In France, breast cancer treatment protocols can vary noticeably from Irish ones. And medical concerns aside, as a matter of course, public patients are assigned a beautician to advise on hairloss and cosmetics as well as a therapist who works with them on visualisation and meditation techniques to combat anxiety. They are also provided with transportation to and from hospital for themselves and their partner and the state throws in a lunch allowance (for two!) on outpatient treatment days. Jane’s experience as an expat might have had different architecture but her diary resonates beyond borders.
Cancer is a country with a strict dress code. Everyone who passes its border is issued a veil. It’s worn at all times. This veil has special powers. It covers the eyes. It filters reality. Strangers are kind to you, because you have cancer. Friends avoid you, because you have cancer. You botched the assignment, because you have cancer .You’re scared out of your wits, because you have cancer. And you learn very fast to live with the filter. And you learn to recognize your compatriots in a flash. I can recognize a Cancer face in a glance. A face unpunctuated by eyebrows or lashes. Wrinkles puffed out smooth by steroids. A slippery gray sheen to the skin. A wig ever-so-slightly askew. We nod at each other in the street exchanging sad, knowing looks.
Tuesday 21 November 2006
This could be the last day of my life spent as someone who doesn’t have cancer. The results of the biopsy will be in tomorrow, the one that involved taking 5 samples, the one where the needles pierced deep into my breast. I needed a tranquilizer it hurt so much.
Why not me? It’s amazing how my life has drifted along… moments of loss, sadness, grief but so vastly outweighed by all the good things that have come my way.
Will I have the killer will to keep on keeping on?
Last month, my father was diagnosed with breast cancer. He joked that it was payback for getting in touch with his feminine side. Anyhow the good news is that he had the tumor removed and was given the all clear (no chemo, no radiotherapy and no signs of the cancer having spread…whew). It’s because of him I decided that it was time to have a mammogram. I’m 45.
Wednesday 22 November 2006
So, I have a large, malignant tumor in my left breast and start chemotherapy Monday. The hope is that the tumor will shrink over six months of treatment and that it will be removed thereafter.
I keep telling myself that this has some meaning… that the blurry areas of my life will come into sharp relief, that I’ll learn so much about who I am as I will be stripped to the bone (I had a wig fitting on Friday) but a lot of the time I’m just weepy.
It’s going to be a long six months.
1 January 2007
I went in for Chemo 3 on Monday. The pre-chemo check-up revealed another extremely encouraging reduction in the size of the tumor. My angelic Oncologist (who is beautiful and demure and both my husband and I are secretly in love with her) was visibly pleased (she doesn’t normally give much away). Anyhow, she said that the treatment is working really well and that she was delighted with the results. The tumor has shrunk to nearly half its size in only two sessions.
February 14 2007
If you are going to be diagnosed with cancer (may it never, ever happen to you) make sure it happens in France in late October. If chemotherapy starts at the end of Autumn, you’ve already had a cancer-free Fall. You can crunch on gathered leaves and then warm your hands with the perfume of their ashes. You can take long, chilly walks and see spider webs backlit with the sun’s pale orange glow. You can pick apples from your orchard and feel like you are the healthiest, luckiest creature alive. And then, when the diagnosis comes (may it never, ever happen to you) all the leaves are already burned, and the sunlight is filtered through thick milk and you and the world are ready for a long, deep sleep. And if you have to be diagnosed with cancer, make sure your bookshelves are stacked with wise words that will ease your fears and help you heal. But most of all, may you have the cheerleader-love that has been mine.
April 1st 2007
I feel like I should have a little sign tied around my neck- a warning to anyone who comes for a visit over the next couple of months or who runs into me … because here’s what you might see depending on the day: A full harvest moon- the new chemo cocktail contains steroids that have inflated my face and sometimes paint it a fluorescent pink ; A disoriented Kabuki performer – those drawn-on eyebrows do not suit someone who hails from Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike ; A male transvestite- I’ve been instructed by my Oncologist to paint my nails a dark shade of cinnabar to protect them from sunlight. I have talons that would make Eddie Izzard squirm with envy.
5 August 2007
When the final jolt of radiation beamed onto my breast and tender little wisps of hair began appearing on my skin I decided to go off to a silent retreat to … sort of synthesize my experience. It wasn’t just a whim, I felt that I needed to be somewhere that was sacred and spacious. For seven days I traveled deep down within myself and during those profound moments, I quietly began rebuilding my life.
29 May 2013
Note to self : don’t ever become complacent. I’m so used to being given straight A’s on my health reports that I was honestly shocked to be told that there was an anomoly on my mammogram and MRI. My Oncologist thinks that it’s scar tissue left over from the radiation and the lumpectomy I had 6 years ago. There was a tiny spot on last year’s results and this time they appeared marginally larger. She said that if it was a return of the cancer, it would have developed much quicker and when she did the ultrasound, she was further reassured. So… on Monday I have an appointment to undergo a newly developed x-ray that will be able to detect whether these little patches are indeed scar tissue or whether I’ll have to undergo a biopsy. Hey ho.
3rd June 2013
I spent yesterday morning being poked, prodded and irradiated by 5 technicians in a tiny room in an unadjustable chair, which meant that I’ve now learned that I have all the traits needed to become a nude model (or a Buddhist nun). I’m the second woman ever to have undergone the treatment in Toulouse (going for silver or in this case plutonium) and served as something of a guinea pig for this group of eager interns.
Anyhow… the good news is that the suspect area is indeed scar tissue and gives no sign whatsoever of being cancerous.
So… here I am, all dressed up and nowhere to glow.
October 26, 2013
Cancer is a country with its own language. Does the word woman still apply to someone without ovaries and breasts? And verb tenses… When do you switch from the present to the past? Are you tempting fate by saying you had cancer? Are you cancer-free after the last whack of chemo or do you have to wait until the radiation treatments are done? When is poison poisonous and when will it save your left breast?
I’ve never answered those questions.