"Daddy, why doesn't she have any hair?" She's little, maybe a bit older than three, and riding on his shoulders. I'm pretty amused, but he's clearly uncomfortable. "Ummmm, well…some girls have short hair?" he says it like a question, his voice rising with upward inflection. What do you tell a three-year-old about cancer? I feel for him, but she's not having it. "No," she says firmly. Then exclaiming even more loudly than before, "She has NO hair!"
Truth. You tell 'em! He turns so that they can go in a different direction, probably to some other hard-to-answer questions.
People say the strangest things. I'm pretty sure my neighborhood Whole Foods guy thinks I cut my hair for fun. "That looks so great," he's told me a few times, beautiful long hair swinging down his back. As if I were that cool, to shave my head. To be fair, he also once complimented my shoes and then told me his mom would like them. Bless his heart.
*** The second round of chemo isn't nearly as bad as the first—I'm much better prepared this time. And the third is even a little easier, though I get new side effects all the time. My eyes start watering incessantly, making me look like Sad Cancer Lady. Not really the vibe I'm going for, but fine. I start menopause. I can't think of a more accurate name than hot flashes because get this: You get crazy hot out of nowhere. The air feels thicker somehow, like time has purposely slowed down just to mess with you. And then it goes away, and the five layers of clothing you removed must be put back on because now you're freezing.
I have to stop reading the listserv I'm on for breast cancer patients because it's really fucking hard to see what could go wrong. I feel guilty for being healthy when other people are suffering. I don't even think of myself as sick, how weird is that?
I can't stop thinking about the car accident I had last year in Mexico. The steering wheel of our rental car froze while I was driving down a sparsely populated desert highway. I crossed over into the lane of oncoming traffic and hit a rock wall at 70 miles an hour. In the movies it always happens so fast, but I could feel every long second of it stretch out like a Groundhog Day version of The Matrix. I remember thinking No no no this is not happening no no no not now. No. I meant the car accident, of course, but also something worse. And while the car accident was very much happening, I'm still here. The car traveled along the rock wall for 30 or so feet before coming down and spinning out in the middle of the road and losing its front axle. No one else was in the car and no other cars were involved. Thank god. I walked away with a barely-there scratch from the seat belt and a few little bruises. Nothing, really. But I wondered: who would care? Would it matter if I was here or not? Now I know, but I'm plagued by a different set of questions. How many chances do you get? Why do I get to be okay?
My oncologist and I meet again the day before my fourth round of chemo. She does an exam and finds that the two largest tumors have now shrunk to the point of no longer being detectable by hand, which she takes as an indication that the treatment is working. We start talking about surgery. The idea of losing my breast has, until now, felt very abstract. And for the first time in awhile, I feel really fucking sad. Then I feel ashamed because everyone keeps telling me what a good attitude I have. The straight-A student in me likes this. A recovering Good Girl, I've been collecting gold stars my whole fucking life. So, yeah, let's add a few more to the collection, why not? But I've worked hard to be okay, so I know it isn't always easy. The only thing I don't like is when people catch themselves complaining and then look at me with pity and say something like but, you know, perspective. Fuck off. If you're reading this and feeling bad, do something else. I don't want to be your perspective check on life. *** I open my planner for the first time in weeks—12, to be exact. The last appointment simply reads Kaiser in my barely legible handwriting. Twelve weeks. It still feels so unreal and so normal at the same time. Shortly before the election, I participate in a photo essay project featuring women who are supporting Hillary. I talk about the Affordable Care Act and how important it is to me and millions of other Americans. It's "life and death," I say. But I never really believe it's possible that we'd elect the human equivalent of putting on a wet swimsuit. And yet here we are.
I joke on Facebook that this is worse than that time I got diagnosed with cancer. And you know what? It is. Because I might lose my health insurance, but America? Girl, I'm worried about you. You have a cancer and it's spreading. I don't even know where to start. *** I wake up the day of the appointment with the surgeons in an exceptionally good mood. First we meet with the surgeon who will perform the mastectomy. I ask her about the possibility of a lumpectomy instead, but in her mind it isn't even a question. She says I have a "bad lawn," which seems like a weird analogy, but whatever. I'm guessing she wasn't an English major. When I ask how much higher the risk of reoccurrence would be, she says she couldn't even tell me because it's just not really an option. Fine. I'm willing to do whatever I've got to do. We meet with the plastic surgeon next and she's oddly endearing, albeit clumsy and disorganized. She shows me an image of what I might expect before and after reconstruction. It's a little Franken-tit-ish, but good enough. Here's what will probably happen: The first doctor (self-proclaimed "the deconstructor") will remove all of my right breast and two or three dozen lymph nodes. It's unlikely that she'll be able to save my nipple, but she'll spare as much skin as she can. The plastic surgeon will then insert an expander under my muscle. Reconstruction is quite a ways off, maybe ten months at the earliest. In between, I have radiation and recovery. It's a funny thought, having one large breast for the better part of a year. Absurd, really. At the end of the consult, we start talking logistics and it turns out the plastic surgeon isn't available the same date as the deconstructor. You'd think they'd talk that part out beforehand, no? All of it is contingent on the results of my CT scan and MRI anyways. My last scheduled round of chemo is next week. One more round. Probably. I've learned that no one in this world likes to commit and everything is subject to change based on something else. I guess it's because so much can go wrong, but I don't really want to think about that.
This story originally appeared on Medium. Stay tuned for updates from Lindsay Jean Thomson on Tonic .
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