stretch the skin in order to make room for the final implants, and they look like a nightmare boob job from the eighties and I wear a bra 99% of the time to cover up how much my body has changed. I am not overly emotional during treatment and I rarely ask for anything, but there is a day when I break down finally, tears streaming down my face because it feels like too much in that moment. Instead of support, I am met with annoyance and that is the tough part. People admire you when you meet a very specific definition of strength fighting for your life, but become a person with actual emotions and struggles around that very same thing and it does not always go over well. I am lucky to have an amazing support system, but these experiences are all part of the reality and they are worth talking about too.
I am proud to say I am cancer-free and in remission today. That the drugs and the surgery worked, that the people who wanted to have stayed in my life and supported me and we are closer now than ever. My eyebrows and eyelashes have grown back and my hair is a short blonde pixie with crazy cowlicks and I love running my hand through it and knowing I will not have to wear a wig again. The universe took stock of everything I had and in one year, burned it all down to the ground — my health, my relationship, my job but I am still standing. I learn it is important to truly value your relationships and invest in the people who matter and who love you. That you have to create the life you want and say “fuck it” to fear and the things and people holding you back. To remember your value and that you can’t pin your sense of worth on the reactions of others or negative self-talk. Ask for help if you need it and know that is it okay to walk through the feelings that need to happen to you: the good things along with the sad things, to grieve your losses and celebrate your victories.
Life will not always make sense and that is okay.
It will not make sense that heartbreak is more painful than chemo, that it is possible to miss someone so much it aches, that you can get cancer when you’re young and one of the healthiest people you know. The universe is under no obligation to explain all of the “whys” so you have to let the unknowns help you carve a new path, a better path. It takes time to rebuild but you will like this new place better than the place you had before, trust me.
Get out there, live your own story, discover your strength, and self-check your ta-tas on a regular basis like your life depends on it. Because it does.
Xo — Megan