And Now This: Author Elizabeth Wurtzel Reckons with Breast Cancer
"So I have breast cancer, which like many things that happen to women is mostly a pain in the ass."
So I have breast cancer, which like many things that happen to women is mostly a pain in the ass. But compared with being 26 and crazy and waiting for some guy to call, it's not so bad. If I can handle 39 breakups in 21 days, I can get through cancer. I'm not saying this because I'm a strong person or because I have a good attitude or anything like that—heaven knows, I believe in taking things badly and making a scene for no reason—but this is not bad. All the geniuses are all over curing cancer, and early breast cancer is something they have sorted out.
And everyone cares! People love cancer! I would love to tell you that people love me, but that's not it, because I keep hearing from long-lost loves and no-account friends with insane amounts of concern, and I am fine. Everyone wants to help. Everyone wants you to talk to their second cousin, the radiation oncologist in Boise. Cancer is popular. I had no idea. For at least ten years, I could not stop crying, which was awful, because there is no cure for that. All my life, I had problems—galore!—with no answers. At long last, I find myself in trouble and there are solutions. Compared with what I have been through, it is nothing. But I really mean: What is what's ahead of me compared with what's behind me? It is all nothing. I am 47 years old and quite a lot has happened. This is one more thing. It is another crucible. It is another hoop to jump through.
There is always something to prove.
I have the BRCA gene mutation, the curse of Ashkenazi Jews—and Angelina Jolie. It means I am likely to keep getting cancer if I don't do something to stop it, so instead of having a lumpectomy, I am having a double mastectomy with reconstruction. It is quite amazing. They do both at the same time. You go in with breast cancer and come out with stripper boobs. And by law, insurance pays for the Park Avenue plastic surgeon. Good Lord, even Medicaid must pay for breast reconstruction with someone or other. We have come a long way, baby. All those pink ribbons and half-marathons paid off. We live in quite a world. I always felt I was a 34D trapped in the body of a 34B. At long last.
The surgeons all minimize the pain, which is just an occupational hazard. Surgeons think a beheading is no big deal. I disagree. I imagine recovery from a double mastectomy might be quite unpleasant. The surgeons are like, "Tylenol might be enough, and by week two you will be dancing Swan Lake, just like before." I expect I will be eating only Vicodin for a while.
The BRCA mutation hits 0.25 percent of the population and 2.5 percent of Ashkenazi Jews, so it is ten times as likely to affect the 2.2 percent of people who make up 25 percent of a class at Harvard. That must be why they have figured out what to do about breast cancer. If this mutation disproportionately affected Presbyterians, they would solve it with too many martinis, and women would still be dying of breast cancer. How fortunate that is not the case.
I realize I am dealing with cancer, which is complicated and kills people. It may yet kill me. I still don't know if the disease has spread. I still don't know many things. Since I got this diagnosis, I have had to deal with unpleasant and scary information from time to time. But I have been through a lot, and I don't even mean that I lived next door to the World Trade Center on 9/11, but that too. Not that anything is like airplanes flying into skyscrapers, but a lot of my life felt extreme and sudden. I would spend my days consumed with feelings, crying all the time, talking about what was upsetting, finding new people to listen, looking for new ways to describe all that overwhelmed me. I am used to making a big deal out of absolutely nothing. I am even good at it. I hit an apotheosis of emotion in July 1987 when I am sure I felt more than any human being has ever felt before. Me and my feelings. I could empty rooms with my feelings. I could fill rooms with my feelings. I don't know how there was space for anything else in the world besides my feelings.
But with every passing moment since then the intensity has diminished, and by now I am level.
When I was 31, I recovered from a very strong drug addiction—the most difficult thing I have ever put myself through. If I had known how hard it is to give up a substance that is intimate with your system, I might have left myself for dead. For the first year I was clean, I believed in God with the certainty of a child, because every day I got through without an eight ball of cocaine was a miracle. I would not have tried to convince anyone else to have faith, but no one could talk me out of mine, and nothing could make me doubt. I was raw and in pain all the time, but I felt God everywhere. And then, eventually, life became everyday again as it does, as it must. Now I believe in science, not magic. I have been looking for that feeling everywhere ever since.
Maybe these desperate interruptions come along because we are only our best selves when we have no choice. We are never so free as when we are running for our lives.
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